Will a New Philip Marlowe Novel Bring the Legendary Private Eye Back to the Movies?

Will a New Philip Marlowe Novel Bring the Legendary Private Eye Back to the Movies?
The deadly little sister: Humphrey Bogart and Martha Vickers in Howard Hawks's “The Big Sleep”
(1946 – Warner Bros.)

When it comes to his movie career, is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe sleeping the big sleep? Or is there a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit one that’s no bigger than the glow on a dead man’s stogie?

Back in 2007, it was announced by Variety that the comic-book novelist Frank Miller (“Sin City”) would write and direct an adaptation of Chandler’s never-filmed novella “Trouble Is My Business,” to star Clive Owen as the most iconic hard-boiled private eye to have emerged from the golden age of pulp fiction. It was to be the first of several new Marlowe outings shepherded by Miller, which may have also included “The Big Sleep” and “Farewell, My Lovely.” Nothing has been heard of the project since. 

However, the news, reported in the New York Times, that the Irish novelist John Banville has been authorized by the Chandler estate to write a fresh Marlowe novel inevitably revitalizes the possibility that the principled but jaded gumshoe could eventually return to the screen. The novel will be published by Henry Holt & Company in 2013.

Banville, 66, is the author of the Man Booker Prize-winning “The Sea.” He has also written, under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, five novels featuring the hard-drinking Dublin pathologist Quirke, including the newly published “Venegeance,” and these align him with Chandler. The new Marlowe novel will appear under the Benjamin Black rubric.

According to benjaminblackbooks.com, Banville will bring back Marlowe’s on-and-off-again policeman friend Bernie Ohls, and the book will take place in 1940s Bay City (Chandler’s fictional version of the sleazy Santa Monica of the time) and will “feature Chandler’s hallmark noir ambience.”

“I love the challenge of following in the very large footsteps of Raymond Chandler,” Banville said. “I began reading Chandler as a teenager, and frequently return to the novels. This idea has been germinating for several years and I relish the prospect of setting a book in Marlowe’s California, which I always think of in terms of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Bay City will have a slightly surreal, or hyper-real, atmosphere that I look forward to creating.”

If or when Banville’s book gets made into a movie, it would mark the first Marlowe appearance on screen since Tomás Hanák played a version of him in 2003’s “Smart Philip,” which was never released outside Eastern Europe. (A 2007 ABC/Touchstone series called “Marlowe” was apparently filmed but never broadcast.) The previous American incarnation of Marlowe was by James Caan in HBO’s “Poodle Springs,” based on the novel begun by Chandler in 1958 and completed in 1989, 30 years after his death, by Robert B. Parker, who like Banville had the backing of the Chandler estate.

Dealing with Marlowe’s life as a newlywed, the finished novel was weak, there being a disjunction between the four decent chapters Chandler wrote and those written by Parker. Parker’s 1991 followup, “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to “The Big Sleep,” was equally lackluster, failing Chandler it its lack of psychological depth. However, in the “Poodle Springs” movie, which was set in 1963, Caan was convincing as an older, warier Marlowe than had hitherto been seen.

Just as Banville will have to follow in “very large footsteps” in taking up Chandler’s typewriter and the existential drift of his Marlowe stories, so would any actor following Humphrey Bogart, who played the definitive Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946), Howard Hawks’s supreme blend of film noir and screwball comedy. Notwithstanding that Chandler’s choice was Cary Grant, Bogart aced Marlowe’s imperturbability, his low-key wisecracking, his handling of the psychopathic Carmen Sternwood (played by Martha Vickers, who outshone Lauren Bacall as her older sister Vivian), and his dealings with the array of criminals and lowlifes (foremost among them Elisha Cook Jr.’s doughty little Harry Jones).

Elliott Gould’s shabby, Rip Van Winkle-shaded Marlowe (Elliott Gould), set adrift in hippie-era L.A., has his own integrity and cool in Robert Altman’s revisionist “The Long Goodbye” (1973). Robert Mitchum was the world-weariest of all the Marlowes opposite Charlotte Rampling’s femme fatale in Dick Richards’s neo-noir “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), but Mitchum should never have succumbed to Michael Winner’s dreadful British remake of “The Big Sleep” (1978).

The other Marlowes have largely disappointed. Robert Montgomery was terse and masculine enough when he directed himself in “The Lady in the Lake” (1947), but the movie was overawed by its use of the subjective camera. Dick Powell wore toughness on his sleeve in Robert Sidomak’s “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), the first Marlowe film and the one that hews closest to classic noir atmospherics. George Montgomery (1947’s “The Brasher Doubloon,” based on Chandler’s “The High Window”), James Garner (1969’s “Marlowe,” based on Chandler’s “The Little Sister”), and Powers Boothe (HBO’s 1983-86 series) all played Marlowe without nuance. Danny Glover was a solid Marlowe in Showtime’s “Red Wind” (1995), but the casting of an African-American suggested the influence of Walter Mosley’s “Easy” Rawlins.

The Banville assignment is auspicious, both for Chandlerians and, hopefully, the movies. There’s a topical resonance in a cynic “who is neither tarnished nor afraid” walking those 1940s mean streets in the shadow of the soulless early 2010s – could Clive Owen clear his calendar for the next few years, please?

Below: the trailer for Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" - Marlowe redux