From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. This month, we look at the legacy of George Montgomery’s performance in THE BRASHER DOUBLOON.

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Who is Philip Marlowe? It’s a question I’ve asked before over the course of this series, but I hope you can understand my confusion. With different directors and different actors playing the lead, Marlowe ends up becoming open to interpretation. There are constants to the character: his cynical humor, his Sisyphean desire to do what’s right, his “born loser” status. What I wasn’t expecting when I sat down to watch THE BRASHER DOUBLOON was a Marlowe (George Montgomery) who was a radical departure from the previous adaptations in this series so far.

Montgomery’s performance challenges preconceptions about the hard-boiled detective and feels like the beginning of modern tweaks to the masculine archetype of the noir hero. Although Montgomery may not be the conventional Marlowe, he is a reminder of how much the detective archetype has evolved since Chandler’s original novels.

THE BRASHER DOUBLOON and A Different Marlowe

The Brasher Doubloon

THE BRASHER DOUBLOON (1947) is based on Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel The High Window. In the novel, Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates) is Marlowe’s client who wants him to find a stolen rare coin. The majority of Marlowe novels don’t revolve around a MacGuffin hunt. As such, Marlowe runs afoul of numerous parties all equally interested in getting their hands on the coin.

Along the way, Marlowe sees more bodies in this movie than a mortician and uncovers the truth about Mrs. Murdock’s husband’s murder. The film is conventional, with some occasional moments of style and brilliance. However, THE BIG SLEEP (released a year earlier) overshadows THE BRASHER DOUBLOON, making it the forgotten kid sibling among Chandler adaptations.

What makes THE BRASHER DOUBLOON worth analysis is George Montgomery’s performance as Philip Marlowe. Montgomery was no newcomer when he stepped into the iconic (gum)shoes of Marlowe. By the release of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON in 1947, he had enjoyed nearly a decade-long career in Hollywood. Montgomery primarily starred in Hollywood Westerns, but as I’ve addressed before, the space between the detective and the cowboy in classic cinema is often very slim.

Bogart had left such a strong impression on the Marlowe character that Montgomery at times almost sounds like he’s doing a Bogart impression. However, it’s in how Montgomery plays Marlowe that the actor’s influence on the character really begins to shine.

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Hollywood Endings

THE BRASHER DOUBLOON starts with Marlowe in a familiar spot. So familiar in fact that it’s practically beat-for-beat the same opening as THE BIG SLEEP. Marlowe drives to the mansion of a client and meets them in an ostentatious room for his assignment. In DOUBLOON, Marlowe first has a flirtatious tete-a-tete with Murdock’s secretary, Merle (Nancy Guild). The film versions of Marlowe frequently get wrapped up in romantic affairs. These romances are doomed (THE LONG GOODBYE), or they provide Marlowe with a Hollywood happy ending (MURDER, MY SWEET).

Undoubtedly, studios wanted a romantic ending to leave audiences on a happy note. Chandler’s novels were rarely so optimistic. Many of the Hays Code-era Marlowe films danced around the seedier elements of Chandler’s writing. Chandler rarely gave Marlowe a serious romantic subplot and kept his hero a cynical man fighting an uphill battle for justice.

THE BRASHER DOUBLOON’s tone is incongruous with the original Chandler novels, but Montgomery is one of the actors best suited to this style. There’s something romantic and cavalier about Montgomery’s Marlowe. Although the character retains his trademark sardonic wit, he’s often all smiles and sly winks.

It’s here in this flirtation scene that Montgomery makes Marlowe truly his own:

Montgomery has the confidence of a cavalier hero. He’s like Errol Flynn playing Marlowe. One masculine Hollywood archetype has been exchanged for another. It’s easier to imagine this version of Marlowe brandishing a rapier instead of a .38 caliber revolver.

Romantic Detective

It’s because of this characterization that this adaptation dips into romance more often than noir. The scene above continues with Merle holding Marlowe at gunpoint and forcing him to undress so she can find the doubloon. Marlowe is coy and intentionally plays on Merle’s proper nature to embarrass her. 

There’s something refreshing about this more fun-loving Marlowe. His cases are an adventure as much as they are a paycheck. Montgomery’s performance reveals the cracks in the private eye archetype.

The character that’s probably the most different from Marlowe and yet most directly influenced by him is the Dude (Jeff Bridges) from THE BIG LEBOWSKI. In fact, the plot of the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult hit shares more than a few similarities with the works of Chandler.

Marlowe Abides

Consider the film’s plot. Our hero, the Dude, is asked by a reclusive millionaire to find his wayward wife, Bunny. The hero finds himself in a complex mystery where he encounters numerous colorful characters from different Los Angeles subcultures. The Coens themselves have not been coy about their Chandler influences:

Joel Coen: We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story—how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.

Ethan [Coen]: And there was something attractive about having the main character not be a private eye, but just some pothead intuitively figuring out the ins and outs of an elaborate intrigue.”

The film itself even makes that connection explicit when the Dude meets a detective who is also searching for Bunny.

While the dude denies being a “dick,” he still has all the trappings of one. If Marlowe smoked weed instead of tobacco, he’d be the Dude.

Montgomery’s performance was likely not on the Coens’ mind when they wrote THE BIG LEBOWSKI. In fact, it’s far more likely their cinematic point of reference was Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. And yet, it’s easy to see some of Montgomery’s carefree Marlowe in the DNA of the Dude. When facing a cold, indifferent world, all the two can do is smile, crack wise, and make the right choice when backed into a corner. The Dude abides, and so does Marlowe.

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But the influence of Chandler and Marlowe extends beyond the mean streets of 1950s L.A. The recent release GEMINI from director Aaron Katz keeps the L.A. setting, but the job of private eye is changed to a personal assistant to a vain celebrity. Jill Lebeau (Lola Kirke) is an assistant to rising star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather burns just about every professional bridge that she has, she turns up dead.

Jill takes on the proverbial case to try and uncover Heather’s killer. She bounces from suspect to suspect against the perpetually setting L.A. sun. Much like the Dude, Heather would not describe herself as a detective, but just like the Dude, and by extension Marlowe, she finds herself at the mercy of a stranger fate than she originally expected. She carries the torch of the detective by being in over her head and seeking the truth regardless.

Much like Heather, the “detective” at the center of BRICK seems far from the Marlowe mold. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a high school student who also finds himself with someone close to him dead. He then, as is tradition, takes it upon himself to find the killer. The difference here is the way the world of a high school student is superimposed onto the world of noir. Brendan is the detective. His principal (Richard Roundtree) is the cop who wants him off the case. The school bully is the mob heavy.

Rian Johnson’s BRICK could not exist if the archetype of the detective weren’t flexible. It’s in the gradual deconstruction of characters like Marlowe in THE BRASHER DOUBLOON that makes the idea of a high school detective seem plausible rather than absurd. It’s these small shifts in the detective archetype that made neo-noir possible and led to contemporary deconstructionist noir.

Deconstructing the Detective

The Brasher Doubloon

Part of what makes the Netflix series JESSICA JONES so effective is the way it marries both the superhero and noir genres. The comic series did a fun job of exploring the underbelly of the Marvel universe. However, the show has built on the comic’s original premise by exploring just what kind of person would become a detective in the first place.

Chandler never gave us much information regarding Marlowe’s backstory. For Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), her backstory is the Rosetta stone to her entire character. The comics differ slightly from the show, but both involved Jessica attempting to be a hero only to have her valiant efforts returned with cruelty. Kilgrave (David Tennant) brainwashed Jessica using his mind control abilities. Jessica lost months of her life while enslaved to Kilgrave. Though she eventually broke free of his grasp, she was haunted by her experiences.

This is perhaps why Jessica chose the life of a private investigator. She chose a life out of the spotlight and away from the pageantry that comes from altruistic heroism. Jessica’s trauma is the reason she builds a cocoon of sarcasm and binge drinking around herself. Jessica is similar to a character like Marlowe, and yet her backstory is so much richer. The archetypal detective tropes that she fulfills are character tics but also evidence of deeper pain.

A Lovely Day

The Brasher Doubloon

One powerful deconstruction of this archetype is Lynn Ramsey’s latest film YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. The film centers around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a New York hitman who uncovers a dark conspiracy while on a job to rescue a kidnapped girl.

Joe may not be a “detective,” but his character isn’t far removed from these traditional, lone wolf, masculine heroes. The detectives, the gangsters, the hitmen, the drivers, the Liam Neeson dads are all cut from the same cloth. Even the main character’s name, Joe, is so generic that you could plop him into any genre of fiction you want and he would fit right in. What YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE explores is what happens to these men when their lifetime of violence finally becomes too much of a burden to bear.

Throughout the film, Joe grapples with horrific visions of an abusive childhood and a military career witnessing cruel violence inflicted on human life. Joe repeatedly gets close to killing himself, only to pull away at the last minute. He is an exposed nerve of a human being. The only true release Joe seems to get in the movie is when he unleashes violence on the men he deems worthy of punishment.

Ramsay never allows the audience to take any pleasure in Joe’s brutal punishment, even though the men deserve it. She cuts away from the violence whenever it occurs, allowing the audience to imagine whatever horrors Joe is delivering onto the dregs of humanity. However, Joe’s big heroic moment is pulled out from under him. He is left with nothing but rage and nowhere to channel it.

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The Meaning of Marlowe

Every character like Joe, whether it’s Marlowe or otherwise, tends to get their final moment of catharsis. It’s in this moment that Ramsey reminds us that the real world never has clean happy endings or stalwart heroes. Instead, we have our anger and we have our outlets. For some, those outlets are darker than others.

Perhaps that’s who Marlowe really is for his fans: an outlet. He’s a conduit through which we can live our frustrations with the darkness in the world. He will always be there, willing to stand tall when courage fails the average person. Though Marlowe exists somewhere in the DNA of all these contemporary, post-modern characters, there will always be a space for the original detective. So long as there is strife, we will need a Marlowe, conventional or not.

Next Case: We will be back in June for our final installment. We’ll take a look at POODLE SPRINGS, based on Chandler’s posthumous novel.

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