Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marlowe’s Examined Life

What’s the best way to portray legendary Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe on the large or small screen? It’s a question I pondered last year, when I put together a collection of Marlowe film clips to commemorate the 50th anniversary of author Raymond Chandler’s demise. And it’s the same question that novelist/screenwriter Carol Wolper considers in “The Big Score,” an essay she composed for the Los Angeles Times Magazine that also delves into why Marlowe’s world still seems like ripe fodder for Hollywood treatments.

In company with Greg Pruss, Wolper put together the script for a pilot film called Marlowe, which starred Irish actor Jason O’Mara and was supposed to spawn an ABC-TV series in the fall of 2007, but didn’t. (O’Mara went on instead to star in the American version of Life on Mars.) For the magazine, she writes:
Our show, starring Jason O’Mara (a terrific Marlowe), never made it on air, and though I’m not sure why, it’s possible networks might be a little gunshy when it comes to pulling the trigger on a character and genre where there’s not a lot of room for error. It was a disappointment, but like real love, the pain passes and the flame burns on, raising the question of why--why the enduring pull toward this character and his world?

Maybe one reason is that the L.A. of Chandler’s time and the L.A. of today aren’t all that different. The city still lures people with the promise of a golden life. Femmes fatales and gangsters may be outdated terms, but L.A. is still full of women who parlay their beauty into a shot at the big time and men who are just a scam away from the big score.

Then there is the fascination with L.A. noir, a genre that explores the underbelly of sunny California and the price you pay when your gamble for the good life doesn’t pan out. Here’s where the right balance comes into play. Some have erred by concentrating too much on the gritty side, narrowing the audience to those with the stomach for bleakness. Others err by avoiding the grimness--as Pruss put it, “when that dark underbelly gets liposuctioned out.”

The consensus seems to be that the best noir has always been a mix of grit and style. Chandler’s book The Big Sleep succeeded as a film not because of its lethal plotlines--which to this day no one can quite figure out--but because of the way the story was told, the way Bogart talked, the way Bacall dressed. It was a story as much about glamour as it was about guns.
But while Wolper’s comments abput Marlowe’s continuing relevancy are interesting, what’s most exciting about her piece--at least as it’s presented online--is that it comes complete with a clip from that Marlowe pilot, which as far as I know was never broadcast. At the top of the essay you’ll find three rows of photos showing actors who’ve portrayed Chandler’s P.I. over the years. Click on the bottom right-hand shot of Jason O’Mara. Up should pop a video screen and a scene featuring O’Mara, as Marlowe, being hired by the alluring Jaime Ray Newman.

Despite its much too obvious concluding line, “Trouble is my business,” this scene makes me wish that Wolper and Pruss’ series had actually made it to the TV schedule.

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