(Ed’s note: This is a longer post than usual, but really worth it. So go round up a cup of coffee and a cigarette… and dive in…)
Friend-of-the-Outfit JIM DOHERTY has served American law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels for over 15 years, policing jurisdictions from college campuses to military bases, inner city streets to suburban parks, and railroad depots to rural dirt roads. His collection of true crime articles, Just the Facts – True Tales of Cops & Criminals, was a Macavity nominee, and a chapter from the book, “Blood for Oil,” won the Western Writers Spur Award for Best Short Non-Fiction. Jim’s lectures on Chandler’s early work were published on the B&N website as the e-book Raymond Chandler – Master of American Noir. His short stories featuring cop Dan Sullivan have appeared in Writers’ Journal, Over My Dead Body!, and Blue Murder. His first, still unpublished novel, An Obscure Grave, was a finalist for the CWA’s Debut Dagger.
See if you can identify a particular fictional character from the following description:
-- An unmarried male
-- In his 30’s (at least when the series begins)
-- Who owns and operates his own one-man agency
-- And works out of a large American city
-- Telling his own stories in the first person
Yeah, you’re probably thinking, that’s a pretty good capsule description of Philip Marlowe. So what’s the point?
It’s also a pretty accurate description of 80-90% of all the hard-boiled private eye characters created since Marlowe. But why is that? Why is the archetype not Dashiell Hammett, who, for practical purposes, founded the hard-boiled school, but Chandler, the self-acknowledged Hammett disciple?
Talent? Perhaps. But a lot of people, including me, would give you an argument. After all, it’s Hammett, not Chandler, who wrote what is generally regarded as the best and most famous of all hard-boiled private eye novels, The Maltese Falcon.
Yet, when we think of a private eye, it’s not the operative of a large world-wide agency that comes to mind, nor even one half of a two-person partnership; it’s the lone wolf in his shabby office barely eking out a living. It’s not the spare, stripped-down third person style that we associate with the PI; rather it’s the more personal, more elegiac first person style. Indeed, that first-person style is so pervasive that private eye stories in other mediums, like film and television, routinely replicate it by voice-over narration.
It’s not the hard-nosed professional who can sleep with a woman one day and turn her over to the cops the next that’s our prototype; it’s the slightly tarnished modern-day knight errant, forever on the lookout for a damsel in distress to rescue.
Many of the writers who follow what I’m calling “The Marlowe Paradigm” have been up-front about it. In an omnibus volume collecting three of his Lew Archer novels, Ross Macdonald (the “Holy Spirit” to Hammett’s “Father” and Chandler’s “Son”) flatly stated that Archer was deliberately “patterned on Marlowe.” Robert B. Parker has said that he started writing his series about Boston P.I. Spenser because he was frustrated that Chandler hadn’t written more Marlowe novels. Loren D. Estleman, when he heard someone describe his Amos Walker character as “Philip Marlowe in Detroit,” admitted this was an accurate statement.
Others choose a less direct way of acknowledging their source. Science fiction writer Milton Lesser adopted the Chandlerian pseudonym “Stephen Marlowe” when he began a series about a DC-based shamus named Chester Drum, eventually taking it as his legal name. Thomas B. Dewey’s The Mean Streets, generally regarded as the best in his series about the Chicago op known only as “Mac,” takes its title from a phrase in Chandler’s article “The Simple Art of Murder.”
And dozens, indeed hundreds, of others have followed the paradigm just as faithfully without ever acknowledging it. Indeed, their use of it may have been almost subconscious, something they weren’t even aware of.
So pervasive was that pattern that, in 1988, when editor Byron Preiss proposed an anthology of new Marlowe short stories by contemporary PI writers, to be called Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, as a way of celebrating Chandler’s centenary, William DeAndrea, one of the authors asked to submit, respectfully declined with the wry observation that writing new Marlowe stories seemed to be what most of the those invited to contribute were already doing anyway.
One of the most interesting things about that anthology, by the way, is the degree to which the contributors approached Marlowe as a tabula rasa on whom they could impose their own notions of characterization, themes, and story-telling techniques. Hence, Max Allan Collins, who writes historical private eye novels based on famous real-life crimes, fictionalized a real life crime and had Marlowe solve it. Midwestern law professor Francis M. Nevins wrote a story in which Marlowe travels to the Midwest and gets involved in a case that turns on an interpretation of probate law. Native New Yorker Robert J. Randisi brought Marlowe to the Big Apple for an adventure set in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. Mexican mystery writer Pablo Ignacio Taibo II’s story took Marlowe south of the border. Edward D. Hoch, best-known for short stories featuring classically skull-crushing puzzles, involved Marlowe with a classic puzzle. And Roger L. Simon, whose Moses Wine novels are marked by an unabashedly left-wing sensibility, wrote Marlowe into a story promoting Simon’s leftist political views. Marlowe’s iconic status had allowed him to become whatever those writers wanted him to become.
And, as much as private eye fiction has evolved since Chandler passed from the scene, the Marlowe Paradigm remains the most frequently used model. Consider the private eye sub-genre’s most obvious innovation over the last quarter century or so, the use of female protagonists in what was previously an all-male preserve.
Writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretskey, and Maxine O’Callahan are all, quite rightly, praised as innovators, and yet, aside from their genders, how much do their characters, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski,, and Delilah West, veer from the Marlowe paradigm? Milhone and West not at all, and Warshawski only that, in addition to not being a man, she’s not an ex-cop.
So we come back to the original question. Why is Chandler’s model so pervasive?
Perhaps Marlowe’s status as the PI archetype stems from his striving to live up to the knightly virtues of chivalry and honor. Hammett’s protagonists might do heroic things, but they do it less from an over-arching moral sense, than simply because it’s their job. Sam Spade sums it up by shrugging his shoulders and offering the inadequate explanation that, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.” By contrast, Marlowe, whose very name evokes images of Medieval do-gooding, continually agonizes over his chosen profession not being “a game for knights.”
But I think there might be another explanation. And, not surprisingly, Chandler hinted at it himself.
In a 1948 letter to fellow mystery writer Cleve F. Adams, Chandler remarked on the fact that he seemed to have replaced Hammett as the leading proponent of hard-boiled crime fiction.
“Since Hammett has not written for publication since 1932,” he wrote, “I have been picked out by some people as the leading representative of the school. This is very likely due to the fact that The Maltese Falcon did not start the high budget mystery picture trend, although it ought to have. Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet did, and I was associated with both of them. The result is that everybody who used to be accused of writing like Hammett may now be accused of trying to write like Chandler.”
Moreover, Chandler, as he mentions, was associated with high-budget films, with “A” pictures as they were once called in the movie industry. And because of the way he sold those books, one at a time rather than all in a group, different studios bought the rights to different books, and subsequently made different Marlowe pictures.
This was in sharp contrast to what was then the common practice for a series of mystery films featuring the same continuing character. Usually a studio would simply buy the rights to all the books featuring a given character, as well as rights to the character him (or her)self, and go on to release a series of quickly made, comparatively low-budget “B” films featuring the same cast in picture after picture, which had the effect of identifying a particular actor with a particular fictional detective.
Dick Powell, anxious to change his image as a juvenile tenor in Busby Berkeley musicals, was the first to tackle the role in the seminal film noir Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1945), based on Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely. In the opinion of many, including me, Powell’s performance was the best, most faithful interpretation of Marlowe., and it brought about precisely the image change he hoped it would. For the rest of his career, Powell played tough guy roles in films like Cornered (1946), Rogue’s Regiment (1948), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Cry Danger (1951).
Humphrey Bogart, who’d already played Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon, was the next in The Big Sleep (Warner’s, 1946). Already regarded as Hollywood’s top tough guy, Bogart’s performance in Sleep simply grafted of his already well-honed, familiar screen persona onto Chandler’s character. Hence, while in Murder, My Sweet, Powell became Marlowe, in The Big Sleep, Marlowe became Bogart. Still, if you’re a hard-boiled private eye character, there are few actors it’s more appropriate to “become” then Humphrey Bogart. On the strength of his portrayals of Spade in Falcon and Marlowe in Sleep, Bogart, more than any other actor, has become the visual embodiment of the hard-boiled private eye.
Robert Montgomery was the next to try his hand at the part in The Lady in the Lake (MGM, 1946), remarkable for two reasons. First, it’s the only Marlowe film on which Chandler did any work on the screenplay (though he lost interest quickly, and is not credited except as the author of the source novel). Second, Montgomery, who also directed, had the original notion of coming up with a visual equivalent for Chandler’s vivid first-person narration. He made the camera Marlowe’s eyes. The audience saw everything from the hero’s point of view, and, except for a few scenes in which Marlowe looked in a mirror, Montgomery’s performance consisted almost entirely on off-screen voice work. The gimmick became tiresome at feature-length, though, and the resulting film is now something of a technical curiosity that never achieved the classic status of MMS or TBS.
A too-youthful George Montgomery (no relation to Robert) was the final film Marlowe of the decade, playing the detective in The Brasher Doubloon (20th/Fox, 1947), based on Chandler’s 1943 novel, The High Window. An attempt was made to overcome Montgomery’s boyish appearance by having him grow a mustache, and, to date, he is the only big screen Marlowe with facial hair, but the device didn’t work. Next to more mature actors like Powell, Bogart, and Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery lacked the gravitas to carry the part off. Still, based on later performances, it’s likely he’d have been quite good in the part had he waited a decade or so.
Each of the films, and each of the performances, adhered, with a fair amount of faithfulness, to Chandler’s vision of the character. Hence audiences were seeing someone who was simultaneously different in each picture, and yet the same in each picture.
Over the next twenty-odd years, Marlowe was absent from the big screen, though his adventures could be heard on radio or seen on TV. But those four films released between 1945 and 1947 already set the pattern. Not only for the way Marlowe would be depicted, but for the way any hard-boiled private eye character, in any medium, would be depicted.
This is all speculation, of course, and to those of us who live for words on the printed page, the notion that screen adaptations would be more influential than the original works might seem counterintuitive, if not downright sacrilegious.
Ultimately, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter. Raymond Chandler remains important not just for what he wrote, but for the effect his writing had on those who came after. Arguably, he was the most influential mystery writer of the 20th Century. And whether his pervasive influence stems directly from his own work, the heroic image he created, or the adaptations made from that work, there’s no denying that every crime writer who ever sent a tough private eye on an adventure down a big city’s mean streets in the search for hidden truth owes a huge debt to Chandler. So complete is his influence that it’s become almost subliminal, part of our collective “pop culture” DNA.