September 18, 2014

Philip Marlowe on TV

POWERS BOOTHE AS PHILIP MARLOWE, CIRCA 1983
I've been taking a break from heavier reading the last month or so, instead catching up with one of my old friends on the bookshelf: Raymond Chandler.

Chandler's Philip Marlowe is, to my mind, the prototype of the private detective as we have come to see him.  And Chandler himself was not merely a great writer of detective fiction, he was a great writer, period.  I've said in the past that I'd put Chandler up favorably against Fitzgerald any day; I found The Long Goodbye a far superior book to The Great Gatsby, among other literary classics I'm supposed to be impressed with.

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is another favorite of mine (as you can see, I tend not to go for genteel detective stories), but Hammer is a far rougher, more violent man than Marlowe.  The writing is similar; Spillane is nowhere near the wordsmith Chandler is, but he can tell a cracking story.  And perhaps that's why Mike Hammer has come through better on television than Philip Marlowe.  So much of the appeal of Marlowe stories lies in Chandler's way with words, from his dingy description of Los Angeles to the utter futility that Marlowe sometimes experiences, and those are moments that simply can't be captured on screen.  In fact, the most famous passage from Chandler's classic The Big Sleep, the concluding line that explains the title of the book (and is the only time the title is used in the manuscript) never appears in the most classic version of that story, the Bogart/Bacall movie.*

*It does, however, make an appearance in voiceover in Robert Mitchum's commendable remake.

Marlowe's made it to the small screen twice.  The first time was a 1959-196 series on ABC, starring Philip Carey.  I've not seen much of it, though I'm reasonably informed (by the always-reliable Wikipedia) that the show wasn't very true to the character.  Check it out for yourself and see what you think.


The more successful version aired on HBO from 1983 to 1986, and starred Powers Boothe in the title role.  I've seen a few more episodes of this, and my memory of it is that while there's still a difference in the way the stories are adapted to screen, it's a significant upgrade in both style and substance from the previous effort.


I've written before of my disappointment that the private detective, once a staple of television, has pretty much disappeared from the airwaves.  One of the reasons, I suspect, is that procedurals have become so completely reliant on technology, the type that goes far beyond wiretapping in its intrusiveness.  Most of that would likely be unavailable to the average shamus today, which means the writers would have to rely on honest-to-goodness legwork and deduction.  Far too hard to think about that; much easier if he can just press a button or two and come up with the answers.  As for the detective's traditional antagonism with the police force, just make him a rebel within the department itself; all the procedurals are full of quirkbots like that.  Heaven forbid he should show too much individualism, though.  We don't seem to like that much.

Another reason might be that detective fiction seems to work best in a period atmosphere.  One of the challenges with the Stacy Keach version was that it tried to incorporate a contemporary time period into a story and character that were resolutely not of this time.  To the extent that it worked, it was due to Keach's ability to see the anachronism, but the detective as we know him - the Marlowe prototype - seems to thrive more in the noir grime of the last century's first half.

At any rate, from Philip Marlowe to Jim Rockford, from Richard Diamond to Peter Gunn, from Darren McGavin's Spillane to Stacy Keach's, the private detective has been a welcome presence on television.  Let's hope there's a comeback one of these days, and that it's better than Moonlighting or Remington Steele, hmm?

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