Oil company exec-turned-author Raymond Chandler took some years in crafting the character of Philip Marlowe, his loner of a fictional Los Angeles private eye. As Kevin Burton Smith observes at his excellent Thrilling Detective Web Site, “Chandler first worked out the character of Marlowe in several short stories in Black Mask, featuring a variety of private eyes under different names. Among these pre-heroes were John Dalmas, Carmady, Ted Carmady and Mallory.” But by the time Chandler put the finishing touches on his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), he had the man pretty well down, making him a bright but cynical, hard-drinking but involuntarily romantic hero for an era when America’s definition of heroes had been badly bruised by the atrocities of war, the rise of criminal bosses, and the self-aggrandizement of both nefarious politicians (among them Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy) and Tinseltown stars bearing phonied-up résumés and secret lives.
Marlowe went on to appear in six more novel-length adventures published during Chandler’s lifetime (with an eighth novel, Poodle Springs, being completed by Robert B. Parker and released only three decades after Chandler’s death in 1959). The chess-playing sleuth was also featured in four motion pictures (the best remembered of those being the 1946 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall flick, The Big Sleep) and a couple of radio drama series before the ’60s. Since then, however, Philip Marlowe has become a familiar figure on the large and small screens. James Garner--in a warm-up for the character he’d played in The Rockford Files--played him in Marlowe (1969), an adaptation of Chandler’s 1949 novel, The Little Sister. Elliott Gould stepped into the P.I.’s gumshoes in director Robert Altman’s 1973 movie, The Long Goodbye, and Robert Mitchum tackled the role twice--first, in the period piece Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and then in 1978’s more forgettable The Big Sleep. On television, Philip Carey played Marlowe in a half-hour, 1959-1960 series, and Powers Boothe reprised the role in a UK series called Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (which ran in 1984 and 1986). A decade later, Danny Glover took on the Marlowe persona in a 1995 episode (“Red Wind”) of Showtime’s Fallen Angels anthology series, and James Caan in a 1998 adaptation of Poodle Springs.
I haven’t seen either of those last two teleflicks, but I’ve watched all the rest, and for my money, Garner did the best job of capturing Chandler’s creation. (Bogart, I think, excelled as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but brought nothing new to his portrayal of Marlowe). Mitchum did the second best job, at least in Farewell.
But it seems we’re still not done with Chandler’s detective as knight-errant, his “man of honor” who is “neither tarnished nor afraid.” According to Variety, ABC-TV is partnering with producer Sean Bailey (Matchstick Men, Gone, Baby, Gone) to offer “a fresh take” on Marlowe. The prospective hour-long series would be “present-day procedural crime drama with noir aspects and set in Los Angeles.” Variety reports:
Bailey said “Marlowe” will be “a detective show, but very much a character-based one.I don’t know. This write-up doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism. I think immediately of the travesty that resulted when ABC sought to “re-imagine” Darren McGavin’s campy 1974 series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Night Stalker, with Stuart Townsend playing investigative reporter Carl Kolchak, was cancelled after only six episodes. And what next comes to mind is Dick Wolf’s 2003 revival of Dragnet, which--despite Mike Post’s terrific reworking of the original theme music and Ed O’Neill’s less-wooden interpretation of the Joe Friday role--died an unmourned death only partway through its second season. I don’t want to see Philip Marlowe damaged for a new generation because TV producers are desperate for a hit, and think they might find gold in the source material for most of modern American private-eye fiction.
“He’s a guy who can travel in the highest echelons of power and the darkest and dirtiest corners of the city,” he added, noting the new Marlowe will still “get his ass kicked every once in a while.”
As of now, there are no plans to use any of Chandler’s Marlowe books (“The Big Sleep,” et al.) as source material for storylines.
Still, “You can expect to see your femme fatales and very wealthy individuals,” Bailey said.
Way back in 1957, Chandler worried that his protagonist wouldn’t fare well on television, and argued that he ought to write the dialogue for any series based on his books. As he explained in a letter, “ ... it seems that if I could deliver the character of Philip Marlowe, at the risk--somewhat the certainty--of being thought unbearably conceited, I should still be able to believe that Marlowe existed, and not a travesty of him ...” This is always the fear an author faces, when courted by Hollywood, that his or her creations will be poorly adapted to film or television. I’d hate to see people who’ve never sought out the original Marlowe yarns soured on them by a poor interpretation on the small screen. Better to let Marlowe live as he was born: in print.