Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where the heck did Philip Marlowe go?

Raymond Chandler introduced the world to private eye Philip Marlowe in the 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Marlowe is one of the greatest (arguably the greatest) of the hard-boiled private eyes-- a modern day knight errant—a man who once says of himself “I hear voices crying in the night and I go to see what’s the matter.”

Chandler was a master of sparse but descriptive prose and sharp dialogue, dropping Marlowe into complex stories set in a corrupt world. It wasn’t long before movie studios began to take a look at the Marlowe novels.

Oddly, though, the first two movies based on Chandler’s novels dropped Marlowe from the stories. Farewell, My Lovely became a vehicle for a suave British detective, while The High Window was given to another popular hard-boiled P.I.

B-movie detectives were incredibly popular during the 1940s. Characters like the Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, Torchy Blane, the Lone Wolf and Charlie Chan often appeared in two or three films a year. I suppose the popularity of these series during the 1940s meant the writers were always scrambling for enough material and plot ideas to fill this bottomless well.

Anyway, RKO Studios was producing the Falcon series. These movies initially starred George Sanders, Based on a short story by Michael Arlen, the Falcon is an urbane amateur detective who attracts the attention of at least one inevitably jealous woman per movie. He also tends to stumble over murder victims and indulge himself in solving the crime.

The Falcon Takes over (1942) uses the general plot and some of the characters from Farewell, My Lovely. A perpetually confused thug named Moose Malloy is looking for his old girlfriend—a femme fatale named Velma. On top of this, a sleazy rich guy hires the Falcon to help recover some stolen jewels. The two cases inevitably ties together.

The original plot is, of course, simplified for the Falcon film (B-movies typically ran only a few minutes over an hour) and the dark themes involving a good man trying not to drown in an ocean of corruption are dropped. The movie is still a lot of fun, though. Sanders was tailor-made for that particular sort of character; character actor Ward Bond is effectively menacing as Moose; and Hans Conried (another always entertaining character actor) has a small role as the sleazy rich guy.

That same year, Twentieth Century Fox turned to Chandler’s The High Window, changing the title to Time to Die and turning it into a vehicle for Michael Shayne, a private eye created by Brett Halliday in a series of well-written novels. Lloyd Nolan was playing Shayne in the subsequent B-movie series. I have no idea why the scriptwriters turned to Chandler when Halliday seemed to be writing about three zillion Shayne novels each year that were presumably available for adaptation. And I’m afraid I can’t judge the quality of the film. A few of the Shayne films have come out on DVD, but this one hasn’t and I’ve never managed to catch it on television.

Back to RKO: In 1944, Philip Marlowe finally got to appear in a Philip Marlowe story. Farewell, My Lovely was renamed Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell (up till now known as a star of light-weight musicals) proving his hard-boiled chops by giving the iconic Marlowe performance. Moose Malloy was played this time around by Mike Mazurki—who was pretty much the go-to guy for playing brutal thugs and bullies during the B-movie era. The beautifully photographed end result is a classic of film noir.

(By the way, anytime you see Mike Mazurki in a movie or TV show, you are obligated to point at the screen and yell out his name. It’s a tradition. Don’t ask me to explain. Just start doing it.)

So it was worth the wait. Besides, The Falcon Takes Over is a fun B-movie, so it all worked out for the best. Still, the fact that two different studios made Marlowe films in the same year without Marlowe in them is a fact worth noting. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s worth noting all the same.

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