01 December 2023

Why Marlowe?

Open Road Films

Last year, Liam Neeson appeared in Marlowe, the first Philip Marlowe movie in years. Marlowe's been scarce on the big and small screen until recently, but there seems to be a need to continue his story beyond Raymond Chandler's death. Most notably, Robert B. Parker finished the last Marlowe novel by Chandler, Poodle Springs. One blurb stated emphatically one couldn't tell where Parker picked up from Chandler. Spoiler alert: Not only is it glaringly obvious, the dialog changes mid-scene with Marlowe suddenly talking like Spenser. Still, Parker would have been my first choice to finish the last Marlowe novel.

There are other characters who have been as timeless as Philip Marlowe. James Bond is always a product of his times, with Connery and Lazenby's versions aficionados of Playboy while Daniel Craig's iteration had more of a conscience. Sherlock Holmes has also proved enduring, but with the exception of some films during World War II, Holmes remained rooted in the Victorian Era until the twenty-first century, with versions set in present-day London and New York, each using aspects of Doyle's work to justify the updates. (Then there's the Margaret Colin movie where she wakes up Holmes from suspended animation in the 1980s. Let us never speak of that one again.)

Like Holmes, Marlowe has usually been stuck with his original period on the big screen. But subsequent post-Chandler novels have been all over the map. This year's novel, The Second Murderer, takes place in the 1940s while others move the knight errant forward in time to the 1970s or 1980s. Unlike, say, James Bond, Marlowe is a product of his time.

On the big screen, filmmakers were able to do present-day Marlowe as long as the present day was within 30-40 years of his debut. Robert Altman's controversial The Long Goodbye was a product of the 1970s, complete with Altman's off-beat shooting and writing style and then-baseball celeb Jim Bouton as a supporting character. The 1975 remake of The Big Sleep, a TV movie from the same people who brought you UFO and Space: 1999, aged Marlowe, put him in London, and cast an aging Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. It was an uneven turn from the same actor who played Marlow in Farewell, My Lovely a few years earlier. There, his presence gave Marlowe realistic aging by setting the story in the 1940s.

For some reason, Marlowe also has yielded experimentation. After his conventional debut in Murder, My Sweet, 1944, Robert Montgomery directed and starred in The Lady in the Lake, in which we literally see the story through Marlowe's eyes. The entire movie is shot with the camera as Marlowe, taking the first-person narrative as literally as possible. And of course, Altman took the novel The Long Goodbye as a polite suggestion and sent Elliot Gould muttering about 1970s LA. But perhaps the best-known, best-loved iteration of Marlowe on the big screen is Humphrey Bogart's 1946 turn in the original The Big Sleep. Bogart plays a warmer PI than his almost sociopathic turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The movie is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Chandler novel. Yet it sizzles with the obvious heat between Bogart and costar/future wife Lauren Bacall (22 and already one of the classiest presences on screen.)

For the post-Chandler books, Marlowe receives uneven treatment. Parker, of course, kept him aged in the 1950s as that was where Chandler left him when he died. The next novel, Perchance to Dream, gets meta and has Marlowe in the 1940s work with a writer named Raymond Chandler on a case. The last Marlowe book I read, however, was set in the late 1980s, with Marlowe trying to stay retired in Mexico and running into drug cartels. Denise Mina, however, takes him back to his roots, placing him in the 1940s. 

The trouble with Marlowe is that authors either try to imitate Chandler's trademark similes, expected from Parker, or they ignore it altogether. The result is either a pastiche or a story about a guy named Phillip Marlowe. 

Neeson's Marlowe, based on Benjamin Black's The Black-Eyed Blonde, probably comes closest to the original Marlowe. Neeson, probably needing a break from threatening people with "I will find you!", is the perfect choice to bring Marlowe's world-weariness to life.

But why new Marlowe novels? And why does he endure? Like Bond, some of his original stories inspire cringe in the present day. Holmes is infinitely adaptable, and as someone likely on the spectrum, has a renewed sense of chic. His mind doesn't work like most people's and keeps him eternally interesting. Bond, however, is cinematically a present-day creature. Connery and Lazenby's versions would not have worked in the 1990s or even today, whereas Brosnan's Bond is a halfway point. But why Marlowe?

Marlowe is a product of the Depression, with the world in a post-Victorian hangover, not to mention bracing for another World War. Nevertheless, he's persisted, showing up in the 1970s, a brief revival in-period in the 1980s, and several authors keeping him alive from the 1990s forward. But why? In an era where the PI is either a relic or off fighting right-wing extremists hiding in the shadows, Marlowe is still going down these mean streets.

It's probably because Marlowe's foes are still with us. Gangsters might have changed, but they never really went away. Drugs remain a scourge, even if pot is either legal or decriminalized, depending on where you live. And the crimes have gotten worse: human trafficking, child porn. All these are in Philip Marlowe's wheelhouse. And Marlowe makes no pretense of being virtuous, something his spiritual descendants insist on with their Hawks and Bubbas doing all the dirty work. (Even Robert Crais's Joe Pike, but he's a special case.) 

Many question the need to reboot James Bond after Daniel Craig's version died in No Time to Die. The enemies seem to be within. Holmes inhabits a realm that never really goes away. There will always be theft. There will always be murder. And there will always be a fascination with an unconventional mind that disdains the rules.

Marlowe, however, seems to be finding a new niche. It's a cold and confusing world. Who better to fight the good fight than a world-weary man who faces the nastiness with a wisecrack?


  1. Interesting analysis. You make some good points.

    I haven't seen Neeson, but I can imagine he makes a good Marlowe. To my mind, the worst might have been Elliot Gould. His character seemed more fit for one of those gross, ghastly Porky movies.

    An English friend friend was deeply offended with the Roger Moore series, The Saint, that snatched Simon Templar out of his time and dumped him in the 1960s. He thought Leslie Charteris was rolling in his grave. I can sympathize.

  2. I think Neeson could pull it off. Elliot Gould definitely wasn't the best fit, but I have to say - and I'm not sure this is a compliment, but "The Long Goodbye" had one of the most shocking, unexpected, and disturbing scenes of violence I've ever witnessed. (Closest thing that leaps to mind is the stomach punching alien in Alien.)


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