Irish actor and dadbro buttkicker extraordinaire Liam Neeson (known around these parts as Liam Neesons) has upped his righteous tough guy game to play the most righteous — and possibly greatest — tough guy of all: Philip Marlowe. The hardboiled detective. This news comes from Variety, which reports Neeson is attached to the new Marlowe project to be produced by Gary Levinson for Nickel City Pictures from a script by William Monahan (The Departed).
This is inspired casting. Neeson is a brilliant actor who can portray the world-weary but upstanding Los Angeles detective, although Neeson will need a director to ensure he doesn’t slip into the more action-leaning characters he’s played recently. But any return of Philip Marlowe to the big screen is a monstrous, tarantula-on-a-slice-of-angel-food-cake deal. The last Philip Marlowe big-screen film was in 1978!
Created by noir master Raymond Chandler in 1939, Philip Marlowe is the most famous of the pulp-era gumshoe detectives and my favorite literary character of all time. Marlowe is a complex mix of the knight errant who has a strong moral code with the embittered private eye who’s seen the worst modernity can offer. He’s a romantic trying to maintain integrity in a world that cares for neither romance nor integrity, and where betrayal is only another casual “goodbye.” Marlowe gives a good summary of his attitude when speaking to two corrupt cops in The High Window:
Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every time and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may — until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience and protect my client the best way I know how. Until I’m sure you won’t do him more harm than you’ll do the truth good. Or until I’m hauled before somebody that can make me talk.
No doubt Liam Neeson can nail this. Any chance to see him play Chandler’s character feels fresh. It’s Hollywood making an effort to resurrect vintage figures rather than regurgitating whatever was trending on television in 1995.
Neeson is attached to play Philip Marlowe in a project called The Black-Eyed Blonde. Doesn’t sound familiar? It’s based on the novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. Don’t recall a Raymond Chandler novel called The Black-Eyed Blonde? That’s because Raymond Chandler never wrote anything with that title. There are only seven Philip Marlowe novels, a few incomplete chapters of another one, and a scattering of short stories, most which weren’t originally published as Marlowe mysteries. The Black-Eyed Blonde is a 2014 novel by Irish author John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. (Hey, “black-and-black,” I get it!) It’s one of the rare authorized Marlowe books published after Chandler’s death.
For the record, I haven’t read The Black-Eyed Blonde. Banville is a highly respected author with a ream of awards, and I’ve seen both positive and negative reports about his Marlowe pastiche. However, I have no plans to read The Black-Eyed Blonde because I have zero interest in reading a literary version of Philip Marlowe from anyone who isn’t named “Raymond Chandler.” The character is tied inextricably to his creator, and someone else trying to move Marlowe around an imitation of Chandler’s unique Southern California elicits nothing more than a shrug from me. I have all the Marlowe I need in Chandler’s works. And Hollywood has all the Marlowe it needs in those works as well. There’s no reason to turn to a pastiche when movies haven’t touched the actual Chandler for almost forty years. What’s the selling point of adapting a novel by John Banville rather than Raymond Chandler? It’s bizarre.
Regarding the project, screenwriter Monahan said: “You have to do Chandler justice, carry a very particular flame, or stay home.” Why not start with adapting one of Chandler’s actual novels? Again, this is bizarre. Are there legal issues pulling the strings on this choice?
Hollywood and Gary Levinson, I’m begging you, don’t take this route. If you’re going to have Liam Neeson play Marlowe — and I’m on board with this idea and ready to set sail now — don’t drop an anvil on your own foot and ignore Raymond Chandler. He’s one of the great American authors, and he deserves your love.
Here’s the Chandler You Can Do Instead
Raymond Chandler was a meticulous and slow author. There are only seven Marlowe novels for Hollywood to use, although some of the short stories (particularly “Red Wind”) would adapt well to feature film. But even this small pool of novels hasn’t received enough cinematic attention.
When looking around for a new Philip Marlowe movie project, I think we can put The Big Sleep (1939) aside. The 1946 Howard Hawks film has achieved classic status, even if it softens the book, and it was done a second time in 1978 using contemporary London (no, really) as the setting. There have been three versions of Farewell, My Lovely (1940): The Falcon Takes Over, missing Marlowe, in 1941; Murder My Sweet in 1944; and an eponymous version in 1975. Although none of these have the fame of Hawks’s The Big Sleep, the book is well-explored ground.
That leaves open season on The High Window (filmed and forgotten in 1942 as Time to Kill with Marlowe nowhere in sight, then filmed and forgotten in 1947 as The Brasher Doubloon), The Lady in the Lake (filmed as a strange subjective camera experiment in 1947), The Little Sister (adapted loosely as Marlowe in 1969 and inspiring The Rockford Files), and Playback (never filmed, although it’s the poorest and thinnest of the novels).
The Little Sister in particular seems like a slam-dunk with its Hollywood-angle, and the 1969 movie is only familiar to Chandler-philes and people who want to see a pre-fame Bruce Lee bust apart James Garner’s office. But The Lady in the Lake is a stronger work and easier story to adapt. High Window is more chatty than the other books — even Chandler thought so — but a strong director could make it come to life. Even Playback might work with some punching up, but starting on more solid material seems wiser.
But Seriously, Just Go with The Long Goodbye
I skipped over one of the seven Marlowe novels above for a reason. The Long Goodbye (1953) sits in an interesting position. It’s Chandler’s finest work — indeed, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Hell, it might be my personal favorite novel of all, although that depends on what day you ask me. It was produced as a film in 1973 from a major director and screenwriter pairing: Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett (yes!). The Long Goodbye starred Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in a contemporary update to the story. Since its premiere, The Long Goodbye has divided Chandler fans. It loosely adapts the novel and embraces a slouchy, serio-comic style that viewers often take as mocking the material, like an earlier Big Lebowski. But The Long Goodbye ‘73 understands the disillusionment of Chandler’s novel, Gould nails what Marlowe may have felt like if he woke up in the early 1970s, and it’s Robert Altman exercising his talent at its purest. I unabashedly love the film — but it does leave room for a different version that cleaves nearer to the novel and stays in the 1950s.
This is the property Hollywood should eye if they want Marlowe back on screen. The Long Goodbye is a timeless work. In the right hands it would make a stunning twenty-first-century film. An ideal actor is in place, and that’s a big part of the battle. I’m sure Liam Neeson won’t mind if the producer tells him he can still play Marlowe, only in one of the original creator’s classic novels. As Monahan said, we have to do Chandler justice or stay home — so start here. Or stay home.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is currently available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California where he works as a professional writer for a marketing company. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla in interviews.