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June 2024
2min read

The Many Lives of Philip Marlowe

No American writer influenced so much with so little work as Raymond Chandler. His major contribution consists of a handful of novels and story collections (all reprinted last summer by Vintage Crime and available in two handsome volumes from the Library of America) and five film scripts, including Double Indemnity (1944), adapted by Chandler and the director Billy Wilder from James M. Cain’s novel; The Blue Dahlia (1946), his only purely original writing directly for the screen; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Chandler, more than anyone else, is responsible for the look and feel of an American style, film noir, which continues to enthrall audiences, writers, and moviemakers.

The hard-boiled lone wolf created by Dashiell Hammett and perfected by Chandler may prove to be as enduring a national symbol as the cowboy. In thinly disguised variants, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is resurrected every few years to reinterpret our past (Jack Nicholson’s seedy late-Depression hustler in Chinatown ), mirror the present (Guy Pearce’s desperate insurance investigator with short-term memory loss in Memento ), and even anticipate the future (Harrison Ford’s burnout replicant hunter in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner ).

Every generation, it seems, will get the Philip Marlowe it deserves. What we deserve is a DVD edition of Chandler’s greatest works, particularly at a time when his books have never been more obtainable. Until then you’ll have to hope that your video store has these classics:

Murder, My Sweet (1944). The onetime musical-comedy crooner Dick Powell became the first movie Marlowe in this version of Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely . Chandler himself thought Powell was the best Philip Marlowe. Lean and mean, this was the finest hard-boiled private-eye movie between John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and The Big Sleep in 1946. Claire Trevor played the elusive and deadly Velma, and the wrestler-turned-character-actor Mike Mazurski was the softhearted ex-con Moose Malloy.

In 1975 the director Dick Richards filmed the novel under its original title with Charlotte Rampling as Velma; Jack O’Halloran, a former heavyweight contender, as Moose; and the great Robert Mitchum as a weary, middle-aged Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep (1946). Directed by Howard Hawks, this film has Bogart in one of only two private-eye roles he played in his entire career. (The other, of course, was in The Maltese Falcon .) No other film has succeeded so well in capturing the lurid, whorish atmosphere of boom-era Los Angeles, a city Chandler finally came to hate. Co-starring were Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Bob Steele as the gunman Lash Canio—what a name! Legend has it that William Faulkner, who worked on the screenplay, couldn’t figure out who killed whom even after phoning Chandler in London.

The Lady in the Lake (1946). The other Raymond Chandler novel released on film in 1946 is now largely forgotten, but it’s worth a revival, not only because The Lady in the Lake was considered to be Chandler’s best novel (and was also, oddly enough, the only one set outside Los Angeles) but because of the director and star Robert Montgomery’s interesting gimmick of attempting to duplicate Chandler’s first-person narration by turning the camera itself into Marlowe’s eyes. (We see Montgomery only once, in a mirror reflection.)

The Long Goodbye (1973). This film splits Chandler fans right down the middle. The director Robert Altman took Chandler’s next-to-last novel and cast the unlikely Elliott Gould as a laconic, bemused Marlowe whose worldview and code of ethics are out of the late forties (he still drives a ’48 Lincoln Continental). All the other characters are set in the faster-paced, more neurotic L.A. of the 1970s. The film was intended less as an homage to Chandler than as a rethinking of the world he created. You’ll love it or hate it, but your reaction won’t be neutral. It features numerous non-actors, such as the former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, the director Mark Rydell, and Nina Van Pallandt, the girlfriend of Clifford Irving (who perpetrated the Howard Hughes autobiography hoax).

—Allen Barra

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