16 February 2023

The Definitive Marlowe?

 So as of Valentine's Day there is a new Phillip Marlowe film in theaters. It's called Marlowe, with the great Liam Neeson in the titular role as Raymond Chandler's iconic Southern California gumshoe, in an era when "gumshoes" were highly likely to actually wear "gum shoes."

An Irish actor playing a quintessentially American character, the 20th century's greatest example in fiction of the private eye. It does seem fitting in this instance. After all, the source material for this newest Marlowe movie also comes to us courtesy of the Emerald Isle. 

Specifically, from the pen of John Banville. An Irish novelist acclaimed for many works of literary fiction, Banville had been tapped by the estate of the late Raymond Chandler to write a new Marlowe novel. The Black-Eyed Blonde, the novel on which the new Marlowe movie is based, was the result, published under Banville's crime fiction nom de plume, Benjamin Black. 

A sequel to the first Marlowe novel–The Big Sleep–the novel takes its title from a Marlowe short story written by another author (Benjamin M. Schutz), which aside from the title, bears no resemblance to Banville's work. Banville is hardly the first author to take on Chandler's greatest creation. He isn't even the first one authorized to do so by the Chandler estate. That honor falls to the prolific Robert B. Parker, the author of many novels, but most famously of a series featuring one of Marlowe's spiritual descendants, Boston private investigator Spenser ("Spelled with two 's''s like the poet." Get it? "Marlowe"? "Spenser"?). Parker both finished Chandler's Poodle Springs, a Marlowe novel Chandler left unfinished at the time of his death in 1959, and wrote his own sequel to The Big Sleep: the poorly received Perchance to Dream.

Talk about working a theme.

The Chandler estate has authorized two further Marlowe novels since The Black-Eyed Blonde was published in 2014. The first, 2018's Only to Sleep by British author Lawrence Osborne imagines an elderly Marlowe still in the P.I. game in 1988 Mexico. The most recent, American author Joe Ide's The Goodbye Coast (2022), billed at the time as "not so much a reimagining as a reinvigoration," places a modern day Phillip Marlowe, updated to fit into his new setting: 21st century Los Angeles.

I have not read Ide's update on Marlowe, but it has received good reviews (as has Osborne's book), and in one aspect carries on an interesting post-Chandler tradition with the character of Phillip Marlowe: the modern overhaul. In fact Ide's crack at updating Marlowe is the fourth such crack at an update. The previous three were all films.

The first one, 1969's Marlowe (Yep, the Neeson vehicle is the second such imaginatively titled film) starred a post-Maverick/pre-Rockford James Garner wisecracking his way through a surprisingly faithful screen adaptation of Chandler's The Little Sister. There's a stellar supporting cast, too, headlined by a never-better Rita Moreno, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carol O'Connor, and a pre-stardom Bruce Lee.

Yep, THAT Bruce Lee.

Watching this film it's easy to see the roots of Garner's epic turn as Jim Rockford throughout the '70s. Marlowe is "tougher," and not quite as fast-talking. But there are many similarities between his Marlowe and his Rockford.

The next such "update" of Marlowe came in 1973 at the hands of legendary auteur film-maker Robert Altman. He chose the Chandler novel The Long Goodbye for his take on a modern update of the character, with a mumbling, shambolic Elliott Gould playing Marlowe bouncing around contemporary Southern California (and Mexico), chain-smoking his way through scene after scene in an ever more rumpled suit. As with so much of Altman's work, the film is uneven, often in spite of its top notch supporting cast, which included Henry Gibson, Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt and former big league pitcher (and author of Ball Four, one of the greatest sports memoirs of all time) Jim Bouton.

The third "updated" Marlowe film was a late-70s money grab, featuring a far past-his-prime Robert Mitchum playing an expatriate Marlowe working in the UK(!?). I plan to discuss this one (as well as Mitchum’s vastly superior-and era appropriate-first bite at the Marlowe apple- 1975’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY) at length in my next installment.

In the mean-time I'm going to see the new Marlowe. I'll weigh in on it, and every other film Marlowe next time, a couple of Wednesdays from now.

And on that note, I'm off!

See you in two weeks!


  1. I am not a fan of writers adding to other authors works (with exceptions). I doubt if I will watch the new movie. On tother hand, Mitchum's first attempt at Marlowe was NOT set in the UK. Farewell, My Lovely was set in LA and is my favorite Marlowe movie. Yes, Bogart fans, go ahead and boo.

    1. Honest late-night editing mistake, Rob. I was in no way referencing Mitchum’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (which I well know is set in 1940s Los Angeles). Somehow I got it in my head that he had done two “modern update” films in the U.K., and not just the execrable version he did of THE BIG SLEEP. Mea Culpa, and I’ve corrected it above.

  2. Oh, by the way, "past-his-prime" Mitch was more than a decade younger then than Neeson is now.

  3. Back when I was young and would go see any Altman flick, I saw "The Long Goodbye" - and to this day I don't know that I've ever seen a more shocking act of violence than where the gangster threatens Marlowe by disfiguring his own mistress. So effective that I still can't erase it from my memory. And I've tried.

  4. Fortunately I don't have Eve's memory of the event, but I had a difficult time liking Gould in much of anything except possible Little Murders, nah… Surely they could have cast someone better. I swear that poster looks straight out of Mad Magazine.

    Spenser… Marlowe… Ah, NOW I get it.

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