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. We take a look at a big one this month. Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP starring the iconic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

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Who is Philip Marlowe? In last month’s look at FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, we looked at how Chandler’s crime fiction ethos molded the detective. This month, I want to explore the first Marlowe novel and possibly most iconic Marlowe film: THE BIG SLEEP

Before the publication of The Big Sleep, Marlowe had existed in a larval form in a number of short stories written by Raymond Chandler. Initially, Chandler wrote several short stories with various detectives who he later renamed Marlowe for publication. It wasn’t until The Big Sleep that Chandler wrote a piece which was specifically intended to be about Marlowe.

The Detective Begins

The Big Sleep

As such, there really isn’t an “origin story” for Philip Marlowe. The fact that one doesn’t exist is somewhat shocking. Even John McClane is getting a “year one” story. The closest thing we get to Marlowe’s origins is this exchange:

General Sternwood: You didn’t like working for the district attorney, eh?

Marlowe: I was fired for insubordination. I seem to rank pretty high on that.

Perhaps this is for the best. Part of what makes Marlowe a great character is his malleability. Characters like Sherlock Holmes can be too precious to fans. His endless list of specific character quirks means that every interpretation of Holmes will have recognizable traits. Even versions of Holmes that purport to be drastic departures, like Guy Ritchie’s films, still have the recognizable DNA of every Holmes before him. Marlowe doesn’t change that wildly from adaptation to adaptation. Each actor who plays Marlowe brings their natural characteristics to the part. 

Raymond Chandler is one of the great American novelists, but the man could never put together a straightforward mystery. Every Chandler mystery is a spider-web of twists and reversals. Marlowe is one man trying to unravel the Gordian knot of L.A.’s underworld. Therefore, whoever plays Marlowe must be able to carry the audience through a mystery they’re never meant to solve. James Garner’s shaggy underdog qualities were perfect for Marlowe’s first post-modern outing. Danny Glover’s fatherly warmth aptly suited the kinder Marlowe of RED WIND.

Now we come to Humphrey Bogart.

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Bogart’s Star Rising

The Big Sleep

Three years before the release of THE BIG SLEEP, Humphrey Bogart stars in the unquestionable classic CASABLANCA, and his Star never goes out. Granted, Bogart had played another famous detective five years earlier: Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. However, this can hardly be called a case of typecasting. Bogart plays Marlowe like a maestro plays a Stradivarius.

Marlowe is a character who is a human shrug at a chaotic universe. Bogart’s world-weary eyes suggest a man who has seen it all. He doesn’t care about wanting everyone to know he’s the smartest guy in the room because he already knows that he is, and that’s enough.

It helps that Bogart has a terrific scene partner in the form of his wife, Lauren Bacall. Bacall plays Vivian Rutledge, daughter of Marlowe’s new client General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Bacall and Bogart were such beloved stars that the novel’s ending was drastically changed to give the two characters a more romantic ending.

Truth and Authenticity

Book purists might be outraged by changes like this, but the verbal sparring between Bogie and Bacall is an electric jolt to the film every scene they’re in together. In his essay on the film, Roger Ebert said: “…the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results”. The key words being the process. Ultimately who killed who or why someone was blackmailing someone else is secondary to watching the tête-à-tête between Marlowe and Vivian. Or watching Marlowe belittle and outsmart all the goons who confront him throughout the film.

The movie star titans of the golden age of Hollywood are very different artists from the contemporary actors of today. Actors like Bogart and Bacall, or John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Rita Hayworth injected their characters with their inborn charisma. Their characters were often extensions of themselves. True, there are examples of each of these actors playing against type, but rarely did they break the public perception of who they were to moviegoers.

Modern acting often focuses on a performer moving as far away from their true selves as possible. These actors seek authenticity in performance through transformation. Many actors of classic cinema sought out the truth of the characters by connecting their on-screen personas with the material.

When you look at the types of characters Humphrey Bogart played, Bogart as Marlowe seemed like an inevitability. Bogart’s quick wit and stern countenance defined Marlowe in the public mind almost as much as Chandler’s writing. Many actors would play Marlowe in the years to come, but none had the star power of Bogart.  

A Knight in Cynic’s Armor

The Big Sleep

THE BIG SLEEP defines a key element of Marlowe’s character: his relative moral code. Characters like Sherlock Holmes try to solve a mystery because they believe in the sense of duty to the law. Marlowe, on the other hand, often follows his own brand of justice. Why he feels this way is never clear. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in his response to General Sternwood’s question. Marlowe is insubordinate. Not necessarily because he always believes he’s right, but because he believes his way is better.

There’s a selfishness to Marlowe, but a romanticism too. The latter is especially present in Hollywood’s adaptations of Marlowe. This version of the great detective nearly always falls in love and waltzes off into the neon L.A. city lights with a dame on his arm. Chandler had a less generous view of the world. His version of Marlowe was one who often walked away from a fight with nothing but his principles.

In this novel, Marlowe finds himself trying to control the walking garbage fire that is Carmen Sternwood. The woman finds herself at the mercy of numerous criminal stooges, from gangsters to pornographers. Each time Marlowe bails her out of trouble. Despite the increasing evidence of her instability, he protects her and watches out for her. Marlowe recognizes that the evil of the men taking advantage of Carmen are far more dangerous than a scared, spoiled girl. Marlowe makes his judgments without consideration of the rule of law, but by his own understanding of right and wrong.

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THE BIG SLEEP and the Rude Awakening

In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe wraps up the mystery of who is blackmailing the Sternwood sisters fairly quickly. However, he’s left with the pressing concerns of the disappearance of Sean Regan, the Sternwood, family friend. There’s nothing particularly important or special about Regan, and yet his disappearance gets stuck in Marlowe’s brain. Despite all threats warning him away, Marlowe runs headfirst into danger simply to ensure the well-being of a man he barely knew.

Ultimately, his search for Sean Regan proves unsatisfying for Marlowe. He learns that Carmen Sternwood did the deed as retribution for a romantic sleight. What primarily separates the end of the novel and the film is how things end for Marlowe. In the novel, Marlowe ends up at the whims of the Sternwood sisters, unable to do anything against the power of their wealth. In the film, Marlowe earns a happy ending by pinning the death of Regan and winning the heart of Vivian. A recurring theme in many of these early Marlowe films is the romantic ending. Chandler was never so sentimental as to give Marlowe a romantic reward for his deeds.

Philip Marlowe is a quintessentially modern American hero. He’s cynical but hopeful. He’s not the first to start a fight but is often the one to finish it. He seems to have had sentimentality removed, but in those quiet, desperate moments, he allows it to engulf him. It seems appropriate that such an iconic American actor like Bogart would embody Marlowe. The two are inextricably linked to the evolving American myth. The city is no place for cowboys. It takes someone with a more flexible moral code to stand against the underbelly of the industrialized world.

A Detective Defined

So who is Philip Marlowe? Perhaps the best way to define Marlowe is to look at his final words in the novel. Chandler crafts a Hamlet-esque meditation on life and death that characterizes who Marlowe is for the novels to come:

“Where did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty slump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”

Marlowe is a man who knows his place in the world but won’t stop fighting to clean up even a little bit of the nastiness around him.

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Next Case: We take a look at two remakes: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and THE BIG SLEEP (1978). Both of which star Robert Mitchum, the only actor to play Philip Marlowe more than once on the big screen.

One Comment

  1. Leslie S Klinger

    January 1, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Chandler wasn’t fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories (he dismissed Holmes as a few good lines and an attitude) but when you carefully examine his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he outlines the principal characteristics of his ideal man who walks the mean streets, Holmes fits those criteria very neatly. I wrote an essay on this that’s in my newest book “Baker Street Reveries.” In short, while Chandler wanted to distance himself from Doyle’s approach, their ideal detectives have a great deal in common.


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