Sylvester Stallone, Charlotte Rampling, Joe Spinell, Harry Dean Stanton
Los Angeles, 1941In a seedy hotel, private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) evades the police who suspect his involvement in a string of recent murders. Risking a private meeting in his hotel room with long-time acquaintance police detective Lt. Nulty (John Ireland), Marlowe relates the events of the past several weeks:After Marlowe wraps up a missing teenager investigation, hulking ex-convict Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran), who has just completed a seven year stretch for a bank heist, asks the detective to locate his girlfriend, Velma Valento. While the men are walking down the street, shots are fired from a passing car at Malloy but Marlowe manages to push the larger man to the ground. Unperturbed, Malloy explains that he has not heard from Velma in six years and takes Marlowe to a downtown night club, called Florian's, where she used to work.At the club, Malloy demands to see the owner, Montgomery, but when the man tries to shoot him, Malloy kills him. After giving Marlowe $50 in cash to secure his services, Malloy slips away as Marlowe reports Montgomery's death to Nulty, insisting that the ex-con was killed only in self-defense.Upon learning that Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), a former musician who played at Florian's, still lives across the street at the Crescent Hotel, Marlowe visits him. Ray, who is white, lives with his black wife and their young son, whom Marlowe befriends. Although Ray says he does not remember Velma, he directs Marlowe to Florian's widow, Jessie (Sylvia Miles), a faded club singer.The next day, Marlow drives over to Jessie's house, he brings Jessie a bottle of cheap bourbon, she reminisces about her days as a popular singer, then wonders why Tommy Ray would say he did not know Velma when he performed with her at the club.Marlowe then returns to the musician, who admits that he knew Velma. Armed with a photo of Velma provided by Ray, Marlowe questions several contacts in the burlesque trade. One club owner recalls that Velma, using another name, appeared in a couple of motion pictures, before breaking down and being placed in the Camarillo Sanitarium. Marlowe visits the sanitarium and finds the girl catatonic.Wondering how Malloy will take the news, Marlowe returns to his office where he finds Lindsay Marriott (John O'Leary) waiting for him. Marriott explains that a friend had an extremely rare jade necklace stolen and the thief has demanded $15,000 for its return. Marriott has agreed to make the exchange for his friend later that night and gives Marlowe a hundred dollars to accompany and protect him.That evening, Malloy confronts Marlowe in a restaurant but dismisses the detective's report on Velma being in a sanitarium. After asserting that Marlowe's picture is not of Velma, Malloy insists that the detective continue his search. Marlowe then goes back to the Crescent Hotel to talk to Ray to find out why he has lied to him, but the musician is not home.Later that same night, Marlowe meets Marriott and drives his car to the rendezvous. Standing a few feet away from the car, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and when he awakens, he is surrounded by Nulty and police officers who have found Marriott shot dead in the car. Nulty takes Marlowe into police headquarters where he and his partner, Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), question him. Grudgingly accepting Marlowe's explanation, Nulty releases him and the detective immediately sets out to learn who killed Marriott and tried to frame him for the killing.Directed by a "fence" to an underground jewelry store in Chinatown, Marlowe discovers that the only person who can afford the rare jade is elderly city judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (Jim Thompson). Marlowe drives to Grayle's elegant mansion, where the judge informs Marlowe that his wife is not missing any jewelry. The detective meets the judge's sultry young trophy wife, Helen (Charlotte Rampling), who is wearing an elegant jade necklace. After Helen confides that she trusted Marriott and hopes that Marlowe can find his killer, she blatantly flirts with him in front of Grayle. Disconcerted, Marlowe departs.After returning to his office that evening, Marlowe is attacked and knocked out by Cowboy (Burton Gilliam), Jonnie (Sylvester Stallone) and Nick (Joe Spinell), three henchmen of the infamous madam Frances Amthor (Kate Murtaugh). At Amthor's bordello, Marlowe is drugged and questioned about Malloy's whereabouts to which he refuses to answer. After being beaten, Marlowe is placed in a back room where, upon rousing, he finds the dead body of Tommy Ray. After Cowboy arrives to take Marlowe to Amthor, the detective knocks him out, escapes and finds Amthor in her office where he demands an explanation for his abduction. Before Amthor can respond, however, they are interrupted by one of the prostitutes reporting that Amthor's favorite girl is in bed with Jonnie. Outraged, Amthor rushes to a nearby room, but when she begins to beat the girl, Jonnie shoots Amthor dead. In the ensuing mayhem, Marlowe, although still reeling from the effects of the drugs, staggers away.After recovering for the next several days in the apartment of friend and newspaper vendor Georgie (Jimmie Archie), Marlowe visits Mrs. Ray to relay the news of Tommy's death.That night, Helen telephones Marlowe at his office to invite him to a re-election party for her husband at the swank White Orchid club, owned by gambler gangster Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe). Meeting Helen at the party later, Marlowe learns that Grayle helped Brunette with a tax situation regarding his yacht and the men have remained on friendly terms. Familiar with Brunette from his days working in the district attorney's office, Marlowe joins Brunette at his table where the gambler gives him $2,000 to help him contact Malloy.The next day, Jessie Florian telephones Marlowe to relay that Velma has been in touch with her and wishes to speak with Malloy. Knowing that Brunette has ordered him followed to find out if he meets Malloy, Marlowe lays low for a few days, then, when contacted by Malloy, arranges with Jessie to have Velma telephone him at Georgie's apartment. Velma asks Malloy to meet her at a rundown motel out of town, but when Malloy and Marlowe arrive there, they are ambushed by two men with machine guns. After Marlowe kills the gunmen, Malloy refuses to accept that he has been set-up by Velma and departs.Marlowe then reports the murders to Nulty, who is angered that Marlowe has continued to keep him from questioning Malloy regarding the Florian's club murder. Hoping to glean more information from Jessie, Marlowe takes Nulty and Rolfe to her house, only to discover that she has been murdered.In the present, Marlowe reaches the end of his account to Nulty, admitting that he remains unsure about who is holding Velma, but is certain Malloy would never have gone to the motel had he not actually spoken with her. When Marlowe tells Nulty that he believes Brunette is involved, Nulty refuses to accompany him to the gangster's yacht, the Lido. After Nulty leaves the hotel, Marlowe calls Malloy and the men meet at the pier and hire a speed boat to reach the floating casino. After making their way through the lively gambling parlor, Marlowe comes upon Cowboy and Nick and, at gunpoint, demands to see Brunette.In Brunette's state room, the gambler denies knowing Velma, but moments later Helen appears and Malloy greets her as Velma. Helen assures Malloy that he will receive his cut for taking the fall for the bank robbery years before and orders him to kill Marlowe. When Malloy hesitates, Marlowe points out that those who knew that Helen had once been a prostitute named Velma all ended up dead.... Marriott, Ray, Jessie and Amthor. Brunette and Helen acknowledge that Judge Grayle is unaware of his wife's past and Brunette was blackmailing her in order to maintain Grayle's protection. Dismayed to realize that he has been Helen's target all along, Malloy turns on her, but she shoots him and is, in turn, shot dead by Marlowe. At that moment, Nulty, who has reconsidered abandoning Marlowe, turns up with several officers. Sickened by the sordid entanglements of the case, Marlowe leaves the scene.In the final scene, Marlow, buoyed by one thought, takes the $2,000 from Brunette and goes to the Crescent Hotel to give the money to Tommy Ray's widow and son.