You are walking down a dank, dark, and dangerous New York City alley in 1944. It’s June and the city is hot as hell: your shirt sticks to you as you hear stiletto heels tap, tap, tapping against the stones in the alleyway behind you. You glance over your shoulder, slightly tipping your black fedora to hide your glance as you do, when what catches your eye but a redhead with a coke bottle figure, a black dress, and a look of pure fatal terror on her face; a couple of thugs are racing after her, guns in hand, looking, it seems, to grab her.
A man in a brown fedora, black tie, and white shirt appears behind them. He pulls out a snub nose .38 revolver and, like the noir pied piper, he somehow manages to get the thugs off the mystery woman’s back. This seemingly random and flawed hero is the private detective in film noir.
Film noir has certain giants in its history who are very much considered to be the founding fathers of hard-boiled as a genre, most if not all contributing to the shaping of certain character archetypes like the private detective or the femme fatale. Basically all of the noir founding fathers did something in the private detective vein. These are the writers who cut their teeth in dime store “pulp fiction” like Black Mask and other detective magazines. These are the writers every film noir fan knows quite well: Dashiell Hammett of The Maltese Falcon — 1941 and 1931 — with his PI Sam Spade, The Falcon was also adapted into a movie called Satan Met a Lady starring Bette Davis, as the second adaptation; James M. Cain of Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); and Mickey Spillane, the father of the private detective Mike Hammer saga and Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Yet, quite possibly the most prolific character to be created in all hard-boiled history is arguably Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe has appeared in 14 published novels or stories written by Chandler himself, 5 authorized Marlowe works by other authors, 14 radio or television adaptations, and another 15 big screen adaptations.
Marlowe is the epitome of snark and cool. His terse one liners have become the stuff of legend in film noir. He is quite possibly the most hard-boiled of the great noir PIs because of Raymond Chandler’s brilliant use of rapid-fire machine gun dialogue coupled with an unabashedly hard-boiled degree of realism in his Marlowe detective stories, and also in Chandler’s other great contributions to film noir, like the screenplay for Billy Wilder’s seminal (and largely genre founding) noir piece Double Indemnity (1944).
Chandler landed on writing detective stories in a very unusual way. He started his adult life doing a variety of odd jobs like tennis racket stringing and even a brief career in civil service (which he found painfully boring). He then became a reporter for the Daily Express and the Bristol Western Gazette newspapers.
He was not successful as a journalist, but that career did at least allow to write his romantic poetry and stories. After all that, Chandler took a bookkeeping correspondence course which enabled him to land a job as a Vice President for the Dabney Oil Syndicate. He was dismissed a year later for alcoholism, absenteeism, threats of suicide, and a variety of affairs with female employees.
Marlowe has been played on the big screen by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery (in 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon), Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, and very soon Liam Neeson. He has been played on television by the likes of James Caan, James Garner, and the late great Powers Boothe.
What is Marlowe’s legacy amidst all the great actors who have played him? Also, where is he going with Liam Neeson playing him in Marlowe, a movie based on an authorized Marlowe novel (not a novel by Raymond Chandler) called “The Black Eyed Blonde”? These questions and Marlowe’s greatest moments (of many) will be examined below.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
While Murder, My Sweet was not technically Marlowe’s first foray on the nitrate (1942 saw two adaptations of Marlowe stories, Time to Kill and The Falcon Takes Over, only with differently named detectives), it was the only Marlowe portrayal (this one by Dick Powell) that gained praise from creator Raymond Chandler.
The studios and Hollywood elite saw the film as something of a crap shoot, with a lot of the pressure for it to be great being put on the shoulders of director Edward Dmytryk. Dick Powell was an unsettling casting choice for studio executives as well; Powell was more or less typecast (until this film) as the dashing male in musicals, not the rakish figure that is the essence of the hard-boiled private eye. RKO was flirting with bankruptcy when they took the film on, and through that they got Powell at essentially bargain basement pricing. Powell, however, had one demand: to avoid the typecasting that plagued him, he lobbied hard for a straight dramatic role before doing any other film.
For all the worry surrounding the casting, Powell really did nail his portrayal of the gritty, roguish Marlowe. Powell’s acting, along with Dmytryk’s cinematic tricks (Marlowe’s dream scene — embedded above this paragraph — where he is drugged, is superb cinematography), really seared the image of the gritty down and out PI in the minds of the cinema going audience. Indeed, as we will see, Marlowe is anything but fading.
The Big Sleep (1946)
The central reason for the exceptional nature of The Big Sleep as a film noir, or indeed just a film, is that the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall’s Mrs. Rutledge was a very real thing. The film was the second that the two stars did together after the 1944 Hemingway story (where they began falling in love) To Have and Have Not.
It was during the filming of The Big Sleep that Bogart and Bacall’s affair really heated up. In fact, it heated up to the point that Bogart started drinking even more heavily than usual after repeated, prolonged, spats with his wife over Bacall. Despite Bogart’s demons, the two of them did very much enjoy each other, and that chemistry is very visible on screen.
Bogart, despite the fact that he looks nothing like Marlowe in The Big Sleep novel, brought a whole new level of snark and hard-boiled edge to the portrayal of the detective on screen. Bogie was a master of executing that dialogue and putting on an air of toughness despite his small stature (Marlowe to a sexy librarian after she says, “You don’t look like you collect rare books?” “I collect blondes and bottles too.”). He is my personal favorite of the Marlowes because there wasn’t the remotest pretense of sophistication there, but there was plenty of wit. Bogie was straight-forward and very hard-boiled.
Howard Hawks was also a brilliant director, despite the fact that the Hays Production Code basically gutted maybe eighty percent of the real story in Chandler’s novel. The original story of The Big Sleep involves drug running, murder by a sympathetic female lead, and an underground porn shop. All those elements had to be gutted before filming could happen, yet Hawks (as all great directors of that era did) used his intuition and story-telling acumen to tap dance around those subjects while implying they are still there. For instance, when Marlowe enters Geiger’s book shop, which supposedly sells rare first editions, he tested the clerk with a fake title he found in the library. She does not know it, so he makes the logical assumption that the place is a front for some kind of vice.
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Lady in the Lake is quite possibly the most fascinating of all the Marlowe films and the second one to come out in 1947. Oddly enough, the second Marlowe flick that year, The Brasher Doubloon, also starred a Montgomery (George Montgomery) as Marlowe. The most brilliant part of The Lady in the Lake Marlowe tale, however, is undoubtedly how director / lead actor Robert Montgomery decided to film the whole thing (besides a few intermingled scenes of straight narration). Lady in the Lake is filmed almost entirely in First Person Point of View (POV), also known as “subjective camera.” We only get to see Marlowe’s face and body during the two short narration sequences and whenever he is standing in front of a reflective surface like a mirror.
Indeed, such a heavy use of subjective camera was a rarity then, as it still is today. Raymond Chandler was absolutely incensed at Montgomery’s choice to film in it. It upset him so much that the day he found out it would be used, he called the studio and had his name pulled from the film credits.
The unique, heavy use of subjective camera gave the audience a very rare first person glimpse into the mind of a private detective and the drama of his story.
Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983, 1986)
Especially with the untimely death of powerhouse character actor Powers Boothe, no discussion of Marlowe’s legacy would be complete without him and Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.
Boothe was one of the best in the role of Marlowe, second, in my view, only to Bogart himself. His version of Marlowe is such a departure especially from Elliott Gould’s satirical version in The Long Goodbye (1973), and even from the great Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and the remake of The Big Sleep (1978), which should have been put in the same category of “untouchable” films that should have never been remade. Mitchum, I think, would have been better in those Marlowe roles had he been younger when they were made.
We have seen a sampling of the best Marlowe portrayals on both the small and big screen. Where might we see Marlowe and the private investigator as a whole, in the 21st Century?
Writer William Monahan (The Departed) has penned the new Marlowe screenplay based on Benjamin Black’s novel “The Black-Eyed Blonde”. A quote from Monahan to Variety gives me great hope for the film: “‘The book by Benjamin Black was a pleasure to adapt, and with Marlowe there’s no chance of even being asked to do it left-handed,’ Monahan said. ‘You have to do Chandler justice, carry a very particular flame, or stay home.’”
What gives me pause about Marlowe, however, is the casting choice. Liam Neeson is attached to the project as Marlowe. Neeson is an incredible actor, no doubt about it, but I wonder if he may be too clean, and not possess enough grit in his soul to really nail the part of Marlowe.
I would love to be pleasantly surprised there in Neeson’s portrayal, and I will certainly go see the film, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it is Marlowe. It is also a very good thing that a big Hollywood star could rekindle the interest in such a bad-ass character and indeed in noir itself. That part has me very excited, and hoping such a great character, and, indeed, character archetype, will get big screen justice again.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer” in “movies”, “mental health” and “culture” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.