August 19, 2020

Philip Marlowe on the small screen

Often, when I find myself looking for a little less heavy reading, I find myself 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, a knight both noble and tragic. 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 1978 version. Mitchum makes for a compelling, older and tired Marlowe, but stick to his first of two Marlowe turns, 1975's Farewell, My Lovely.

Marlowe's made it as a regular on the small screen twice. The first time was a 1959-1960 series on ABC, starring Philip Carey. I liked what I've seen of it, although, as the always-reliable Wikipedia points out, 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, starring Powers Boothe in the title role. Booth did well; he certainly carried more weightines than Carey, although he very much lacks the charm of Bogart in The Big Sleep, or especially Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (the renamed Farewell, My Lovely).* It's difficult to picture Boothe playing chess or reading the classics, as Marlowe was known to do under the spell of Chandler's typewriter; actually, he might have been better cast as Mike Hammer. Still it's a significant upgrade in both style and substance from the previous effort.

*Powell would play Marlowe again on television a decade after Murder My Sweet, on the dramatic anthology series Climax! in 1954. Nobody seems to have a copy of it, though. Pity; his Marlowe is one of the very best.

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. Sure, private detectives can (and do) engage in this kind of work as well, and can be very effective doing it, but you have to admit it doesn't quite have the romance of the fog-shrouded, rain-slick streets, the lonely truthseeker with the brim of his fedora worn low and the collar of his trenchcoat pulled high to keep the chill away. After all, he's a knight, not a technician, remember? And as for the detective's traditional antagonism with the police force (every private eye had a frenemy in the department), just make him a rebel within the force 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.

*They don't come much quirkier than Elliot Gould's big-screen portrayal in The Long Goodbye, a reimagination that calls for much more space in a blog devoted to movies. Like this one.

Another reason might be that detective fiction seems to work best in a period atmosphere. One of the challenges with Stacy Keach's Mike Hammer series was that it tried to tell the story within a contemporary time period (a flaw inherent in James Garner's otherwise perceptive Marlowe, an adaptation of Chandler's The Little Sister), which merely solidified Hammer as a desperate anachronism, a character that was 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 Hammer to Stacy Keach's, the private detective has been a welcome presence on television. In light of HBO's recent successes with both period and crime dramas, it might be a good idea for them to revisit Marlowe, or some of the other great literary detectives of the past. At any rate, let's hope there's a comeback one of these days, and that it's a little grittier than, say, Moonlighting or Remington Steele, hmm? TV  

1 comment:

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!