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. In this final installment of the Marlowe Files, we’ll look at POODLE SPRINGS. Based on the final novel of Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, POODLE SPRINGS gives Marlowe the send-off he deserves.

The legend goes that Frank Miller was inspired to write THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS when he realized he had turned 29 and was the same age as Batman. Miller would be older than this pop culture icon in only a year. The Caped Crusader, meanwhile, would stay his young, able-bodied self forever.

A comic book fly trapped in four-color amber. It’s easy to imagine Raymond Chandler having a somewhat similar crisis of mortality when he sat down to write Poodle Springs. Following the events of the previous novel Playback, Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s famous private eye, has finally settled down.

He’s married to wealthy socialite Linda Loring (named Laura Parker in the film) and has left the mean streets of L.A. for the titular suburb of Poodle Springs. Sadly, the novel would not be completed before Chandler’s death in 1959. His reasons for marrying his famous detective are left to speculation. Perhaps Chandler felt it was finally time to give Marlowe more of a personal life beyond the walls of his office.

Poodle Springs was published as a complete novel in 1988. Chandler’s first four chapters became the beginning of the story that Robert B. Parker brought to its conclusion. Parker’s prose feels a bit softer than the hard-boiled edge that Chandler brought to all of his novels. Therefore, Poodle Springs ends up having a much less byzantine plot than its predecessors. That’s not to say the novel is bad, but the imitation of Chandler at points is noticeable.

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The Poodle Springs Purgatory

Poodle Springs
James Caan as Philip Marlowe (Courtesy of HBO Entertainment)

It’s all the more surprising, then, that the 1998 POODLE SPRINGS film, directed by Bob Rafelson, is as good as it is. The earlier comparisons to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS come from the film’s choice to age Marlowe up. Much like Bruce Wayne in DKR, Marlowe is trying to adapt to a life of domesticity, only to find himself yearning for the life he left behind. In POODLE SPRINGS, Marlowe is a relic.

The film takes place in 1963, five years after Raymond Chandler’s death. The post-war American boom of the ’50s is beginning to shift into the revolutionary ’60s. Early in the film, Marlowe (James Caan) sits in a jail cell while a nearby man sings Bob Dylan’s famous words: “Then you better start swimmin’, or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times, they are a-changin.’” Marlowe gives him a hot dog to shut him up. He doesn’t need the reminder that, to paraphrase Dylan, the tides are rolling in.

Screenwriter Tom Stoppard makes many distinct choices, like the aforementioned time jump, that enrich the original novel. Laura (Dina Meyer) is more than the two-dimensional debutante of the original novel. Here, she’s an attorney who repeatedly represents Marlowe during his brushes with the law. Though Marlowe rejects the lifestyle she offers him, you can better understand why these two would be drawn to one another. Both are highly competent at their jobs, and both have a driving sense of justice. Albeit Marlowe’s methods are far more hands-on than his wife’s.

The Aging Detective

Details like this show how the world around Marlowe is evolving. The days of the helpless damsel/femme fatale dichotomy are over. Even the years of death have begun to weigh heavily on Marlowe’s own sense of mortality. While pursuing a lead at the home of a murder victim, Marlowe has a mild panic attack when stumbling upon a mutilated pet. Marlowe now has something to lose in his life for the first time. With that comes an awareness of his own life that he had never considered before.

The movie acknowledges this passage of time on a metatextual level, too. At one point, a bus zooms by the camera with an advertisement for the James Bond film FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. The age of one masculine pulp archetype, the Philip Marlowe detective, is ending. The super spy has arrived to take his place. Marlowe’s refusal to settle into domesticated bliss is one final, feeble attempt to rage against the end of his era. “You want me to be different from what I am,” he tells Laura in the novel, “and if I change, I disappear. Because there isn’t anything but what I am.”

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Marlowe’s Reflection

It’s worth noting just what a dramatic change it was for Chandler to give Marlowe a wife. Until this point, readers knew little to nothing about Marlowe’s background. Frankly, it wasn’t necessary. Marlowe, like many of his pulp detective peers, was a device to tell stories. With this character development, POODLE SPRINGS makes an interesting choice in how it portrays the subject of Marlowe’s investigation.

In both the novel and film, Marlowe is hired to track down Larry Victor (David Keith), a photographer married to the wealthy heiress Muffy Blackstone (Julia Campbell). Along the way, Marlowe uncovers a blackmail plot involving a series of pornographic pictures taken by Larry Victor. On top of it all, Marlowe discovers Larry’s other wife who is also oblivious to his bigamy.

The film manages to make the parallels between these two men clearer. Both are trying to balance a second life while married into wealth. The pair also prefers to live their lives in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. Marlowe must learn to grow by stopping a man who resembles his former self.

The Final Case

Poodle Springs
Dina Meyer and James Caan in POODLE SPRINGS (Courtesy of HBO Entertainment)

The film doesn’t really explore this dynamic much further. In fact, the POODLE SPRINGS film does away with Victor much faster than the novel does. For the rest of the film and the novel, POODLE SPRINGS feels a bit like a retread of THE BIG SLEEP. There’s the mentally unstable daughter of the power-mad millionaire. (Worth noting, Brian Cox nails his performance as Clayton Blackstone, a textbook Marlowe villain archetype.) All of it culminates in a blackmail plot that ends in a shootout. Marlowe, as he often is, leaves behind a trail of bodies.

It all feels very familiar with one major difference. After their spat, Laura returns to Marlowe’s office. She has rejected the world of wealth to live a life of simplicity with the man she loves. Finally, after all his battles and losses, Marlowe gets a happy ending. Is it what Chandler would have wanted? Only he knows for sure. But the ending feels like the proper conclusion to the adventures of the world-weary detective and the incredible author who gave him life.

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