In Their Words: Raymond Chandler

We’ve made no secret of our deep affection for the work of the great Raymond Chandler, so we couldn’t let his 125th birthday go by without notice today.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid reading any of Chandler’s work to date, savor this brief opening paragraph from his short story Red Wind; it’s as good an introduction as any to one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Happy birthday, Mr. Chandler, wherever you may be.

Cheers, Mr. Mitchum

Robert Mitchum would have been 93 today, if he’d managed to stick around.

Was there ever a cooler movie star, with his sleepy eyes, barrel chest, and smooth way with tough-guy repartee? Mitchum was so cool he recorded calypso records on which he sang with a faux Caribbean accent. Honestly, who else could have pulled that off and kept his cachet?

It’s a damn shame Mitchum didn’t get to play Philip Marlowe at an appropriate age. His belated stab at the role, in 1975’s Farewell My Lovely, shows that he was perfectly suited to play Raymond Chandler‘s shamus. One can get a sense of how it might have gone by watching the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), in which Mitchum plays a Marlowe-esque private eye, and at an age that was right in line with Marlowe’s.

We wrote to Mitchum in 1980 or so, asking him for an autographed photo. As we requested, we received a shot of him in the role of Marlowe, and it was inscribed, “Cheers! Bob Mitchum.” We don’t for certain if it was signed by the man himself or by someone who did his signing for him, but we like to think that Mitchum, who didn’t brook much nonsense from anyone, wouldn’t bother to send out proxy signatures, that he’d either sign them himself or not at all.

We’ll close by recalling Mitchum’s response to a reporter’s question after serving time in 1948 for marijuana possession:

“[Prison is] like Palm Springs, without the riff-raff.”

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