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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Marlowe at the Movies (originally published 7/98)

Over 25 years ago, James Caan played Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972), a tough guy if ever there was one. Although he has not particularly made a specialty of it, over the years Caan has played other similarly hardboiled characters. Now, with over three decades' worth of excellent film performances under his belt, Caan is ready to tackle the Mount Everest of tough guy roles: Philip Marlowe. Caan will play Raymond Chandler's wisecracking, world-weary private eye in this month's HBO presentation, "Poodle Springs," based on the uncompleted Marlowe novel that Chandler was working on when he died. In addition to being a challenging role in its own right, the role of Marlowe places any actor who plays the part in the shadow of some truly distinguished past performances. For a sampling of the gumshoes Caan will be trying to fill, look for these classic Marlowe portrayals on video.

"Murder, My Sweet" (1944). The first screen Marlowe was also the unlikeliest. Dick Powell was a singer and bandleader whose most significant screen roles had been in Busby Berkeley musicals, hoofing it opposite the likes of Ruby Keeler. Then, in a remarkable career turnaround, he took on the role of Chandler's prototypical hardboiled private eye. The result was so successful that Powell continued playing tough guys for the remainder of his acting career before moving behind the camera as a director and producer.

"The Big Sleep" (1946). Having scored a success as Dashiell Hammett's best known gumshoe character, Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), it was only natural for Humphrey Bogart to take his turn at playing Marlowe. Like Powell, Bogart particularly excelled at delivering the nonstop barrage of wisecracks that are a defining part of Marlowe's character. His banter here is all the more lively because the main object of his verbal barbs is played by Lauren Bacall, who can give as good as she gets.

"Lady in the Lake" (1946). Although Robert Montgomery plays Marlowe, the lead role, just about every other actor in the film has more screen time. That's because the film was built around the gimmick of making the camera totally subjective. The main storyline is seen entirely from Marlowe's viewpoint, the camera, in effect, being his eyes. And since Marlowe only sees himself when he occasionally passes a mirror, Montgomery is seen only fleetingly in a movie in which he is the star. Don't feel too badly for him, though - he also directed the picture.

"Marlowe" (1969). In an adaptation of Chandler's novel "The Little Sister," James Garner creates a Marlowe who is a bit more relaxed than the deeply cynical gumshoe Chandler originally created. Think Jim Rockford, only slightly edgier. As always, Garner turns in a solid performance, but the most memorable scene in the movie belongs to a young and very dynamic Bruce Lee.

"The Long Goodbye" (1973). In adapting this Marlowe story, director Robert Altman brought a revisionist perspective to the hardboiled detective genre, deliberately playing against its accepted conventions. Instead of playing up Marlowe's existential angst as most filmmakers had, Altman asked Elliott Gould to play Marlowe as a man who saw the world as an existential joke. Whereas Chandler's Marlowe seems to pride himself on always knowing what to do or say next, Gould's character is a bit of a bumbler, perpetually bewildered and yet taking it all in stride. No matter how outlandish the situation, this Marlowe just shrugs and mumbles, "It's okay with me."

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1975). Up until the mid-seventies, I wondered why Robert Mitchum had never had a crack at playing Marlowe. Then, surprisingly, he did, in this remake of "Murder, My Sweet." Strictly speaking, Mitchum was by then too old for the part, but even that seemed to work for him. Marlowe's world-weariness was etched deeply into Mitchum's face even before the cameras turned. By the end of the picture, I was having trouble remembering anyone else's version of Marlowe.

All in all, the movies have done very well by Marlowe. He has been played by some of the finest actors in the business at the peak of their abilities. Also, he has been interpreted in a wide range of ways, as befits such a complex character. I have no doubt that Caan, who comes to the role as a seasoned pro like Mitchum did, will carry on the tradition adroitly and with style.

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