Philip Marlowe: Product of a Hard-Boiled Time

Hard-boiled is the phrase most often used to describe Raymond Chandler's quintessential private eye, Philip Marlowe. The truth is: It isn't Marlowe who is hard-boiled, it's the world he lives in. For "In Character," our series exploring famous American fictional characters, NPR's Mike Shuster examines the PI who was created in the 1930s and has gone through several incarnations in radio, film and television.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to talk next about a private detective who was completely a product of his time, but whose story has endured into our time. The detective is Philip Marlowe. He's the creation of the novelist Raymond Chandler. And in the minds of many readers, he might still be wandering the streets of Depression-era Los Angeles, solving crimes and letting off wise cracks like this: I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.

Philip Marlowe made it through tough times. And after 9/11, a modern novelist wrote that we needed to be inspired by that same character again. So now we've performed our own investigation.

NPR's Mike Shuster has the latest installment In Character, our series exploring famous American fictional characters.

MIKE SHUSTER: Raymond Chandler begun to develop the Marlowe character in short stories and novellas he published in pulp fiction magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Marlow emerged as a fully realized character in novel form with the publication of "The Big Sleep" in 1939.

Marlowe was cool, smart, world weary, even droll. He dressed in dark gray suits, lived in lonely rooms, worked in empty offices. He seemed a perfect fit for Humphrey Bogart, who starred in the 1946 film version of "The Big Sleep" with Lauren Bacall.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Big Sleep")

Ms. LAUREN BACALL: (As Vivian Sternwood Rutledge) You know, I don't see what there is to be cagey about, Mr. Marlowe. And I don't like your manners.

Mr. HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Philip Marlowe) Well, I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing here, drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

(Soundbite of banging)

Ms. BACALL: People don't talk to me like that.

Mr. BOGART: Oh.

SHUSTER: The world Marlowe lived in was mean, filled with dangerous men and fickle women. Marlowe was tough, sure, but not cold. Otto Penzler, editor of "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps," places Marlowe in the tradition of the American Western transposed to the modern urban landscape.

Mr. OTTO PENZLER (Editor, Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps): Chandler saw him and wrote about it famously as a knight, a man of purity, a man of honor, a man of integrity. That was not necessarily true for most of the private eyes who would do whatever it took to get the job done.

SHUSTER: Chandler wrote his Marlowe stories almost always in the first person. So Marlowe was the narrator as well as the main character, and he took on something of the literary flavor of Chandler's fine writing.

Van Heflin played him in this 1947 radio version of the novella, "Red Wind."

(Soundbite of radio show, "Red Wind")

Mr. VAN HEFLIN: (As Philip Marlowe) There was a rough desert wind blowing into Los Angeles that evening. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair, make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends up in a fight, and meek little housewives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen when the Santa Ana blows in from the desert.

SHUSTER: The character was so vivid for some, Marlowe seemed true to life. But Chandler himself challenged that in a 1958 radio interview for the BBC with Ian Fleming.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. RAYMOND CHANDLER (Author): He doesn't exist in real life.

Mr. IAN FLEMING (Author): No, he doesn't.

Mr. CHANDLER: Unless you can make him seem real.

Mr. FLEMING: Yes. Marlowe seems real to me. I mean, I visualize him quite clearly.

Mr. CHANDLER: Oh, I know, but that's because I've known him so long.

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah.

Mr. CHANDLER: He's not real as a specimen, as a private detective.

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah.

SHUSTER: Fleming and Chandler discussed Marlowe's emotions, which Fleming observed are far more nuanced and complex than his own creation, James Bond.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. FLEMING: On the other hand, Philip Marlowe feels them and speaks about them. He make them (unintelligible).

Mr. CHANDLER: He's always confused.

Mr. FLEMING: He is, is he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANDLER: He's like me.

SHUSTER: Marlowe makes his way alone and isolated through a highly chaotic world. That's the way Robert Crais sees him. Crais is a writer of contemporary crime fiction. He has written the highly successful novels featuring private eye Elvis Cole.

Mr. ROBERT CRAIS (Author): Though Marlowe might feign it from time to time, I never believed Philip Marlowe was a cold, detached man. He was always personally involved on some level. He always felt the pain of the characters he was dealing with.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Big Sleep")

Mr. BOGART: (as Philip Marlowe) You alone, Joe?

Mr. LOUIS JEAN HEYDT (As Joe Brody): Yeah, except for this.

Mr. BOGART: Except - my, my, my. Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOGART: Put it down, Joe.

Mr. PENZLER: Marlow was tough enough to be regarded as hard-boiled.

SHUSTER: Again, Otto Penzler.

Mr. PENZLER: But I don't think he wanted to be. He would rather have used his brains in a more sensitive way than a lot of other private eyes would've done.

SHUSTER: Dick Powell was the first to play Marlowe in a 1944 version of "Farewell, My Lovely." The title was changed to "Murder, My Sweet." The character comes through, even though the tough-guy language is a bit quaint today.

(Soundbite of movie, "Murder, My Sweet")

Mr. DICK POWELL: (as Philip Marlowe) I've been out peeking under old Sunday sections for a barber named Dominick, whose wife wanted him back, and I never found him. I just found out all over again how big this city is. My feet hurt, and my mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief. The office bottle hadn't sparked me up, so I'd taken out my little black book and decided to go grouse hunting. Nothing like soft shoulders to improve my morale.

SHUSTER: Later, many actors played Marlowe, including James Garner, Elliott Gould, James Caan and even Danny Glover, and Robert Mitchum in a remake of "The Big Sleep" in 1978.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Big Sleep")

Mr. ROBERT MITCHUM: (as Philip Marlowe) It was close to 11:00 when I got back to my apartment. I'd concealed a murder and suppressed evidence for 24 hours, but I was still at large and nobody seemed unduly worried. As I got to the door, I heard my television was on. I wasn't in, so I guess somebody else must be.

SHUSTER: Screenwriters have always felt free to adapt Chandler's work to different times and places. There was no television when Chandler wrote "The Big Sleep," and this version took place in London, not Chandler's favorite city, L.A.

A lot of people think Mitchum was the perfect Marlowe. Among his fans is Robert Crais, who first encountered Marlowe when he was 15 and found "The Little Sister" in a second-hand bookshop.

Mr. CRAIS: I read it that night, literally in one sitting. And it threw open the doors and kicked out the walls for detective fiction, for private eyes, for Los Angeles. I mean, all the great loves of my life stem from that book.

SHUSTER: Crais's characters, Elvis Cole and his buddy Joe Pike, both take something from Marlowe, but they are their own men. Crais - who has another Elvis Cole novel, "Chasing Darkness," coming out this summer - strives for what Chandler achieved: a character that keeps connecting with readers for years and years.

Mr. CRAIS: Marlowe was resonant with the public and is resonant even today and to all of us who followed in Chandler's footsteps. At his base, Marlowe is us. There's nothing superheroic about him. He's a regular guy who has somehow found a way to divine order out of the chaos of our lives.

SHUSTER: Marlowe lives on. Last year, a pilot was made for a TV series, and there's talk of another movie with Clive Owen playing the private eye.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Just found this quote from the novelist Daniel Handler after 9/11, saying he was inspired by Raymond Chandler's example, by Philip Marlowe's example, that real trouble cannot be erased, only endured. And that is more soothing to me than any cheerful grin.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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