Since I’m rooted in the hard-boiled style and film noir genre, I’d have to say my favorite fictional private investigator is Philip Marlowe. Dashiell Hammett was far more detailed and accurate in his creation of the Continental Op and Sam Spade, having had first-hand experience in the field. What Raymond Chandler focused on was character. Reading his biography, you get the distinct sense Philip Marlowe is the detective Raymond Chandler wanted to be. The character is so infused with many of Chandler’s traits. He’s just better looking and tougher than Chandler had the capability of being.
I have come to realize that Marlowe is my favorite because I own or have seen more movies with the character, and listened to more radio episodes than any other detective (the seven seasons of Bosch on Amazon Prime notwithstanding). Much like Chandler, my new historical crime fiction series features a private detective that is closer to me (temperament and personality) than any other character I have written. With that in mind, I wanted to focus on those encounters I have had with Philip Marlowe.
When your name is H.B., you tend to lean toward Humphrey Bogart as your favorite actor. While he is the most recognizable incarnation, he was not the first. Dick Powell, the successful song-and-dance man, brought Marlowe to life in “Murder, My Sweet.” This was based on “Farewell, My Lovely”; the name change was so as not to confuse audiences that it was another musical. Powell slips easily into the hard-boiled wardrobe just nicely. His snappy delivery of dialogue and less-than-superhuman abilities make him a detective for the people. He drinks, he smokes, he flirts, but he is desperately trying to get to the truth. This role likely allowed Powell to continue on with his career after he had grown too old for the lead in musicals.
Bogart had already played Sam Spade. When he filmed “The Big Sleep” in 1944, the ingénue playing opposite him soon became lover and then wife. The film was delayed for release until 1946 so that the Bogie-Baby pair could generate some real heat. He, like Powell, gets beat up but keeps coming back. They both exhibit a personal code despite others thinking them to be mad fools. There is nothing imprecise about the performance. Like his Sam Spade five years earlier, he inhabits the character as easily as stepping into a warm bath.
Robert Montgomery both starred in and directed “Lady in the Lake”, with Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan offering magnificent supporting noir roles. The movie was made with a gimmick: It was filmed as a first-person narrative. Everything you see is through Marlowe’s eyes. You only see Montgomery when he is in front of a mirror. Stylistically, it matches the first-person fiction narrative. But I was too caught up in the “trick” that I couldn’t tell you how well Bob Montgomery came across as the character.
Around that time, Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr both provided their vocal cords to Marlowe on radio. Heflin comes across as world-weary, at times almost bored. He seems to be cleaning up the mess more than delving deep into the abyss. Mohr, on the other hand, adds a certain oomph, not afraid to mix it up, hit or get hit, while throwing in some charm in the middle of his snappy dialogue. He is the radio version of Dick Powell.
It was 22 years before Marlowe came to the screen again, this time in the person of James Garner. He, too, carries a certain honor with him but he seemed to feel more at home in the Jim Rockford mode. The convoluted story based on “The Little Sister” keeps your mind more occupied trying to unravel the various complexities. Garner does well, but could have used a better script.
Robert Altman does not seem the type of director to take on a crime story. Then again, Robert Altman makes movies in his own genre. Perhaps that is why Elliot Gould’s portrayal has been dubbed Rip Van Marlowe. Gould spends the first part of the film looking for his cat’s preferred food from an all-night grocery store. He’s constantly smoking and always on the wrong side of the cue ball. Eventually, he works it all out and adheres to his code as well.
Robert Mitchum is an icon of film noir. His voice and laid-back manner fit in with just about any story. I would like to have seen him as Marlowe in the early to mid 1950’s. Sadly, the only man to portray Marlowe on screen twice played him when he was fifty-eight and again when he was sixty-one. The mood and atmosphere were still there. He just appeared too tired for the part.
I had the opportunity to catch the second season of HBO’s Philip Marlowe, Private Eye from 1986 on Amazon Prime featuring Powers Booth. The six episodes were based on classic short stories. The overall production was clean but it had the look of a t.v. show. Booth was on par with Garner but with better scripts. It would have been interesting to see him in just one full-length movie.
I haven’t seen the earlier films where the Falcon and Michael Shayne are substitutes for Marlowe, “The Brasher Doubloon” with George Montgomery, nor listened to the three other radio performers, neither am I mentioning the forthcoming film with Liam Neeson (who will be 71 when the film is released in 2023).
To be honest, I don’t have a favorite in the bunch. The character, like most characters, has many aspects and nuances that each actor brings to the table in a different manner. For my money, it all starts with Raymond Chandler creating a solid and viable private detective with enough personality traits that any decent actor would wish to portray. As with most good mysteries and crime fiction, the resolution is about more than solving a crime. It’s about getting to the heart of a deeper, personal human matter. That counts for something.