Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I had the chance recently to watch some Philip Marlowe movies. Marlowe of course is the savvy detective created by Raymond Chandler who plumbs the depths of L.A. crime to ferret out the secrets his clients seek to hide and to find. To say that Marlowe has been handled different ways by different directors and actors is a decided understatement.
The definitive Marlowe of course is Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks. This vintage Bogart vehicle features a clever, fast-talking Marlowe who reads people and leaps to conclusions and finds things which elude others. He's at once smarmy, frank, seductive, and dangerous. You know the threats are piling up around him as he tumbles a casino on his way to finding bodies in cottages. There's patter and there's gun play and the movie is always entertaining, for Bogart of course, and for Lauren Bacall who is vamping it up to eleven. Lots to love in this movie which I've seen many many times and will watch just about any time it hits the screen.
New to me was Marlowe as played and directed by Robert Montgomery in the 1947 production Lady in the Lake. This movie has the peculiar notion we want to see a detective movie from the specific perspective of the detective along and does a sturdy job of keeping us squarely inside the eye line of Marlowe himself for most of the movie. It's a cute gimmick but gets wears out its welcome fairly quickly as the limits of keeping the camera on one character for extended periods of time which becomes static and dull and unfortunately for all its bravura the technique cannot really supply the kind of perspective it promises since peripheral vision is all but eliminated and camera movement always seems too protracted and unduly sober.
On the acting side Montgomery gives us a downright nasty Marlowe, a mean-spirited bruiser who seems to like to take cheap shots at people who he reads correctly mostly except when it really counts. This Marlowe is more bluster and when he might just get the girl in the end, you really don't think he deserves her.
The story is typically complicated and has sufficient twists and turns and for the most part plays fair, though some things do pop up in the end we really didn't have a chance to glom as promised.
From 1969 we get a Marlowe I've seen before, but not in quite a while and it was nice to meet this one again. James Garner's charm is on par with Bogart's and so when he's behaving poorly you feel less bad about forgiving him. This movie titled Marlowe is based on the Chandler novel The Little Sister and takes us pretty quickly into some seamy territory.
To say the filmmakers take advantage of relaxed standards is to understate things. This far and away the most blatantly sexual of the Marlowe movies in this review, dealing as it does with exotic dancers and hookers and whatnot. Some skins is exposed, but not as much as the poster above might suggest. Marlowe finds himself in a rather confusing yarn about an actress who gets into trouble after pictures of her and a mob boss make the scene. The characters here are not very likeable, even the ones I think the movie wants us to like and that lack of empathy undermines the outcome for me a bit.
This movie is probably most famous for some very brief but very memorable scenes with Bruce Lee who shows up at Marlowe's office and karate chops the crap out of it. Later Marlowe gets the better of the Lee character in a highly unlikely scenario, but which does offer up a gruesome laugh.
And finally we have 1973's The Long Goodbye. This Robert Altman movie gives us perhaps the most peculiar Marlowe yet, a mumbling Elliot Gould stumbles along as a parody of the noir detective in a California which seems to have long before passed him by.
I cannot figure if this was supposed to be a legit detective story with some humor or a complete send up, and I'm increasingly on the side of the latter. That's somewhat indicated by the really vivacious Jack Davis poster above which shows the helter-skelter nature of the events which unravel in front of Marlowe who looks on dully and smokes incessantly. Marlowe never seems to know any more than anyone else in the movie and often less. As played by Gould, Marlowe comes across as a loyal but dull goofball who is capable of some surprisingly cruel things.
Almost to defang the movie and remove any sexual tension which might wander into the flick, there is an apartment full of naked girls next to Marlowe's who are on display off and on throughout the movie for no particular reason. It's all rather strange, weird, but rarely fascinating.
So Philip Marlowe is a detective who in film at least finds his way in different ways and manners. Beginning as the cool and even at times debonair Bogart, through the snide and brutal Montgomery, and by way of the charming but reluctant Garner, to the stumbling mumbling Gould, the character gets redefined as each director and /or actor imagines.