Department of Theatre and Film
The Three Faces of Marlowe
The Crooner, The Gangster, The Playboy
By Sara Lawrence
|When you bring up the word detectives, certain classic names come to mind: Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, and Sam Spade. Then there is, of course, Philip Marlowe. The name Marlowe is one of the iconoclastic names that is directly attributed to and stems from Film Noir. The name, Borne in the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, first came to the screen in the 1944 film, Murder, My Sweet (aka Farewell My Lovely) starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe. Often, attributed as one of the first and most definitive Film Noir masterpieces, Murder, My Sweet established Philip Marlowe as the quintessential hardboiled detective of Noir. However, it is the name Bogart that constructed the image of the noir detective.|
With his ever-present cigarette hanging out of his mouth, trench coat, fedora tilted to one side, tough-guy mannerisms, and isolated lifestyle, Bogart’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941) defined the standard of the Film Noir detective which was often imitated in other Film Noir movies. His aloof, cold mannerisms and standoffishness characterized him as a lone wolf on the silver screen. An independent man, who needed no one, and asked for nothing. The Film Noir detective became the image that most would identify as the hero of the 1940s.
Through Raymond Chandler’s first conception of Philip Marlowe in the novel The Big Sleep (1939), Marlowe has become a universal figure, extending beyond the medium of film, appearing also on radio and television. From the first conceptualization, the character of Marlowe has always worked outside of the law. At times, he may swap information with the police, but Marlowe is always one-step ahead of them, and it is Marlowe, the private detective, who is the hero, not the police. Marlowe works, like many detectives of film noir, in Los Angeles. He is an alcoholic, and prefers the occasional company of a woman. Marlowe is always full of insults, wise-cracks, and sarcasm, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like ‘em myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings” (The Big Sleep, 1946). In short, he is not your typical good guy, but for some reason, in this short span of cinema history, he is everything that a leading man of film noir encompassed.
The first onscreen depiction of Philip Marlowe was by Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet (1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk. During the 1930’s, Dick Powell was one of the most successful and famous crooners on the silver screen. Powell appeared mostly in musicals such as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), 42nd Street (1933) and romantic comedies such as Hard to Get (1938). For the audience, Powell was probably the least likely candidate to debut the character of Philip Marlowe, but Powell delivers his role flawlessly, through his tough-guy mannerisms, his working outside of the law, and his not-so-good-guy ideal persona.
Like most film noir detective stories, the narrator in Murder My Sweet, Dick Powell, begins the story in voiceover recalling a case from the past. The police question Dick Powell about a double homicide. Powell, wearing a blindfold over his eyes, begins to illustrate what has happened to him and about the case to prove his innocence.
Humphrey Bogart delivers the most legendary depiction of the detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks. Bogart embodies the tough, hard-boiled detective cliché of film noir, as he should, since he was the same individual who created the image through his role in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart encompassed the character stereotype of the role completely. Most of Bogart’s former roles were closely linked to gangsters, villains, and tough guys. And with the role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon under his belt, Bogart was the perfect choice to play the tough detective in the next Marlow picture.
In the movie, Bogart’s character, Marlowe, is a heavy drinker and a slick talker; two aspects that Powell’s Marlowe did not handle as well. Bogart’s personal mannerisms provide an old crustiness and worn-out look to the character, which is a key to Marlowe’s persona. He brings sarcasm to Marlowe’s character in a very dry sort of humor, adding perfectly to the archetype of the hard-boiled detective.
In Lady in the Lake (1946), the last of the three Marlowe films that were made in 40’s film noir, Robert Montgomery takes over the identity of our hero. Robert Montgomery, before he started portraying a more cantankerous, man’s man type of character, was often portrayed in the role of the playboy and romantic love interest. He was one of Hollywood’s best-dressed and best-looking men of the 1930’s. As a result, he starred in films such as The Divorcee (1930), When Ladies Meet (1933), No More Ladies (1935), Petticoat Fever (1936), and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). The film, Lady in the Lake, both starring and directed by Montgomery, creates a new glimpse into the world of the detective. Instead of being narrated in a voice over by the detective, after the mystery has taken place, the story is presented through the eyes of the Marlowe character as the story unfolds. The only time the audience sees Marlowe’s (Montgomery) face, is when he looks at himself in the mirror.
Lady in the Lake, like the other two, has a plot full of dangerous twists and turns, confusing plot lines, and a number of murders. The leading lady, Audrey Totter, who is first seen as someone Marlowe cannot trust, turns out to be his love interest, and part time sidekick. By the end of the film, unlike The Big Sleep, the murders are solved. However, as almost all Hollywood movies of the 1940’s conclude, this film does not disappoint you either: the hero walks away with the girl, and the film leaves you with a happy ending.
The three portrayals of Marlowe are entirely different, given from three of the most dissimilar men you could dig up in Hollywood at the time. However, what each of the men bring is a fresh new look to Marlowe that seems to redefine the character each time he is presented on screen. Each actor is able to give something new and fresh to the portrayal of Marlowe, adding a new depth and dimension towards the perception of who this detective is. The crooner, the gangster, and the playboy, all add their small personal touch, merging the character into one, and also defining him separately for all future audiences and moviegoers to explore. Personally, the persona of Marlowe will forever be synonymous with the name Humphrey Bogart, but to watch these other two depictions helps to create a more solidifying portrait of who Marlowe is, and all that he encompasses. To me, the true nature of Marlowe is not defined from just one interpretation, but from all three that give the character a three-dimensional quality, rare in most movie representations. Marlowe is the film noir detective, everything that you look for and expect is found within him, and without him, the noir detective that we associate with today would simply not exist.