16 March 2023

Marlowe on the Radio

Welcome to the third in a four-part exploration of the portrayal of Raymond Chandler's iconic private investigator character, Philip Marlowe, in media other than print. Last time out we performed a deep dive into films either influenced by or adapted from Chandler's work.  This time around, we're going to explore Marlowe in radio, and  next time, television.

There have been countless attempts to credibly bring Marlowe to both the radio waves and the small screen. We'll delve into both here. This time: radio, including my vote for definitive performance of the role of Philip Marlowe (if there actually is such a thing).


Powell (Right) with Mike Mazurky in the 1944 film.
Between 1944 and 1951, the character of Philip Marlowe appeared on radio well over a hundred times, both in one-off radio adaptations of films in turn adapted from Chandler's original work, and in a single series that was, in reality, two. More on that below.

Two of the standalone radio adaptations of Chandler's work starred Dick Powell as Marlowe. In June of 1945 Lux Radio Theatre's "Murder, My Sweet" featured Powell recreating the role of Marlowe he'd portrayed on the screen just the year before (if you like you can listen to the Lux Radio Theatre production here). Powell reprised the role a second time in 1948 for Hollywood Star Time's production of "Murder, My Sweet."

Lux Radio Theatre did another adaptation of a film based on a Chandler novel, also in 1948, this one of Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, adapted from the 1947 film. Montgomery starred, as he had in the film (which had also directed). Earlier that same year Montgomery had appeared as Marlowe in a "cameo appearance" on Suspense (which he also hosted at the time), as part of a crossover with The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Van Helfin - the picture of gravitas
As for the "Marlowe radio series which was really two," the first, a summer replacement for Bob Hope's show, ran from June 17, 1947, to September 9th of the same year. Entitled The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, the series starred Van Heflin as Marlowe, and led off with a cracking adaption of the Chandler short story, "Red Wind" (you can listen to it here). Helfin's Marlowe was terrific. The actor brought a wonderful gravitas to the role that actors such as Powell and Montgomery, neither of them exactly a slouch when it came to acting chops, could match. Powell's light comic touch worked very well with the wise-cracking side of Marlowe's character, and Montgomery played Marlowe pretty straight. But Heflin really seemed to get "both" sides of Marlowe's character. Someone of whom his creator, Raymond Chandler, once famously wrote: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished, nor afraid." In his brief sojourn as Marlowe, Heflin seemed to really get the character.

Jaunty Gerald Mohr 
The series switched networks from NBC to CBS the following year, with veteran actor Gerald Mohr replacing Heflin, and the scripts nearly all original compositions, with little relation to Chandler's original work. There was plenty of grit and and definite hard-boiled feel to the production, and for the three years (1948-1951) he voiced Marlowe, Mohr was great fun, but his Marlowe started nearly every one of the 119 episodes in which Mohr portrayed him so jauntily he could sometimes make Powell's light comic portrayal seem almost restrained.

This is, however, a small quibble. Of course this "lighter-than-air Marlowe" really only appeared at the beginning and usually (but not always) at the end of each episode.  When things got heavy, Mohr, who himself often played a heavy throughout a multi-decade career that spanned film, radio and television, definitely knew how to bring it. And the scripts were solid, as were the actors filling out the supporting roles. An excellent example of the Mohr Marlowe can be found here, with any number of links to other recordings of most of the show's run.

Once CBS pulled the plug in 1951, it would take over a quarter of a century before listeners would be able to find Marlowe on their radio dial. And then only if they could pick up the British Broadcasting Company. The BBC featured American-born TV actor Ed Bishop as the titular character in The BBC Presents: Philip Marlowe in 1977-78, and again in 1988. The series consisted of radio adaptations of The Big Sleep, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister (all produced and released on 1977), and The Long Goodbye (released in early 1978). A rights issue delayed the release of an additional adaptation, this one of Farewell, My Lovely, for a full decade. It was finally broadcast in 1988. Bishop's portrayal of Marlowe veered from "okay" to quick-talking patter that by this time in the 20th century had become the stuff of parody.

The BBC had better luck when they tried again in 2011. They adapted all of Chandler's novels for radio, including the fragment of Poodle Springs Chandler had begun but never finished (Spenser writer and Chandler superfan Robert B. Parker stepped in and did at the behest of the Chandler estate). James Bond villain Toby Stephens (Dame Maggie Smith's son, and, interestingly enough, BBC Radio's choice to also play 007 himself in the network's radio adaptations of Ian Fleming's original novels) played Marlowe in every episode of the series, from "The Big Sleep" in February, through to "Poodle Springs" in October.

The results were spectacular. Faithful to the source material, a terrific supporting cast, and Stephens delivering every line the way I feel Chandler intended. Just my personal opinion, but that's the wonder of radio, and if anyone is the definitive "Philip Marlowe," it's Toby Stephens.

But don't just take my word for it.  Click here and you can listen to the entire series yourself and make up your own mind.

See you in two weeks!


  1. Thanks for the links, Brian.
    Speaking of old radio versions of famous sleuths, I remember finding "The Saint", played by Vincent Price - very interesting, but... it didn't work for me, probably because I'd seen Price in too many old horror movies.

    1. Brian Thornton17 March, 2023 00:23

      Thanks Eve! I get it about Price. You know before he struck the mother lode in those horror movies he had quite a varied career, and was seen as just the right level of sophisticated to play The Saint. I wonder would you feel the same way about Benedict Cumberbatch playing anything other than “Sherlock”? Because he read a couple of audiobooks I listened to and I was RIVETED by his performance. Literally could not believe he was the only person reading, he was so good. Cast of thousands all in one actor.

  2. Wow,, what a collection. Thanks, Brian.

    Do you have an episode number, title, or date of the Sam Spade crossover no Suspense? Thaqnks, Brian.

  3. I listened to the BBC Toby Stephens series, courtesy of Libby Audiobooks through my library. Very well done.


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