When you say the words “private eye” everyone thinks of Philip Marlowe. Granted, they may not know his name—while the hero of Raymond Chandler’s novels and short stories was an enormous popular success, he never became a phenomenon of Mike Hammer or Lisabeth Salander proportions—but he is the prototype of the hardboiled hero. The image of a man in a fedora smoking a cigarette and staring out his office window at a flashing neon sign—that’s Marlowe.
He had his forbearers in the field of private investigation, of course. Sherlock Holmes is the standard by which all crimefighters are judged, and Holmes himself had his roots in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories about the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. Chandler was directly inspired by Dashiell Hammet’s stories about the Continental Op and Sam Spade. “Hammet,” Chandler famously said, “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” It was Chandler himself, however, who combined the elements of the classic private eye into its purest form: Philip Marlowe.
In his trenchcoat and fedora, Marlowe became a modern day equivalent of the heroic cowboy: stationed out west, haggardly honest, grudgingly brave, lonely even around people, squinting into the California sun and trying to see his way to moral clarity. At night, he would descend into the underworld on a mission—to solve a murder, to find a missing girl—and he rarely came out completely intact. Read the end of 1939’s The Big Sleep again and notice how sad Marlowe is in the light of all that has happened. He comes out on top of things, but he’s actually accomplished little more than surviving. Or look at Chandler’s masterpiece, 1953’s The Long Goodbye. This is Marlowe’s most personal case, one that succeeds in breaking his heart, if not his spirit. Writing of his creation, Chandler said, “I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.”
Marlowe proved too good for the folks in Hollywood to resist, though as it had with Sam Spade, it too them a few tries before they got it right. The Falcon Takes Over (also known as The Falcon Steps Out) appeared in 1942 and loosely adapted the Marlowe novel Farewell, My Lovely in order to squeeze out another installment in the George Sanders “Falcon” series. Likewise, Twentieth Century Fox used the Marlowe book The High Window as the basis for the final installment of “Michael Shayne” mystery series starring Lloyd Nolan.
Producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk finally brought Marlowe to the screen with a deft touch when they adapted Farewell, My Lovely as Murder, My Sweet in 1944. Singer Dick Powell, making his transition from musicals, was cast as Marlowe. Since Powell was a lightweight screen presence, and rarely convincing as a tough guy, the casting raised some eyebrows. But watch the film and read the book again and you’ll notice something peculiar. Marlowe isn’t much of a tough guy either. While he can take a knock on the head (or a good drugging), he’s more of a human punching bag than an ass-kicking machine. Powell doesn’t strike a heroic note, but his performance captures an essential Marlowe quality, that behind his wisecracks he’s a rather ordinary man. All he’s really got going for him is a smart mouth and gumption.
Leave it to Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart to make Marlowe into an icon. Bogart had already done his immortal turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and in a way his performance as Marlowe in 1946’s The Big Sleep seemed like something of a sequel. In truth, it was produced to follow up another Bogart gem, To Have And Have Not, and to cash in on Bogie’s new romantic partnership with Lauren Bacall.
The film is a masterpiece of the highest order, one of the best films in America cinema. Of it the critic David Thomson wrote “It’s about as much fun as anyone could have in 1946.” Really, its about as much fun as anyone can have at the movies, period. Suffused with dark style and wit, it is a triumph for everyone involved, from Hawks and his actors to the screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Even Chandler was pretty happy with it, and he was never happy with anything. This would mark the high point for Marlowe, blending him with the Bogart persona to create a lasting characterization.
It wouldn’t be the detective’s last trip to the screen, though, not by far. The following year, Robert Montgomery brought Marlowe to the screen in the bizarre subjective camera experiment, Lady In The Lake. The director/star started with an audacious idea, he would adopt the novel’s first person narrative. Not only would Marlowe (played by Montgomery) narrate the movie, we would see it through his eyes. Aside from a few quick sequences when he is onscreen addressing the audience directly (at the beginning of the film, near the middle, and then again at the end), we would see Marlowe only in fleeting glimpses in mirrors. The rest of the time he would be offscreen while the other actors talked directly to the camera. Give Montgomery points for daring, but he managed to prove only one thing: shooting an entire feature film this way is a terrible idea.
After George Montgomery’s weak turn as the private eye in 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon (a more faithful reworking of The High Window), Marlowe conceded ground to his more violent successors in the fifties. Compared to Spillane’s flag-and-dick-waving he-men, Chandler’s lonely, monastic Marlowe seemed tame. He showed up on television occasionally: Zachary Scott played him in an adaptation of The Big Sleep for Robert Montgomery Presents and Dick Powell took up the role again in a production of The Long Goodbye for the show Climax Mystery Theater. Phil Carey starred in a short lived series called simply Philip Marlowe.
The seventies saw a certain resurgence of the character. James Garner played him in a contemporary adaptation of The Little Sister called Marlowe (1969). The film has its high points, but Garner (likable as ever) seems to be doing a warm-up of Jim Rockford rather than Marlowe. Elliot Gould played him in Robert Altman’s trippy 1973 The Long Goodbye, a divisive film which some critics regard as brilliant genre deconstruction and which others (including your humble correspondent) regard as a boring piece of shit. Robert Mitchum, clearly bemused to find himself playing the character thirty years too late, took up the role in two films: the well-received 1975 Farewell, My Lovely and the much-derided 1978 The Big Sleep.
HBO tried a series with Philip Marlowe, Private Eye in the eighties with Powers Booth. The results, while much applauded, didn’t lead to a resurgence in the character. HBO took another shot at Marlowe a decade later when it launched an adaptation of Poodle Springs, based on an unfinished book by Chandler (completed by Robert B. Parker). With James Caan sleepwalking his way through the role, the film didn’t exactly stir up any enthusiasm for a new Marlowe.
Which, of course, isn’t to say that he won’t be back. Clive Owen and Frank Miller were onboard at Universal Pictures a few years ago to revive the character in, reportedly, an adaptation of the story collection Trouble Is My Business. Whether or not this long gestating project ever sees the light of day is ultimately inconsequential. Marlowe is a classic, and classics have a way of coming back around again in one form or another.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor