I was reading a lot of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler and going through a noir phase when I met my wife, and fortunately for me she likes film noir, too. We found imdb.com’s lists of noir movies and enjoyed finding the ones we hadn’t seen yet.
(Their list changes, however, as new votes are constantly tallied. For instance, the 1931 classic “M” was high on the list several years ago, but is gone from it now.)
I got interested in comparing Chandler’s novels to the movies — such as the very different endings The Big Sleep has on screen and on the page. After that we started looking at all the different actors who’ve played private eye Philip Marlowe.
Okay, “got interested” might be soft-pedaling it. I get a bit fixated on finding various performances; my wife is less inclined to list every actor who has ever played Chandler’s Marlowe in the movies, although she is happy to discuss the finer points of their work:
Humphrey Bogart The Big Sleep
Dick Powell Murder, My Sweet
Robert Montgomery Lady in the Lake
James Garner Marlowe
Elliott Gould The Long Goodbye
Robert Mitchum Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep
and Powers Booth as Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.
Dashiell Hammett described his Sam Spade as looking like a “blond Satan” (and described the satanic v’s of his brows, cheeks, and chin). It’s mildly ironic then that someone appearing so different became the quintessential Spade: Humphrey Bogart.
Marlowe, however, was never so completely epitomized by one actor. No one has captured Philip to the same degree, becoming the benchmark or signature version.
Boothe looks all right, but he’s over the top in trying to be hard-boiled. Mitchum has the right laconic attitude, but seems oversized for the role. Perhaps because his Marlowe was the first I saw, Bogart’s version “feels” right, although his mug is so distinctive that, when I read the books, I envision someone more average and nondescript in the role. Bogart’s face is so unique (especially his eyes and ears) he is iconically Bogie–not an ideal undercover guy.
Unlike many of my friends here in the Bay Area, I often agree with one of our local movie reviewers, Mick LaSalle. I liked his comment once that everyone in the noir world, good and bad, pays a price.
So I wrote to him and asked “Any thoughts on who did the best job as Philip Marlowe?”
He wrote back: “Of those, I’ve only seen MONTGOMERY and POWELL. I just like Montgomery in everything, but Powell is probably a better Marlowe.”
I registered surprised he hadn’t seen Bogart, and he replied, “… I’ve seen THE BIG SLEEP, so I guess I’d put Bogart as the best Marlowe that I’ve SEEN. I haven’t seen the Mitchum film.”
I stopped short of mailing him a DVD of Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely, but I do think he’s missing a great opportunity at a column, here.
Okay, so I’m compulsive, but it’s still an interesting question, no?