Thursday, May 4, 2017

James Garner Makes a Fine Marlowe

Garner as Chandler's detective.
Having consumed the Philip Marlowe novels as a teenager, I'm typically hard on the film adaptations of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective. The only one that truly captures Chandler's cynical protagonist and his unflattering portrait of L.A. is Murder, My Sweet. That 1944 version of the novel Farewell, My Lovely holds up well thanks to Dick Powell's sharp performance and Edward Dmytryk's moody direction. My choice for runner-up, Marlowe (1969), may be a surprise, certainly for fans that prefer the more conventional Big Sleep (1946).

At first blush, James Garner may not seem like the ideal Philip Marlowe. But in screenwriter Stirling Silliphant's update of Chandler's The Little Sister (1949), Garner channels his dry wit into an enjoyable, effective performance. It's just a shame that the producers selected one of the lesser Marlowe novels for their movie.

Marlowe's client is Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), a naive young woman from rural Kansas who is searching for her missing brother Orrin. Marlowe tracks the latter to a seedy seaside hotel, but learns his quarry has departed--and the desk clerk has been murdered with an ice pick. When Marlowe later follows up on another lead, he discovers a second body stabbed with an ice pick. Before the police appear on the scene, the detective searches the room and finds a film processing ticket under the dead man's toupee.

Garner and Gayle Hunnicut.
The photographs show television sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicut) in a compromising position with gangster Sonny Steelgrave. Marlowe suspects blackmail and soon finds himself immersed in a web of deceit, greed, and jealousy.

Raymond Chandler's intricate plotting is one of his trademarks. In fact, in the Marlowe novels, he often integrated the plots of some of his earlier short stories. Personally, I find Chandler's complex mysteries easier to follow in print than on film. In Marlowe, Silliphant remains faithful to Chandler novel, but has trouble tying up all the loose ends. The conclusion, in particular, is messy, though male fans can at least find solace in a tasteful Rita Moreno striptease.

Bruce Lee destroys Marlowe's office.
Still, there's much to like in Marlowe, from Garner's strong performance to the ease with which Silliphant has transplanted the character to the late 1960s. One of the film's highlights is Bruce Lee's supporting turn as one of Steelgrave's henchman. He first visits Marlowe's office to offer the private eye money to back off from Mavis. When Marlowe refuses, Lee's baddie displays his impressive martial arts skills by smashing up the detective's office. Later, the two have another entertaining (though too short) encounter on a rooftop.

It's a shame that Garner wasn't cast in additional Marlowe movies. I would have especially liked to have see him in an adaptation of The Lady in the Lake, my favorite Marlowe novel, which has only been filmed once (as Robert Montgomery's gimmicky first-person Lady in the Lake). Of course, Garner later channeled some of his Marlowe persona into a TV detective named Jim Rockford. That turned out pretty well for him.


  1. Never could connect Marlowe to Garner - too boyish, even in middle age. David Janssen, OTOH...

    Liam Neeson's taking the role in The Black-Eyed Blonde, a very good if too "meta" patische.

    1. I'm a David Janssen fan, but can't see him as Marlowe nor Liam Neeson for that matter. Of course, who would have thunk that Dick Powell coulda nailed the role?

    2. Think there's more Marlowe in Harry O than in Rockford. Particularly in the first Harry O movie pilot, where he plays it "tougher".

  2. Great read. I enjoyed Garner's turn in the picture and, like you, would have been happy to see them select another of the novels.

    PS: It doesn't hurt that today I am attired in my Bruce Lee t-shirt, a comfortable alternative to caftans.

    1. Bruce Lee is a lot of fun in MARLOWE and his screen time is too brief. Stirling Silliphant became one of his students.

  3. Haha! I like your understated conclusion, about how Garner's Rockford Files character did rather well for him.

    I never would have considered Garner for a Marlowe role, but in reading your analysis, it sounds like a great fit. I am not familiar with this one – either the book or the film – and I'm looking forward to checking it out. Thanks!

    P.S. I agree re: Raymond Chandler's writing. I haven't read many of his books, but I love, LOVE his writing style.

  4. Good read, Rick! I was floored when I first saw amiable Dick Powell claim the role of Marlowe. He was perfect! And James Garner did a solid turn. I have truly come to enjoy Garner's diverse performances very much.

  5. Garner makes a fine Marlowe, anyone who can't see that has his own animus to deal with. Dick Powell, the music hall star may seem an odd choice, but those of us from the early 50s were brought up on "The Dick Powell Theatre"

    Check out this trailer