Come Into My Boudoir

Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler’s laconic, supremely pessimistic Philip Marlowe is a cultural icon. It’s been close to 30 years since he was portrayed in a major American motion picture and nearly that long since he’s appeared on television, but detective noir still casts a long shadow over American culture, and despite the existence of more ’pure’ portrayals of the type in characters like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, when most people think of the hardboiled detective, who they are thinking of is Philip Marlowe.

Beyond that, they are thinking of one portrayal of Philip Marlowe: the one delivered by Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 Howard Hawks classic, The Big Sleep. Indeed, you can make an argument that the mental image that most of us carry around in our heads attached to the words “noir” and “detective” is that of an amalgam of three Bogart performances: his Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (though this was arguably not a true noir film), his Rick Blaine in Casablanca (though this was certainly not a detective movie) and his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (though this was not Chandler’s, nor many critics’, preferred depiction of the character). It is in these flawed performances, none of them ideal as the conception of a noir detective, that we formulate our common shorthand for what we mean when we talk about the genre, as uniquely a part of American cinema as the Western. Hardboiled private eyes in any conception — homage, parody, post-modernist revisionism — always refer back to the trenchcoat, the insouciant manner, the snappy patter, the world-weary façade, of this Holy Trinity.

There have been other Marlowes, of course; there have even been other Big Sleeps. The 1978 adaptation had the raw materials of greatness; Robert Mitchum, a tremendously gifted actor who had played Marlowe before, certainly had the chops to carry off the job. He’d already played Jeff Bailey, in many ways the quintessential noir detective, in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic Out of the Past. His slouching, insolent, ever-so-slightly criminal demeanor should have been perfect for Chandler’s Marlowe, a man who’d been fired from the district attorney’s office for insubordination and who shared his author’s deep distrust of the police. But the film was in almost every way a botch-job: Mitchum was too old, too tired, and too long in the tooth to portray any Marlowe but that of Playback; the supporting cast wasted good actors like Jimmy Stewart and Oliver Reed, and leaned on bad ones like Joan Collins and Candy Clark; and the action was removed to London, which, given the enormous degree to which Chandler made Los Angeles a character in his fiction, was tantamount to setting Ulysses in Rio.

Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet was Chandler’s favorite, perhaps because he most resembled the Marlowe of the books (who, by no coincidence, was a sometimes-fussy, hard-drinking, pipe-smoking, weak-chinned man like his author), but he failed to resonate with a large audience, who still saw him as a teen idol, a crooner, a nebbish. James Garner, who played Marlowe in 1969’s film of the same name, used the role as a sort of screen test for The Rockford Files, making the private dick a tad too breezy, infusing him with whimsy rather than cynicism; despite a game effort and a Stirling Silliphant screenplay that tried harder than the rest of the film, Marlowe is today remembered largely for the scene in which a young and not-yet-famous Bruce Lee demolishes Garner’s office. Elliott Gould’s take on the character in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye — probably the definitive Philip Marlowe novel, despite the greater fame of The Big Sleep — has its vociferous defenders and its bloodthirsty attackers. But regardless of what camp you fall into, the shlemiel played by Gould in a contemporary L.A. isn’t really a Raymond Chandler character; he’s a Robert Altman character, and should be approached as such.

Powers Boothe, before his reinvention as a rampaging misogynist monster on Deadwood, tried to shake his youthful pretty-boy image by taking on Marlowe in a weekly TV series in 1984, and actually did pretty well, giving the character a distinctive look and doing a surprisingly fine job at handling the biting, anticipatory dialogue the character must possess. Unfortunately, he was betrayed by bad co-stars and worse scripts. The same fate befell Van Heflin, who portrayed Marlowe on the radio (but never got a chance to do so in film, robbing us of what could have been an interesting take on the character) before being replaced by Gerald Mohr, whose generic action-hero take on the detective matched the bland, one-size-fits-all crime-drama scripts he was usually handed. The less said about James Caan’s portrayal of the character in the 1998 TV movie Poodle Springs the better; it wasn’t a real Chandler novel — having been unfinished at the writer’s death — and he wasn’t a real Marlowe, apparently mistaking the detective for a coked-up mobster. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Tomás Hanák’s take on the character in the 2003 Czech production of Mazaný Filip, though the IMDB user comments describe it as “a great movie with hundreds remarkable mots” and “undoubtedly one of the best Czech movies of the last time,” so maybe I’m really missing something. At any rate, in the end, we’re left with Bogart, only Bogart.

Much has been made of the labyrinthine complexity of the plot of The Big Sleep; according to the famous anecdote (reported by some as apocryphal and others as God’s truth), Bogart and Hawks got to arguing over the party responsible for the death of the Sternwoods’ driver, Owen Taylor, and sent a telegram to Chandler requesting clarification. Chandler seemed equally bewildered, wiring back the response, “Damned if I know!” This violation of the rules of detective fiction — that the reader/viewer should always have a chance to figure out who done it — is the least adhered to by the most skilled of its practitioners, and Chandler was always less concerned with watertight plots and intricate story construction than he was with giving life, in his books, to the astounding, insane characters who populated his loved and hated Los Angeles, and with finding a way to express his often confused and ambivalent feelings about life by the meticulous building and tearing apart of the English language. In this, he found a perfect mirror in the man hired to doctor the script turned in by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. William Faulkner was also an American original, always willing to subsume plot and story to the perfect turn of phrase and the exact right description of place; his Yoknapatawpha County is as fully realized and fantastic a setting as Chandler’s Los Angeles, and as equally populated by savages, buffoons, decaying aristocrats, brutes and lunatics. It is Chandler who gave us the brain and body of the Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep, but it is William Faulkner who dressed him and sent him on his way.

There are marked, if not vast, differences between the Marlowe of the book and the Marlowe of the film. Chandler’s Marlowe is diffident around women, always a keen appraiser of their charms and their quirks but never fool enough to completely play the chump for the femmes fatale that doom so many other noir heroes. He resembles a man who knows everything there is to know about wine, but never touches a drop himself; when he finally marries (Linda Loring, from The Long Goodbye, in the unfinished Poodle Springs) it is less out of reeling passion than aging resignation and the sense that marrying is just one of those things you have to do sometimes. The Marlowe of The Big Sleep, by contrast, is nearly a feral animal, perpetually in heat, at whom women throw themselves after hardly a glance. Part of this can be explained by the addition of the fiery, dazzling dialogue between Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Sternwood, added in post-production to capitalize on the raging success of 1944’s To Have and Have Not; but it does nothing to explain the interlude with the bombshell bookshop clerk Marlowe plainly seduces and abandons with a wry pull of Bogart’s eternally sneering upper lip. This certainly isn’t the Marlowe of Chandler, but it’s very likely the Marlowe of Faulkner, who found the perfect vehicle to carry around his own dream-conception of himself as delightfully inebriated, roguish lover.

Likewise, director Howard Hawks brought his own sensibility to the character, coating him with a disreputable veneer of the brusque, supremely competent professionalism he valued in his characters. Even the lowlife, scheming gambler Eddie Mars attains a sheen of curt capability in the film, and Marlowe himself is elevated from the cool customer of the books, always one vitally necessary step ahead of the police and the predators, to something like a human shark, moving constantly and waiting for something to slow down long enough to eat. Chandler’s Marlowe is sometimes slowed and often beaten, but never bested, getting over through hard-earned insight and bastardly determination; Hawks turns him into a consummate pro. When he growls to an armed thug that he’s “the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think that a gat in the hand means the world by the tail,” it’s the voice of a man who knows exactly how the movie is going to end.

The concatenation of Chandler, Faulkner and Hawks provided more than enough alchemy to make The Big Sleep a great movie. There were plenty of other important elements put into the crucible, as well. The filmmakers — from Hawks (and his skilled editor, Christian Nyby) to the screenwriters to producer Jack Warner to underrated cinematographer Sid Hickox and art director Carl Jules Weyl — truly understood how important Los Angeles was to Chandler’s vision, and acted accordingly. Even though the film is a thing of soundstages and sets, it’s one that palpably conjures Chandler’s vision of L.A., from the quiet suburban streets in the Valley that house Arthur Gwynn Geiger’s rare bookstore and vice-soaked home (“Chinese” in style, the code used to get past the censors the fact that Geiger was a pornographer) to General Sternwood’s opulent, overheated mansion in the Hills to the gambling dens in the nightclub district. There’s hardly a dud in the entire supporting cast, from Martha Vickers’ giggling, sociopathic Carmen Sternwood (who Chandler claimed so upstaged Lauren Bacall that most of her scenes were cut so as to not make the superstar look bad) to Charles D. Brown as the General’s butler, Norris (probably the only character in all of Chandler’s novels who actually out-cynics Philip Marlowe).

But the fire that fuses every element together is Humphrey Bogart. There are other Philip Marlowes, and there are other noir detectives played by him, but none of them are as exact, as pinpoint, as completely whole as the Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep. His Rick Blaine was a betrayed romantic turned nihilist, far worse — and far better — than a mere cynic; his Sam Spade felt too deeply, angered too easily, and ultimately played by rules he didn’t even believe in. But his Philip Marlowe was pitch-perfect at every turn, from the way he stood to the way he talked to the way he made love. He drank the right way, he wore the right clothes, and he said the right things always at the right time: even when he smiled, there was everything of Philip Marlowe’s past and future in that smile, every bit of insubordination, distrust, doom, wisdom, pleasure and sheer joy at getting over. Bogart’s Marlowe said “I don’t know yet what I’m going to tell them, but it’ll be pretty close to the truth,” and we knew exactly what he meant: he wasn’t lying out of any loyalty to his client or determination to do the right thing, but because it amused him to lie to the police just long enough to figure out for himself what was going on. There’s a moment in the very first scene of The Big Sleep where Carmen Sternwood is trying to do to Marlowe what she presumably does with every other man she meets: toy with him like a cat does a gut-torn rat. Marlowe is having none of it, and strings her along until she gets tired of it. Turning herself into the cut of his suit in a way that every man in the audience can feel in his pocket, she mumbles, “You’re making fun of me.” It’s the kind of a moment that turned Walter Neff into a murderer; even Bogie’s Sam Spade would have fallen for it, though he would have known it was just an act. But Philip Marlowe — the misanthropic, wary Marlowe of Chandler; the self-possessed, imperturbable Marlowe of Hawks; the smart, raffish Marlowe of Faulkner; but most of all, the cunning, audacious Marlowe of Bogart — simply looks down, gives a knowing twist to his grin, and says, “Uh huh.”

Rumor has it that Clive Owen is taking on the role of Philip Marlowe in a upcoming film. Owen is a terrific actor, possessed of many of the same unflappable, deeply held convictions and habits that made Bogart so charismatic despite his notable lack of matinee-idol good looks. But Clive Owen is just one man. The Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep was five: the man himself, the sly Englishman who created him, the dissipated southerner who redefined him, the demanding Midwesterner who envisioned him, and the supremely cool New Yorker who brought him to life. Each of them had a part in the unique and timely combination of talents that came together to create an imperishable American icon. Philip Marlowe was forever alone on his cases, a questing beast tilting for pocket change, but behind him were four Titans of myth at the peak of their powers. There’s a moment in the shooting script, cut from the finished film, where Vivian Sternwood first confesses her growing admiration for the relentless detective; “I like you, ” she says. “You believe in miracles. ” To which Marlowe — a man who believes in next to nothing — gives his version of a daily affirmation: “I believe in people believing they're smarter than they are — if that’s a miracle. ” It’s not. But The Big Sleep, and Bogart’s Marlowe, who vivifies every scene, sure as hell is.