A FILM CRITIC TESTIFIES: My favorite Phillip Marlowe cinematic incarnations

The one and only Phillip Marlowe. Created by Raymond Chandler, he is perhaps the best-known of all private eyes. Almost everyone knows his name. A good private detective thriller can be cinematic gold and if Phillip Marlowe is your guide through the mystery, all the better.

Marlowe is a tough-talking, hard-living, private eye who dives headfirst into the underbelly of his cases and always gets in much too deep. Betrayal and murder shadow every case he takes on. There haven’t been as many great Phillip Marlowe films as one might think but there are a few that have left their mark.

Many cinephiles love Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” but I found it too gimmicky with its filmmaking, as the whole film is shot from Marlowe’s point of view. We only see him when he passes a mirror, with the cast speaking directly to the camera/Marlowe. While it is certainly a great story taken from Raymond Chandler’s novel and although the performances are all solid, it is the style Montgomery chose to shoot in that renders the film a misfire for me.

When we speak of successfully bringing Phillip Marlowe to the big screen, the two names that truly made their mark would be Howard Hawks and Robert Altman. Hawks created the cinematic portrayal of Marlowe through the one and only Humphrey Bogart and perfectly captured the feel of Chandler’s novel, “The Big Sleep” with Altman modernizing Marlowe and completely flipping expectations of what the character should, and could be, by inserting him into early seventies Los Angeles counterculture.

There was a moody and rather fantastic HBO series in the eighties, “Phillip Marlowe: Private Eye” with Powers Boothe doing some of his career-best work as the titular detective and the great Bob Rafelson directed a very interesting film for Showtime, “Poodle Springs,” that showed the private detective in his later years trying to settle down and get married. It was a unique take on the character that we hadn’t seen before and James Caan’s assured and realistic portrayal made his version one of the best incarnations of the famous private eye.

Here are my choices for the best of the Phillip Marlowe cinematic incarnations:

1.(tie) “The Big Sleep,” directed by Howard Hawks (1946) and “The Long Goodbye,” directed by Robert Altman (1973)
In their own separate and unique ways, these two films broke the mold for how Phillip Marlowe was portrayed on screen. Director Howard Hawks gave the famous P.I. the Humphrey Bogart touch. The actor and character would become synonymous with one another and Hawks’s film is widely considered to be the finest detective mystery of them all. In my opinion, “The Big Sleep” is, indeed, the finest Chandler film and, perhaps, the finest detective film to ever come out of the Hollywood system. Hawks’sfilm is a perfect storm of the right talent coming together on the right project. The marvelous cast (featuring Bogart, Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Elisha Cook Jr.) brings the characters alive, making every scene and interaction memorable. The screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furth man is sharp and keeps the unwieldly plot easier to follow. Even the director was lost as to who the actual killer was and why. When Hawks called Chandler to ask who the real killer was, it is reported that the author said, “How the hell should I know. You figure it out!” A fantastic tidbit about a masterpiece of forties cinema.

“The long goodbye”

Robert Altman (a filmmaker who always tried something different, cinematically) smartly gave the role to Elliott Gould for his adaptation of Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” The filmmaker took a great risk (and offended most Raymond Chandler purists!) by planting the character into the free love/swinging Los Angeles of 1973 and completely shattering the Phillip Marlowe fans came to expect. Gould gives one of the most unique performances of his career, as the actor completely subverts the character, playing Marlowe as sleepy and world-weary (yet savvy and smart!). In Gould’s incarnation, the detective is unkempt, unshaven, always smoking, and bumbles his way through his life. Altman’s film purposely downplays the signature hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe edge, which turned off most purists. At the time of the film’s release audiences didn’t quite know what to make of Gould’s portrayal nor Altman’s film. Thankfully, time has been kind. “The Long Goodbye” is now widely recognized as a pure masterwork and a staple of seventies cinema. For me, it is Robert Altman’s finest film.

“Murder my sweet”

2. “Murder My Sweet” directed by Edward Dmytryk (1944)

Dick Powell plays Marlowe as pure and tough as he ever was in the novels. While Humphrey Bogart is synonymous with the character, Powell’s performance comes the closest to nailing Chandler’s creation. Powell is steel-eyed and doesn’t suffer fools as he makes his way through a seedy underworld populated by a police lineup of the most sordid characters. This film and performance brought Dick Powell back from a fading career and rightfully catapulted him to an almost super stardom at the time. Director Edward Dmytryk’s film created a bleak and disorienting netherworld that is full of mystery and murder. There is no safety in this film nor in Powell’s excellent performance. Truly, one of the great film noirs.

“Farewell, my Lovely”

3.“Farewell My Lovely” directed by Dick Richards (1975)

An affectionate adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel that expertly evokes the seamy side of 1940s Los Angeles through the marvelous cinematography from John A. Alonzo and a hard-hitting yet witty performance by Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe. Director Dick Richards knows the story’s pulse and near perfectly captures that unmistakable Raymond Chandler mood. His supporting cast (Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Jack O’Halloran, Harry Dean Stanton, and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) expertly bring to life the shady characters from Chandler’s story. The film was a small financial success and isn’t as well remembered as it should be but Richards, Mitchum, and company gave 70’s cinema an old-fashioned detective tale that payed respect to Chandler’s famous character and to the classic Noirs that came before.

“Poodle Springs”

5. “Poodle Springs” directed by Bob Rafelson (1998)

Based on an unfinished Chandler manuscript that was completed by Robert B. Parker, this film was an adaptation of the eighth and final Phillip Marlowe novel. Set in 1963, James Caan stars as an older Marlowe about to marry a rich younger woman. Ever the detective, he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble’s way. It could be said that mystery and danger is Marlowe’s drug of choice. Director Rafelson did an excellent job keeping the soul of Chandler’s work. Though the film is plot heavy and the filmmaker stays away from trying to create a Noir atmosphere, the direction is crisp, and it is a novel idea to experience Marlowe in the sunlit atmosphere of 1960s Los Angeles. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay keeps the character true to his roots and helps the story stay interesting while making sure an old-fashioned Marlowe in a modern setting is much more than a gimmick. Caan’s portrayal is serviceable and keeps the heart of the character while allowing us to see a Phillip Marlowe who is in love and (somewhat) desires to settle down into family life. It is a smart performance and one of Caan’s best later career turns.


6.”Marlowe” directed by Paul Bogart (1969)

This was the first time Hollywood transported Raymond Chandler’s detective of the 1940s into the swinging sixties.” Unlike “Poodle Springs” this wasn’t an older Marlowe but the same mid-forties P.I that the author created. Perhaps the least remembered of all the actors to play the character, James Garner made a fantastic Phillip Marlowe. He was wisecracking and less cynical yet tough. Garner’s natural confidence as an actor bleeds into his portrayal making it a unique turn. Sadly, many critics felt the actor was miscast and lamented the styles of Bogart and Dick Powell. Perhaps in 1969, critics and fans weren’t ready for such an abrupt change to the aura of the character.

The film itself is uneven. It’s certainly a good film that has many fine moments, but director Paul Bogart doesn’t do anything interesting, cinematically speaking. His direction is perfunctory and there is no discernible visual style, but the film is entertaining none the less. Garner and the wonderful supporting cast (including Rita Moreno and Carol O’Conner and Bruce Lee!) help the film find its spark and cement its place as a worthy film version of Raymond Chandler’s titular private eye.

(featured image: Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye”)

“The long goodbye”