“It would give me great pleasure to see you do something foolish.”
The private detective struggled to find footing in the swinging sixties. The occupation, as far Hollywood was concerned, almost went extinct in the decade prior (save for a few exceptions: Kiss Me Deadly being the most notable). The first half of the sixties was all about super spies, secret agents, and the campy tone that accompanied them. The James Bond franchise, the Matt Helm franchise, etc.
When the private detective did come back around, he traded in postwar cynicism for post-hippie mockery. Harper (1966) got the ball rolling, and when it proved a hit, the guy who turned it down, Frank Sinatra, opted to make Tony Rome (1967). These detectives were conscious of the tropes they perpetuated, and went about them with a wink. The winking era didn’t peak with Lew Harper or Mr. Rome, however. In a supreme case of irony, it peaked with the character most closely associated with the classic era: Philip Marlowe. More specifically, Marlowe in Marlowe (1969).
This is a silly film. The most famous scene involves henchman Winslow Wong (Bruce Lee) karate-chopping his way through Marlowe’s office, while the latter just sits there and watches. It reeks of the type of gimmicky that typified the Bond films of the day, and is arguably one of the least noir-sequences ever put into an official noir. If one were looking from a particularly critical vantage point, they could argue that it resembles something out of the Batman TV show. The flat lighting and Marlowe’s mugging (his rationale when the rubble gets discovered is to blame “termites”) certainly welcome the comparison.
The film has a slightness to it that did little to distinguish it from its peers, and truthfully, the adaptation by writer/director Paul Bogart leaves much to be desired. It’s messily told, and the motivations of the characters are harder to follow than they are in the Chandler novel (which is saying quite a bit).
Here’s the thing, though: Marlowe is actually pretty fun. It’s no classic, and it pales in comparison to the Raymond Chandler adaptations that preceded it (well, barring The Brasher Doubloon), but taken on its own merits, it’s a charming romp with a wonderfully wry James Garner performance at its core.
Garner occupied the rare space between television A-list and movie B-list. He was preternaturally likable in both, but it often seemed like he was better suited to the small screen. This was no doubt the result of opportunity. Garner was never going to get a script that guys like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman didn’t pass on first, whereas with TV, he was given priority. He’d already distinguished himself with the hit series Maverick, and Marlowe was a rare chance to brandish his gift for playing tough fast-talkers. If done right, it could have led to increased stardom and sequels, as was the case with Harper and Tony Rome.
Garner brings a lot to the table. His Marlowe has a snappy comeback for everyone he encounters, and he makes the more ludicrous elements of the plot mesh through sheer force of charm. He also has terrific chemistry with the rest of the cast, which includes (to be is not limited to) Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno and William Daniels. Moreno and Bruce Lee are particularly good here, as they rely less on mugging and bring some real emotional weight to the proceedings. The former’s final scene, which I will leave unspoiled here, is one of the best in the entire film.
The Marlowe sequel might not have materialized in a literal sense, but in a rare case of things working out in Noirville, we got a spiritual sequel. Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell liked Garner’s performance in the film, and with Cannell having been the creative behind Maverick, decided to update the formula with a modern-day twist. They took the central premise of Marlowe, renamed him Rockford, and went on to hit pay dirt with the classic detective series The Rockford Files. Anyone who likes the series will no doubt find much of its classic components in their embryonic form via Marlowe (Marlowe and Rockford share specific lines, co-stars, and even the same phone number).
Marlowe would go on to have radical reinventions in the decades that followed, which has led to Garner’s version being lost to time. It’s understandable, given the cult status of the other films, but there’s still plenty to like here, if for no other reason, the fact that it’s an unfamiliar corner of the detective’s legacy. Besides, spending a few hours on a Rockford Files prequel doesn’t sound too bad.
TRIVIA: James Garner was taking martial arts lessons at the time Marlowe was being filmed. His teacher? None other than Bruce Lee.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.