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The Big Sleep

CritiqueQuotes • Marlowe at the movies

1942, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1969, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1998, 2022

The Big SleepFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literary form

Literary, crime, mystery

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 72,000 words

Marlowe scene
Philip Marlowe is updated to the late 1960s in film titled with his surname.

New-style Marlowe

Marlowe (1969): Film, 96 minutes; director Paul Bogart; writer Stirling Silliphant; featuring James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O'Connor, Rita Moreno

We went through the 1950s and most of the sixties without any major film adaptations of Raymond Chandler's works, because, I suspect, the hard-bitten private eyes of the film noir period, like Philip Marlowe, seemed relics of the past in the Technicolor era. This was soon to change.

I also suspect the makers of 1969's Marlowe had seen and were encouraged by the successful Harper a few years earlier. Harper featured Paul Newman as a self-described "new type" of detective, based on Lew Archer in the novels of Ross Macdonald, who was himself considered the inheritor of the Hammett-Chandler hardboiled legacy.

James Garner as Marlowe
James Garner as Marlowe.

Marlowe is really an adaptation of Chandler's fifth novel, The Little Sister, and the plot—even much of the dialogue—is surprisingly close to the original text. It's surprising because the Los Angeles setting has been updated to the late 1960s, complete with hippies, swinging fashions and new recreational drugs—although we do get flashes of the older LA in some of the props and in Marlowe's hole-in-wall office.

The biggest update though is the casting of James Garner as a more laidback, laconic, womanizing Marlowe than Bogart, Powell or Montgomery had ever portrayed. Neater too.

At first, he seems too handsome and clean-cut a guy to walk (or, this time around, mainly drive) Chandler's mean streets. But the self-deprecating Garner charm grows on you. More to the point, you may begin to realize, when you set aside previous screen incarnations of Marlowe, this fellow may actually be closer to the character plying his craft in the novels—at least in the early and middle-period Chandler works.

He's cynical about the process—and some of his quips with both police and thugs are some of the sharpest in the canon ("I'm a trained investigator," he tells cops to explain how he knows something they don't). But he's got a heart of gold, trying to help his clients even after they fire him and help victims even after they backstab him.

The movie was criticized at the time for having a wandering plot and narrative non-sequiturs, as if critics forgot that even in the heyday of Marlowe in the 1940s the whodunit aspects of the films were similarly confused. It was the leading characters in wonderful scenes of understated emotional conflict that carried those movies, as many of the scenes in this instalment do, written by Oscar-winning veteran Stirling Silliphant. Marlowe's dances with the police (especially detectives played by Carroll O'Connor and Fred Tobey), gangsters, and women (especially Rita Moreno, Gayle Hunnicutt and Sharon Ferrell) are memorable.

As is an encounter with an unusual thug for the time: martial arts expert Winslow Wong, played by no less than Bruce Lee in his first big movie after breaking out in TV's Green Hornet series. Wong takes apart Marlowe's office with feet and hands, concluding with a sensational over-the-head kick to take out the light fixture. Marlowe gets his own back later in a somewhat incredible but entertaining fashion.

The James Garner and Bruce Lee scenes in 1969's Marlowe.

If Marlowe disappoints at all, it is because it is neither a complete throwback to the noir era nor a complete re-imagining of the character. Films in the next decade would explore both of those approaches to greater acclaim.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Marlowe at the movies

1942, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1969, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1998, 2022