Who Was the Best Philip Marlowe in the Movies?

Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert MontgomeryWho’s your ideal Philip Marlowe?

If you’re scratching your head at the question, stop right now and rush out to pick up The Big Sleep, the first in Raymond Chandler‘s series of novels detailing the adventures of his fictional private detective.

But if you’re already familiar with Marlowe, you can cast your vote for the best cinematic rendition of the character in the poll below.

This post was originally inspired by novelist and screenwriter Carol Wolper‘s take on why the ideal Marlowe has yet to be captured on film (her essay ran in the Los Angeles Times magazine in 2010, but is no longer available online).

“Many have tried to bring this character to the big and small screen, but success has been elusive,” Wolper, who in the essay made a dubious claim to be a Chandler purist, wrote. “Yet the desire for another shot never goes away. Marlowe is like that person you keep trying to break up with because you know it won’t work out, but you can’t get her (or him) out of your mind.

“Maybe a 2010 Marlowe isn’t Caucasian. Or if so, maybe he’s not a complete loner. Maybe he has a pal. Maybe that pal is even female. As blasphemous as that may sound to die-hard noirists, maybe we can worship at the altar of Chandler without being a slave to the past.”

Here’s the comment we left following Wolper’s essay:

It’s Mitchum by a mile, even though he was too old for the part by the time he did Farewell, My Lovely. It’s too bad Dick Richards and Eliot Kastner didn’t choose to film The Long Goodbye instead; Mitchum’s age wouldn’t have mattered as much, given the elegiac quality of that novel, and it might have erased the bitter and lingering aftertaste of the Altman/Gould travesty, a picture so ill-conceived as to boggle the mind. The ending, particularly, was as inappropriate and off-the-mark as the tacked-on moralistic finish to Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

If anyone doubts that Mitchum, in his prime, was the perfect Marlowe, just rent Out of the Past (1947), a classic noir in which he plays a very Marlowe-esque detective. Mitchum was thirty in 1947, a perfectly suitable age for the early Marlowe stories, and he exhibits all the qualities one could hope for in a movie Marlowe.

And we must strongly disagree with Carol Wolper that updating the character to the modern era is advisable or even acceptable (not to mention giving him a sidekick—sheesh!). There are plenty of modern-day characters yet to be adapted for the large and small screens. Leave Marlowe in Chandler’s vividly rendered past, or keep your hands off of him altogether. After all, Mad Men has shown us that a series must not have a contemporary setting to resonate with today’s viewers.

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe-esque detective in Out of the PastWe wish Mitchum could have played Marlowe at a more appropriate age—he was a bit long in the tooth for the role in 1975—but he’s so right for Marlowe that he overcomes the age issue with ease. It’s Marlowe’s world-weariness that matters more than his age, and Mitchum had that in spades.

We rate Humphrey Bogart‘s Philip Marlowe in the original version of The Big Sleep, which was directed by Howard Hawks, second behind Mitchum, with Dick Powell, who broke out of his boy-singer rut in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet (the deep thinkers at RKO thought the title of Chandler’s second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, suggested a romance, not a hardboiled mystery—hence the title change) trailing closely behind in third.

So what do you say? Who’s your choice for the best cinematic embodiment of Chandler’s classic shamus? Cast your vote below.

Who was the best Philip Marlowe in the movies?
Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep—1946)
James Garner (Marlowe—1969)
Elliott Gould (The Long Goodbye—1973)
Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely—1975)
George Montgomery (The Brasher Doubloon—1947)
Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake—1946)
Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet—1944)
Created with Poll Maker
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4 thoughts on “Who Was the Best Philip Marlowe in the Movies?

  1. I agree that Mitchum is the best, but we disagree on “The Long Goodbye.” I thought it was brilliant, and Elliot Gould was almost as good a Marlowe as Mitchum. By translating the character from the 1940s to the 1970s, Altman highlights a Marlowe feature that is even more important than his world-weariness: his old-fashioned code of honor. He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve like that Spenser, for Hire guy, but Marlowe has a code that was old-fashioned in the 40s, let alone the 70s. I loved seeing him in his suit and tie, driving his old car around a sleek, casual, glass-walled 1970s L.A., and I loved that closing line, “Yeah, nobody cares but me.”

  2. “…There was a time when actors went in at the back door. Most of them still should.”
    ― Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister – If you tied me to a chair, hopped me up on goof balls until I was as loony as drunken mice, I demanded that I spill the beans on who the best actor was for Philip Marlowe character I would have to say Robert Mitchum. And when I say “best” I mean who felt more like the actual character in the book. Though to be honest as written the Marlowe is actual closer to a mix of 75% Mitchum and 25% Dick Powell. Having said this Humphrey Bogart did a wonderful, enjoyable and timeless work as Marlowe and because of the fame of the films themselves he will be most fixed in the public mind.

  3. I gotta go with Mitchum too. I also disagree with Ms. Wolper that Marlowe would need to be “updated” or changed in anyway. When they do this to established and iconic characters it 9\10 fails because the characters are so beloved and iconic because of how they were conceived. We need more original characters that can be POC or women that are iconic in their own right not just getting hand me downs.

  4. Don’t see how you can read the Raymond Chandler stories and come up with Mitchum or, God forbid, Elliot Gould. It’s impossible to read a Chandler story and visualize Gould. Neither comes anywhere close to the original conception of Phillip Marlowe. Robert Montgomery is the best, far and away, and then Bogie. Nothing in Chandler’s writings invokes Gould, and Mitchum is simply Mitchum playing Mitchum. Montgomery at least attempts to embody the actual character. Bogie is the next best, but nobody has really manifested this role. Gould and Mitchum at the BOTTOM! Gould might at least be interesting if he weren’t playing Philip Marlowe.

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