Watching Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep at WJCT’s 3x5 Classic Film Festival this spring, I was inspired to check out all the other film incarnations of writer Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe to see which one best fit the bill. Taking my homework and pleasure with equal seriousness, I first re-read Chandler’s six Marlowe novels, written between 1939 and 1953 and now considered bona fide treasures of American literature.
As for the movies: Murder, My Sweet (1945) marked Marlowe’s first film appearance, though two 1942 films were based on Chandler’s novels, changing the main character’s name. Former song-and-dance-man Dick Powell reinvented his on-screen persona in a terrific switch, playing the tough-guy hero, quick with the quips and the dames. The film was based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely, and the producers changed the title, lest audiences think it was another Dick Powell musical. They needn’t have worried.
Then came The Big Sleep, completed in 1945 but held back and re-edited for release in 1946. Capitalizing on the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the revisions by director Howard Hawks resulted in a classic, even though the complicated script (co-written by William Faulkner) features one famous unexplained murder. Just as seasoned but more decent than Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, Bogie in a trench coat created a paradigm every bit as iconic as Clint Eastwood in a serape.
The Lady in the Lake, released in 1947, was directed by Robert Montgomery, who also played Marlowe. It’s a one-gimmick take on the film noir ethos, most of it’s from the subjective viewpoint, and we only see Marlowe reflected in mirrors or on polished surfaces. More curious than good, the technique is clunky, as is Montgomery. That same year, George Montgomery (no relation to Robert) played Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon, based on Chandler’s The High Window. Less flashy and famous than Robert’s experimental effort, Doubloon is better, though hard to find today.
After a 22-year hiatus, Chandler’s hero returned in 1969 with James Garner taking on the role in Marlowe, an adaptation of the book The Little Sister. Likable and laid-back, just like Bret Maverick and the later Jim Rockford, Garner is fun to watch in this late-’60s crime drama, but the most memorable scenes belong to villainous enforcer Winslow Wong, played by Bruce Lee, fresh off Green Hornet but yet to hit it big with Enter the Dragon.
The oddest — and one of the best — Marlowe films has to be Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliott Gould as the hound-faced, chain-smoking shamus who gets screwed over by just about everyone, up to the surprising, even shocking, end. More Altman than Chandler, The Long Goodbye continues to grow in critical stature.
Finally, we have the only actor to portray Marlowe in more than one film. In Farewell, My Lovely (’75) and The Big Sleep (’78), Robert Mitchum (at ages 57 and 60, respectively) was clearly too old for the role. But no other actor ever looked better in the part, not even Bogart. Mitchum may not have been in his prime, but he’s still damn good … and the movies aren’t bad either.