Liam Neeson on his 100th movie: ‘If I’d been asked in Ballymena in 1969 if I’d be sitting here… I never thought I’d be so lucky’

The Antrim actor plays the latest incarnation of Philip Marlowe in Neil Jordan’s new film

Liam Neeson and Neil Jordan, professional associates for 35 years, have dropped into the Stella Cinema in Rathmines, Dublin, for a special screening of their latest collaboration. Marlowe fulfils an ambition of many decades’ standing for the Antrim man. Neeson plays the latest incarnation of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s sardonic detective, in an adaptation of John Banville’s skilful 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde.

Unsurprisingly for a man of his generation and inclination, he has always longed for a crack at the character. He follows in a tradition. Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. It is scarcely believable that Neeson is the first big-screen Marlowe in 45 years.

“Well, growing up in Ballymena every Sunday on our little black and white TV set there was inevitably a character with a raincoat,” he says.

“His collar was turned up and it was pouring with rain. And it was a film noir. I grew up with those guys. Robert Mitchum in the early 70s. He played it twice. Elliott Gould famously in the Robert Altman film in 1973. And Bogart, of course, in the forties. I knew this guy Marlowe.”


Jordan is indiscrete enough to mention that Marlowe looks to be Neeson’s 100th film. The two men first worked together on High Spirits in 1988. Their most famous collaboration, Michael Collins, was the highest grossing film at the Irish box office before Titanic came along. Neeson’s career has drifted through distinct phases. He was a tower of integrity in Michael Collins and Schindler’s List. Some 15 years ago, impressively deep into his career, Taken turned him into an action hero.

Jordan, sitting beside producer Alan Moloney, asks if the young Liam ever expected such longevity. “There is no way,” he says in that rumbling whisper. “If I’d been asked in a physics class in Ballymena in 1969 if I’d be sitting here with this talent and these people in this extraordinary cinema ... No, I never thought I’d be so lucky.”

“What was your first film?” Jordan asks.

“My first film was shot in Belfast for Evangelical Outreach,” he says. “It was a version of Pilgrim’s Progress, which is still playing in mission halls around Africa.”

“So, it wasn’t Excalibur?” Jordan follows up, remembering the John Boorman film that gave so many Irish legends a foothold in the industry.

“That was probably my first real ...”

“Non-religious movie. Ha, ha.”

It was the noir lure that drew Jordan to the current project. The ambience of the interwar US crime yarn – cigarette smoke, sultry femmes fatales, untrustworthy tycoons – has hung around filmmakers ever since. Jordan nodded towards it in Mona Lisa. He dipped a toe in again with The Good Thief from 2002.

“It’s the world of Raymond Chandler. It’s as simple as that really, he says. “Alan brought me the script and Liam was interested in playing the role. It was based on a novel by John Banville who is here ...”

He peers into the audience and triggers a round of applause.

“He was writing under the pseudonym of a gentleman called Benjamin Black, in the style of Philip Marlowe. So it’s kind of a postmodern Genesis. When I read William [Monahan’s] script, I thought it was challenging, but fascinating. I really wanted to see Liam in this role. I really wanted to work with Liam again. I didn’t know it was going to be his 100th movie.”

Like so many films in the current, co-production era, Marlowe touched down in more than one city. Characters walk out from dark rooms in Dublin to blazing exteriors in Barcelona. All standing in for a Los Angeles that no longer exists.

“We shot interiors in Dublin in an industrial warehouse,” Moloney confirms. “It was an Irish-Spanish co-production and that’s how these things work. It just sort of made sense.”

The experience kicked up memories for Neeson.

“I used to live in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles in the late 1980s,” he says. “Which is where the fictitious Philip Marlowe used to live. Anyway, we shot in Barcelona. When we were there, shooting some of these windy roads, standing in for Laurel Canyon and Hollywood, it was uncannily similar.”

“The great thing about LA is they destroy everything and build new things,” Jordan adds. “It’s hard to find 1940s Los Angeles now. People mostly go to Sacramento, which is very flat. Barcelona fitted in many ways.”

Jordan and Neeson have endured as the Irish film industry spluttered to life and evolved into the beast that, earlier this week, competed for 14 Academy Awards. Neeson was nominated for Schindler’s List. Jordan won for The Crying Game. And, as both venture into an eighth decade on earth, they remain at the heart of the business.

What was it like to be back together again?

“It was like looking up all the time,” Jordan says merrily. “He is much taller than me. I got a crick in my neck. No, it was great. It was wonderful. This is the fourth movie we’ve made together. I made a little movie called Breakfast on Pluto with Alan before. I was stunned, actually, that [he] very kindly agreed to play Father Bernard. It wasn’t the biggest part. But it enabled the film to happen.”

He seems genuinely touched they’re still at it.

“It was wonderful to explore all those issues of guilt and retribution with an actor who is so great. It was just wonderful to have another chance to work with him.”

Marlowe is on Sky Cinema and in selected cinemas from March 17th.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist