Marlowe Out of Time

After more than 80 years of movies, has Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective seen his final case on screen?

A new movie aims to revive a classic noir detective. The character’s first feature appearance in 20 years. An adaptation of a previously unfilmed Marlowe novel about corruption and murder in the Hollywood film industry. Starring a bankable star mainly known for gritty action fare. Helmed by a solid director with decades of films and TV under his belt. Poor box office and worse reviews meet the effort, sinking any plans for the character for the near future. I’m talking, of course about a movie called ‘Marlowe’. It was made in 1969, starring James Garner. The producers of that movie learned a lesson in 1969 that the producers of the new ‘Marlowe’ are learning now: There are some eras when Chandler’s detective just doesn’t work.

This is something that the very first people to adapt Marlowe understood. The first two movies based on Chandler’s stories, The Falcon Takes Over and Time To Kill, both released in 1942, switch out Philip Marlowe for an already established character from another series (Gay Falcon and Michael Shayne respectively). These Marlowe-Without-Marlowe movies lift Chandler’s plots entirely, but leave the hard-boiled sleuth behind. They do so with good reason: The world wasn’t ready for him. The noir era had not yet begun, and the movies reflect this.

There is a sense of detachment, archness, to both the Falcon and Michael Shayne. They don’t present the stories as grim tragedies of the modern world, of society’s elite abusing their power, but as silly little puzzles for the dashing lead to figure out. The movies sand off the edges, excising any mention of race or class. The detectives stay above the fray, too smart and sophisticated for the taudry motivations of the other characters. American audiences were coming to the movies for fun, for escapism, for spectacle. Philip Marlowe couldn’t have fit. Despite his hard-boiled reputation, the true secret to Marlowe’s success as a character is that he does get down in the grime and muck, and brings the audience with him. Not just physically, but emotionally. His connection with the characters, the degree to which he feels the blow of injustice, is what gives Chandler’s stories so much pathos.

Marlowe’s time arrives

A mere two years later, however, the American public’s temperature was very different. Now fully embroiled in World War II and aware of the depth of its horrors, there was no place for a hero who was aloof. The grim ways in which power could be abused was in the forefront of the public’s mind. Murder My Sweet (1944), adapts the same story as The Falcon Takes Over, but the movie has a very different tone. Arguably the first true noir, the movie is filled with neon lights and slick city streets, there is a recurring motive of reflections and superimposed images. It opens with Marlowe blindfolded, a cigarette place between his lips, like he’s being led to his execution. The character of Moose Malloy, an inhuman, unstoppable force in the Falcon’s movie, returns to the role he plays in the novel: a tragic patsy of the rich.

The images and performances exude a sadness, a sense of loss. It’s in this loss that we find the second key to Marlowe’s success, his relationship to time. The world that Chandler presents in his stories is not just unfair, but thoroughly corrupted. There’s a longing to return to a previous, more innocent, more just, time. When Marlowe first appears in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, he is compared to a medieval knight. His morality, his virtue, comes from an earlier time. It’s unsurprising, then, that the 40s saw the most successful Chandler adaptations to date. The above-mentioned Murder My Sweet, the experimental Lady In The Lake (1947) and the classic The Big Sleep (1946) all have a sense of lost innocence, of the upstanding Marlowe coming from a time not just before World War II but before both wars, before the corruption started.

Marlowe as the man

The detective wouldn’t appear on screen until 1969, and for good reason. With the end of the second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, answers were no longer to be found in the past, but in the future. Progress was the name of the game, and old fashioned moral codes had no place. Even as the Cold War fizzled out and the US became embroiled in another horrific overseas war, the public weren’t looking backwards for solutions. ‘Marlowe’ (1969) understands that the character is a man out of time, and decides to emphasize the fact by updating the period the then-present. This new setting makes Marlowe stick out like a sore thumb, his dark suit contrasting with the bright pastels of the hippies around him. For the first time, however, he is on the wrong side of that divide. Suddenly, his old fashioned nature puts him on the side of the powerful establishment, he’s not the underdog anymore. The filmmaking reflects this tension, with the dark script ever at odds with goofy 60s directorial choices and trend-chasing, removing any of the grit that Chandler needs. Audiences and critics reacted accordingly, pouncing on the inherent contradiction of bring the archaic character into such a progressive time.

Marlowe in the 70s

Like The Falcon Takes Over before it, however, ‘Marlowe’ (1969) only missed the mark by a few years. By 1973, the social climate in America was very different, the Vietnam war was dragging on, immune to protest and polemic, Nixon was in power, already undoing much of the progress made under Johnson’s presidency. The present looked bleak for the average American, the future bleaker. Enter Marlowe. Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) again updates the story to the present day, but now the detective isn’t a figure of authority, but a man lost in the wilderness of the present. His older values not only have no place in the 1970s, but he can’t even really apply them. For the first time, the detective can’t easily sort out right from wrong, good from bad. He’s not so much an underdog as someone completely set adrift. Critics at the time interpreted the tone as comic, as Altman mocking the idea of the private detective, but in retrospect it’s an elegy for the archetype. Gould’s Marlowe is lied to, battered, betrayed, any remaining idealism and hope beaten out of him by the events of the movie. The era was so corrupted that not even the noble knight could survive it.

That same sense pervades the first of two Robert Mitchum-starring Marlowe adaptations released later that decade. Photographed in rich, sombre browns and reds, Farewell, My Lovely (1975), shows the detective trying his best, but worn down. The film is filled with tired characters, ground down by life, by the iniquities of society and power. Our old friend Moose Malloy is back, with his most heartbreaking portrayal yet, a man used up and tossed aside by powers beyond his reach or comprehension. Unfortunately, by the time the second of these adaptations was entering production, the melancholy 70s was giving way to the excess of the 80s, and the bloated, unfocussed The Big Sleep (1978) reflects these changes. Gone is the exhausted Mitchum of just three years earlier, replaced with a slick, well-dressed detective. The film puts the all-American 1930s hero into unfamiliar 70s London, but there’s no sense that the displacement disorients him. Instead he has the upper hand in every situation, an everyman hero in a modern city. Any sense of melancholy dissipates, and with it, much of the appeal.

Why Marlowe can’t pass for modern

Glossing over the James Caan-starring made-for-TV Poodle Springs (1998), Marlowe lay untouched for 45 years, until this year. The 2020s seem initially like a good fit for a noir revival. The present is pretty bleak, the future is bleaker. The world has been through an unprecedented and horrific upheaval. Fascism is on the rise. ‘Marlowe’ (2023) seems aware of it’s place relative to all of this. Discussions of race and racism move to the center, the plot revolving around the border between Mexico and the US. The film defines haracters by the way they talk to and about immigrants, by their relationship to World War II and their relationship to the power structure. The movie is also aware of the detective’s strange relationship to time. The script constantly references it, referring to characters as “old timers” or discussing places stuck in the past. It knows that not only is Marlowe a creation of the past, he’s old-fashioned no matter what era he exists in.

This is the crux of why Philip Marlowe doesn’t work in 2023. We are all very familiar with the tragedies and injustices he deals with, but we know that solutions don’t lie in the past. The hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold is a great archetype but he’s one that can only offer old solutions. ‘Marlowe’ (2023) might be very topical and explicit, acknowledging the similarities between Chandler’s era and our own, but the movie doesn’t have a clear statement on any of it. Class is a present concern, but Marlowe’s relationship to it is muddy. He’s uncomfortable at the exclusive country club, but equally uncomfortable in a seedy bar. He sympathizes with an elderly actress and landscapers beat him up.

Characters who in classical Chandler novels would be fall guys for the powerful are instead their inexplicable defenders, while others who power should corrupt are morally upstanding.  There’s a vague sense of nostalgia, but no sense of real loss, of anything having changed. Ultimately, Marlowe cannot reconcile the tragedies of our times with the solutions of the past. As a lover of these stories, I’d like to think the private eye’s time will come again, but this may well be Philip Marlowe’s final case.


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Matt McCreadie

Matt McCreadie is a freelance writer and father of two from Ontario, Canada.

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