(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
In April of 1983, HBO aired the first episode of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. Powers Boothe played Raymond Chandler’s world weary detective. I am a big fan of the movies which Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet) and Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) made from Chandler’s novels. But neither man played the character very true to the books.
Picking Iron (trivia) – Powell was a successful song and dance man when he was quite unexpectedly cast in Murder My Sweet. He nailed the part and it was the first of four hardboiled movies out of his next five: all good flicks. It allowed him to recreate his Hollywood career. It also made him perfect for the light-hearted, singing radio detective, Richard Diamond.
Season one covered five stories: “The Pencil,” “The King in Yellow,” “Finger Man,” “Nevada Gas,” and “Smart Aleck Kill.” Season Two returned in 1986 with six more episodes: “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” “Spanish Blood,” “Pickup on Noon Street,” “Guns at Cyrano’s,” “Trouble is My Business,” and “Red Wind.”
Philip Marlowe made his first appearance in The Big Sleep, which was a novel cobbled together from several existing short stories. Marlowe was really a composite of previous detectives, such as John Dalmas and Carmody. It’s those stories, written mostly for Black Mask and Dime Detective, that were adapted for this series.
Picking Iron- Philip Carey starred in a 1959-1960 series for television. From the Goodson-Todman folks (of game-show fame), it didn’t have much resemblance to Chandler’s stories. And giving Marlowe a scar was just goofy. Except for Lieutenant Harris being in five of the twenty-six episodes, it was a new cast every episode. I’ve only watched a few episodes; it’s not very good.
Set entirely in the thirties, this series stood out for its noir look and feel including a jazzy soundtrack. Chandler looks like Marlowe should look, in suit, tie, trench coat, and fedora. The dialogue is very Chandler, without Powell and Bogart’s over-the-top tough guy talk. This series had an authentic noir feel. HBO did it right.
I rewatched “Spanish Blood” in writing this essay. Helen Shaver plays a grieving widow; I think she would have been very good as a femme fatale. Cranky police commissioner Mavor Moore played Nero Wolfe in a Canadian radio adaptation of Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective. Maury Chaykin, who played Wolfe himself in A&E’s excellent TV series, played a shady cop in “Red Wind.”
David Wickes was the man who made the show happen, and it was, surprisingly, a British production, though there was extensive filming in Los Angeles. The whole shebang was moved to Toronto for the second season, dropping Marlowe’s girlfriend, and his police contact. And necessitating an entirely new crew.
While the series does look great, it’s Booth’s performance as Marlowe that makes the series. He’s a far cry from an invincible superman. John D. MacDonald described his Travis McGee as a worn-out knight, riding his tired steed, with a broken lance, still ready to fight the good fight. That description fits Marlowe. He is incorruptible, and he presses on even though he’s usually outgunned, and he’s consistently taking on an organization of some kind, while he’s a lone operative. In season one, he’s on good terms with lieutenant Violets McGee, who throws him work sometimes. But Marlowe is a one-man crusade. McGee didn’t make the move from England to Canada.
There are some good fight scenes, and Marlowe packs a serious punch. The shoot outs are also fun to watch. The action is well-done, and again, Boothe comes across as tough, but not unbeatable. He has a propensity for having his gun taken away, or holding the wrong one. Keeps things interesting.
Picking Iron – Van Heflin starred in The New Adventures of Philip Marlowe radio show in 1947. It changed networks, dropped ‘New’ from the title and Gerald Mohr replaced Heflin. It ran from 1948 through 1951 and was quite popular. It was more hardboiled than many of its competitors, including the lighthearted The Adventures of Sam Spade. I think it’s pretty good.
I don’t like Eliot Gould’s The Long Goodbye, but I do like James Garner’s Marlowe. So, Marlowe doesn’t have to be set in the classic era: but I prefer him there. And thirties southern California works terrifically in this series. The cars, the apartments, the styles; this is a visual treat for the hardboiled fan. I really like Marlowe’s well-worn coupe.
The dialogue is true to Chandler. The ever-gallant detective is off to save a girl who was kidnapped while he was in the room. As he ran through the door, a fist flew in from the side and knocked him out. He encounters the same guy again during the rescue, slugs him down, and then says, “Nobody gets two chances in the same day.” Hearing Marlowe say “Trouble is my business” in the episode of the same name, sounds right. Though he let himself get punched out without hitting his head on the table on the way down in that one.
Tombstone is my favorite western, and normally, when I see Boothe, I think of him as Curly Bill. But when he’s Marlowe, he’s only Marlowe. I’ve been fortunate to see, during my lifetime, Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes; David Suchet play Hercule Poirot; and Maury Chaykin play Nero Wolfe. They are the definitive impersonations of those great detectives, for me. Dick Powell is my favorite Marlowe; I just really enjoy watching his version of Murder My Sweet. But I think that Powers Boothe is the best Philip Marlowe I’ve ever seen.
You’ve got great casting in the lead, reasonable fidelity to the source material, the right choice for a time-era, a good soundtrack, and quality production values. This was HBO’s very first original series (yeah – there was a time when that kind of thing was a novelty!), and they put forth a first class effort.
The series is out on DVD, and it streams on Prime. You can also find most episodes on the internet if you dig around (beyond just Youtube). I would quite liked to have seen another five or six episodes (especially “Mandarin’s Jade”). Boothe could have worked in another season during 1988 or 1989, but it wasn’t in the cards. I highly recommend watching at least a couple episodes.
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (5)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled May on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Some Hardboiled streaming options
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
A (Black Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (31)
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.