Marlowe (1969)

© 2008 William Ahearn

Raymond Chandler wasn’t very happy with how his novel The Little Sister turned out. In a letter to Jamie Hamilton, Chandler wrote “The fact is, however, that there is nothing in [The Little Sister] but style and dialogue and characters. The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind.” He also wrote in a letter to James Sandoe that The Little Sister was “The only book of mine that I have actively disliked. It was written in a bad mood and I think that comes through.”

For once, Chandler is being generous in his criticism. The plot, such as it is, makes one hope for dead chauffeurs washing about in the surf off Lido pier. It is a novel that toys with the idea of Hollywood and it suffers from what Chandler complained about most often in other writers: It is lifeless. Maybe Chandler just couldn’t articulate what it is about the movie business that so annoyed him. His essay “Writers In Hollywood” that was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945 is incredibly wooden yet his letters are lively and funny. (His essay on the Oscars – for which he was nominated twice – also appeared in Atlantic Monthly and can be found here.)

The only thing that I liked about The Little Sister is that it is short. Everything that you would expect in a Chandler novel is there except for verve and life and the music of the text.

So I was curious more than anything else to see “Marlowe” with James Garner playing the title character that is based on The Little Sister and released in 1969. It was the first Philip Marlowe to be updated to the present or at least what was the present then. It is also the first film based on a Chandler book that makes use of location shooting but it never really incorporates the environment in the way Chandler used it.

The basic gist of the novel is that a young woman approaches Philip Marlowe to find her missing brother. She’s come all the way from Manhattan, Kansas and she only has $20 ($50 in the film) to spend on a detective. Marlowe picks up a lead and he keeps finding bodies with ice picks in their necks as he searches for the brother. This being a Chandler story, it gets complicated soon thereafter.

The film “Marlowe” can be seen as a precursor to the TV private eye show “The Rockford Files” (that James Garner starred in) and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (check out the use of the theme song in “Marlowe”). Bringing Philip Marlowe into a modern sunlit Los Angeles or Bay City or even the much-maligned Pasadena is going to present problems. He seems like an anachronism and adapting him to a time out of his own is a tricky business. James Garner as Philip Marlowe sports a tan, has what seems to be a girlfriend (Corinne Camacho) and can toss sarcasms with the best of them and still maintains the illusion of honesty that is critical to the Marlowe character. Yet these are not the dark and mean windblown streets of a mythic city and that is where the Marlowe character actually lives. He’s not a character as much as he’s part of an environment and if that environment doesn’t follow him, all we’re left with are hollow references.

Leigh Brackett and Robert Altman found an interesting way around that problem in “The Long Goodbye” but Paul Bogart, the director, and Stirling Silliphant, the scriptwriter, didn’t. What they ended up with is a bit of a mess that has its moments. That the plot involves television instead of what’s left of the old Hollywood (the novel was written in 1949) is neither here nor there; nor is the various plot changes. (There are numerous accounts of the problems involved with making this film and while some are interesting in a gossipy way, they really don’t make any difference. It seems, based on what I’ve read, that the director, scriptwriter and cinematographer were working on three different films.)

How the film was edited was a source of contention and – believe it or not – the Production Code office that would influence the making of “The Big Sleep” in 1945 created similar problems for “Marlowe” in 1967. In 1966 Jack Valenti became head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that was once known as the Production Code Office. The script for “Marlowe” was submitted in July 1967 and approved although citing several instances of nudity or near nudity that would need to be changed. By the time the film was in production, the film rating system had been implemented by Valenti, and what was once known as the Hays Office ceased to have the power of censorship that it had handled so badly for decades.

Filming began after the assassination of Martin Luther King and director Paul Bogart and James Garner wanted to minimize the violence while the scriptwriter, Stirling Silliphant, wanted to do realistic shooting and fight scenes. There was at least one scene that Silliphant wrote that Bogart refused to direct and Garner refused to act in. The end result is that “Marlowe” seems to be a made-for-TV movie that is at odds with itself.

Philip Marlowe seems to get lost in the shuffle with remnants of the character showing up here and there in the dialogue.

There’s a good supporting cast including Rita Moreno, Carol O’Connor, Kenneth Toby, William Daniels and a young – and utterly wasted as comic relief – Bruce Lee. This isn’t brilliant movie making but it does the job with a sense of humor and it’s a fun film to watch.

William Ahearn