30 March 2023

Marlowe on TV

And here it is, the fourth installment in my four-part series, delving deeply into the back catalog of Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe across media other than the printed word. You can find previous installments here, here, and here. Now let’s get to it!

As television came to prominence during the mid-20th century, it can be of little surprise that fictional characters and their stories from previously established media (books, short stories, plays, films, etc.) began to find a place on TV.

After all, for a lot of the owners of these intellectual properties, selling the TV rights amounted to so much free money. As was the case with so many who went before him, Raymond Chandler had no qualms about licensing his famous detective for television.

However, television has proven-with one notable exception-to be a problematic medium for Marlowe.

Oh sure, there were the early one-offs. Reliable movie villain–of the effete, cultured variety–Zachary Scott played Marlowe in a 1950 adaptation of The Big Sleep for Robert Montgomery Presents. And four years later Dick Powell reprised the role for the initial episode of anthology series Climax! in a live adaptation of The Long Goodbye (with Caesar Romero as Mendy Mendez!). These were one-offs for anthologies and adaptations of existing Chandler properties (and as nearly as I can tell, unavailable anywhere to view). In 1959 ABC television launched Philip Marlowe a thirty minute crime drama starring Philip Carey in the title role, it lasted a single season.

The coolest thing about 1959’s Philip Marlowe was that fake scar on Philip Carey’s cheekbone.

Carey was a decent choice for Marlowe, and he really gave it his all, but his presence was really all the show had going for it. Filmed using many of the same sets as Perry Mason, the show had a thin supporting cast (avuncular character actor William Schallert played Marlowe's cop pal Lt. Manny Harris), and most importantly, bore nearly no resemblance to the source material. The series clocked twenty-six episodes before being cancelled in 1960.

As was the case with the BBC's attempts at bringing the original Marlowe novels to the radio, TV's second bite at a Marlowe series succeeded where the previous one had failed. It took into the early 1980s for it to happen, and it was subscription cable service Home Box Office that pulled it off, with its first originally produced series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, with the great Powers Boothe as Marlowe.

Produced at Twickenham Studios in England, the series premiered on April 16, 1983 with a terrific adaptation of the Chandler short story "The Pencil." Where the Carey series suffered from a shoe-string budget and little interest on the part of the production team in aligning the TV show with the source material, HBO lavishly funded Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, and in two separate seasons (1983 and again in 1986) adapted a total of eleven of Chandler's Marlowe stories for the small screen. Here they are:

Season One:

1. "The Pencil"

2. "The King in Yellow"

3. "Nevada Gas"

4. "Finger Man"

5. "Smart Aleck Kill"

Season Two:

1. "Blackmailers Don't Shoot"

2. "Spanish Blood"

3. "Pickup on Noon Street"

4. "Guns at Cyrano's"

5. "Trouble is My Business"

6. "Red Wind"

The definitive TV Marlowe

And there's not a clunker in the bunch. Even weaker, earlier Chandler material such as "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" and "Smart Aleck Kill" gets an effective make-over as part of the screen adaptation process. And through it all Boothe shines as Marlowe. Anyone familiar with Boothe's work will recognize that he was more than capable of playing the good guy who tapped into a darker side. His Marlowe is always engaging, interesting, and when on the screen you can't take your eyes off him.

The series' budget is also evident in the production values, including authentic sets (although they do sometimes seem a bit too clean for 1930s/40s Los Angeles, but that is a minor quibble) and costumes. Solid supporting casts helped round out the product. At a lean eleven episodes, this series really is worth your time. It's not free, but you can stream it here.

Danny Glover as Marlowe in "Red Wind"

At around the same time as the HBO series was running, cable competitor SHOWTIME ran a one-off adaptation of a Chandler story in its crime fiction anthology series Fallen Angels. Danny Glover, hot off his success in Lethal Weapon portrayed Marlowe in another adaption of "Red Wind."

Changing up Marlowe's ethnicity (and that of several other characters in the story) while staying largely true to the action of the original story, really does create a different narrative. Marlowe's motivations change with his identity, and as a one-off experiment, it really does work and is also definitely worth your time. If you're interested, you can watch it for free here.

Jason O'Mara as a modern "Marlowe"

Lastly there is the never-picked-up pilot for a series titled Marlowe, produced in 2007 and starring a pre-Life on Mars Jason O'Mara as a modern-day version of the title character. I enjoyed the story, and the acting was good (especially O'Mara), but this modern Marlowe is very modern (he even has a secretary!), and really bears no more resemblance to the source material than I do to a wire haired schnauzer. In fact, I think the problem with O'Mara as Marlowe (aside from the fact that the pilot does not pay even lip service to the source material) is similar to the one I had with Garner in the role. I saw Jim Rockford in the film. And in this pilot I see Sam Tyler, O'Mara's character from Life on Mars (although his Marlowe seems less bemused/confused, and actually smiled more). Still, if you're curious about what might have been, you can check it out for free here.

And there you have it! As a quick recap, for my money Liam Neeson's turn as Marlowe is a proud entry into the canon, Toby Stephens' turn as Marlowe for BBC Radio might well serve as the definitive take on the character, and when it comes to Marlowe on TV, nobody does it better than Powers Boothe.

Agree? Disagree? Curious? Drop a line in the comments and let us know what you think.

And as always, see you in two weeks!


  1. I'm least familiar with the television entries, says the guy without a television. But I'm off to watch the Danny Glover link.

    It's been an interesting series, Brian. Well done.

  2. Brian, you are right. Danny Glover does a fantastic job in Red Wind. The 50s jazz was perfectly moody and Glover's voice as well. Interesting the prejudice wasn't about black and white. It's nice the show ended on a more positive note than so many Chandler stories.

    I noticed one error: Zip codes hadn't been invented yet. That mistake is showingup more and more as new writers come on the scene.

    Good call, Brian.

    1. Brian Thornton30 March, 2023 23:29

      Leigh - glad you liked it. And you know what? It bears up under repeated viewings!

  3. Replies
    1. But of course! But I can't figure out who keeps the same silly hours as that laggard Leigh.

  4. I missed two of your earlier articles and went back to read them. It's quite a comprehensive survey of Marlowe presentations. Lovely to see it.


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