Marlowe, Private Eye: season 1

Marlowe-Private-EyePowers Boothe starred in this 1980s TV show that took Raymond Chandler’s early pulp stories and replaced their original protagonists with the detective from his later novels. The brainchild of British writer-producer-director David Wickes, the first season was made in the UK with extensive location shooting in California, while the second season relocated entirely to Toronto, necessitating an almost complete change in cast and crew other than Boothe and his producer. The following is a look at the first series. N.B. When the rights were sold to HBO for screening in America, they added the detective’s first name to the title, but it’s otherwise the same show.

The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); and Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Usually it’s so quiet in Beverly Hills you can hear the scratch of a fountain pen on a movie contract three mansions away– voiceover by Marlowe (Powers Boothe) in Smart-Aleck Kill

Marlowe-series1LA private eye Philip Marlowe was already a hit in print and on film – after being portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell as well as Robert and George Montgomery – when the character turned up on radio. First played by emerging star Van Heflin for a brief run from 17 June to 9 September 1947 on NBC, the show later transferred to CBS with Gerald Mohr in the lead and did much better in the ratings, running for over a hundred episodes. The Heflin version though took the unusual step of turning Chandler’s early pulp fiction into Marlowe scripts. Some of them work very well and you can judge for yourself, dear reader, as many can be downloaded from the Internet Archive here.

“Not that I was spooked, but there are times when courage is an overrated virtue – voiceover by Marlowe (Powers Boothe) in Finger Man

In the 1980s writer-producer-director David Wickes decided to revive this idea for a television show set in 1938 Los Angeles, though it would be largely shot in the UK. Along with Boothe the regular cast was made up of William Kearns as Marlowe’s police contact Lieutenant Victor Magee – known as ‘Violets’ for his love of scented candies – and Kathryn Leigh-Scott as the PI’s sometime girlfriend, ‘Annie’ Riordan, more or less the same character who first appeared opposite Marlowe in his second case, Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and who then unexpectedly turned up in his last, the short story ‘The Pencil’ (1959).

“Hugo Candless, a big time lawyer out of Reno with an elegant wife, a mansion in Bel Air and all the old-world charm of a cop beating up a drunk” – voiceover by Marlowe (Powers Boothe) in Nevada Gas

Philip-Marlowe_Series1The fact is that Chandler himself had retrospectively altered some of his short stories to become part of the growing Marlowe mythos, either by ‘cannibalising’ many of them for his novels, or by changing the names of the detectives from his short stories when reprinted in short story collections. Here is a rundown of the first (and best) season of the show, with details of the original stories on which they were all based, all of which (with one exception) are found in the Chandler anthology The Smell of Fear (1965), which in its 14 reprints also included the first hardback appearance of the author’s last Marlowe short story, ‘The Pencil.’ Although made by a largely British crew, the scripts were written by such Americans as Jo Eisinger (an industry veteran who worked on such classic examples of Hollywood Film Noir as Gilda and Night and the City before moving to the UK after the Hollywood blacklist) and Jesse Lasky Jr., who worked on several Cecil B DeMille epics before marrying Pat Silver.

Smart-Aleck Kill (originally published in the Black Mask issue of July 1934) Screenplay: Jesse Lasky Jr. & Pat Silver Director: Peter Hunt
Cast: Michael Shannon, Liza Ross, Vickery Turner, Shane Rimmer
Original protagonist: Mallory, then changed to Johnny Dalmas for reprint in Chandler’s short story collection, The Simple Art of Murder (1950). Set in the film business, the TV version changes the client from a movie director to an actor but is otherwise fairly faithful.

Finger Man (Black Mask, October 1934)
Screenplay: Jo Eisinger DirectorSidney Hayers
Cast: Gayle Hunnicutt, Ed Bishop, William Hootkins
Original protagonist: Anonymous originally, though identified as ‘Carmady’ in a later short story; eventually became Marlowe when the story reprinted in Chandler’s short story collection, The Simple Art of Murder (1950). This is one of the best episodes of the series, not least for the presence of Ed Bishop, who ten years earlier had played Marlowe for BBC radio who here does well in one of Chandler’s better early stories (which tend to focus on gangsters), unusually set around a courtroom hearing.

Nevada Gas (Black Mask, June 1935)
Screenplay: David Wickes Director: David Wickes
Cast: John Terry, Bill Bailey, Jill Melford, Arabella Weir
Original protagonist: Johnny DeRuse. For British viewers there is a special amusement in the appearance, as a Mexican cleaner, by Arabella Weir as she is now better known as a comedienne. This was the episode with which the TV show originally led and features plenty of great location work and snappy repartee in the classic PI mould though, it has to be said, it doesn’t often feel like authentic Chandler, lacking the romance and poetry of the great author. But it’s a fair representation of an early ‘gimmick’ story based around a bizarre murder method involving poison gas in a car.

The King in Yellow (Dime Detective, March 1938)
Screenplay: Jesse Lasky Jr. & Pat Silver Director: Bryan Forbes
Cast: Lise Hilboldt, Michael Billington, John Alderson, Sandra Dickinson
Original protagonist: Steve Grayce. Marlowe is slumming during one of his frequent professionally fallow periods as a hotel detective and has to deal with an obnoxious star, the eponymous jazz trumpeter (played by Michael Billington). The plot is a bit all over the place but there are some very nice nods to the past, not least the reusing of the High Tower location in North Hollywood featured as Marlowe’s apartment in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). This episode was directed with his usual no-nonsense professionalism by Bryan Forbes, the British auteur whose work in the mystery genre I previously profiled here.

The Pencil (Daily Mail, April 1959)
Screenplay: Jo Eisinger Director: Peter Hunt
Cast: Bruce Boa, Lucy Lee Flippin, David Healy, Stephen Davies
First serialised (posthumously and abridged) as “Marlowe Takes on the Syndicate” in The Daily Mail in April 1959; appeared subsequently as ‘The Wrong Pigeon’ in Manhunt in February 1960; as ‘Philip Marlowe’s Last Case’ in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in January 1962. It finally appeared as ‘The Pencil’, in the Argosy issue of September 1965. It pits our hero opposite the mob, taking on a client he claims to have been ‘penciled’ by The Outfit (a line through his name meaning he will be killed). The story is not especially noteworthy but it did bring back Anne Riordan, which was presumably why the character became a regular on the show.

Boothe makes for a genuinely tough-but-fair Marlowe and is great in the role and Kathyn Leigh-Scott is a great romantic foil.  The series is occasionally unconvincing when it comes to some of the Brits playing Americans but the production values are generally very strong and the adaptations pretty faithful on the whole. Marlowe has not often fared well on the big or small screen, but I would tend to put this among the successes for its undisguised affection for its source and great leading man – as well as a great be-bop inflected score by John Cameron and typically swish titles by the great Maurice Binder.

DVD Availability: Series one is available in the US under its variant title but you’ll have to go to Holland to access the original UK version (or order it through Amazon).

Marlowe, Private Eye (1984)
Producer: David Wickes
Cinematography: Michael Reed (UK), Frank Beascoechea (US sequences)
Art Direction: William Alexander, Robert Cartwright
Music: John Cameron
Main titles: Maurice Binder
Regular cast: Powers Boothe (Marlowe), William Kearns (Lt. Victor ‘Violets’ Magee), Kathyn Leigh-Scott (Annie Riordan)

I submit this review of stories from the Chandler anthology The Smell of Fear for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘professional detective’ category:


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Bryan Forbes, Film Noir, Noir on Tuesday, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Marlowe, Private Eye: season 1

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Good to hear that you thought this series was fairly good. As you say, so many adaptations of the CHandler stories…haven’t. I think you put your finger an a critical point (as ever!): how well do the adaptation and its creators really respect the original? Even if they don’t stay strictly true, do they show that affection you mention? To me anyway, that’s the difference between an adaptation that appeals to me and one that doesn’t.

    • Thanks Margot – there is always that difficult line to tread between respectful fidelity and uncritical fealty (like in the Harry Potter films) – this one did a good job – and I love the stories of course.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    I remember hearing about this, but never took it in on TV. I’d like to see Powers Boothe’s take of the character. Thanks, Sergio.

  3. Colin says:

    I remember this running on TV back in the day but never actually watched any of it through. I think, at the time, I was unsure about how Boothe would fit my vision of Marlowe. Thanks for reminding me of the series and the fact I need to check it out now from a (hopefully) more mature perspective.

    • I know what you mean – at the time I thought he was too obviously a tough guy whereas Marlowe is of course very far from the ‘Mike Hammer’ style – but Boothe is a good actor and brings a lot to it. Dick Powell is still my favourite Marlowe though …

      • Colin says:

        I like Powell’s take as well, although I still think first of Bogart when Marlowe is mentioned. I must watch Murder, My Sweet another watch soon – it’s been too long.

        Boothe is very versatile and my opinion of his work has grown over time. I just need to sit down and check out some of those clips you posted.

        • I agree – I think he has got better and better as the years have worn on (either that or I’ve become more appreciative). Apparently Chandler has Cary Grant in mind for Marlowe and Powell is pretty good substitute … I love The Big Sleep movie, but it is very comedic and a lot more Hawks than Chandler in its final release version – and frankly, barely qualifies as a Noir in terms of its look and feel

          • Colin says:

            Yes, it’s borderline noir at best – not that such a label should be regarded as a criticism of course because it works perfectly as a piece of cinema.
            Dmytryk’s film is much more noir, and it also sent Powell’s career off in a much more interesting direction.

          • Powell really did have a fascinating second act – shame he died young. Should never have made The Conqueror that’s for sure!

  4. TracyK says:

    The DVD sounds like a lot of fun. Looks very atmospheric.

  5. scott says:

    I thought Powers Boothe did an awesome job

  6. Michael Shonk says:

    Jo Eisinger won an Edgar in 1947 for his work on the radio series “Adventures of Sam Spade.”
    He wrote under the name of Jason James with his partner during radio’s Spade, Bob Tallman. He earlier wrote and created the forgotten radio detective series with George Raft, “Cases of Mr Ace” which later became the TV series “Cases of Eddie Drake.” His style then was more Hammett influenced with a fondness for “The Maltese Falcon.”

    As I remember I found the series’ style, looks, and music was so near perfect it overwhelmed the stories. As for favorite Marlowe, I like Robert Mitchum best, and Bogart is more my Sam Spade than Marlowe. But I don’t think any actor has been perfect as Marlowe.

    • Thanks very much for all the great info Michael, greatly appreciated. I agree that Bogart is the definitive Spade. I only wish Mitchum had been a little younger when he finally got to play the role!

  7. Yvette says:

    I’m loving the quotes, Sergio. VERY Chandler. Great stuff. Never saw this show and only barely remember Powers Booth except as that maniac (Jones?) who had a cult and all committed suicide – more or less – on some island somewhere. Anyway, I’m watching your video inclusions. VERY interesting. Thanks, kiddo.

    • Thanks Yvette – I’ve never seen Boothe play Jim Jones, thanks for that. Hope you enjoy the videos (the 1-hour episodes are all broken up into 4 parts I think) – here’s a clip of Boothe as Jones – fascinating:

  8. Skywatcher says:

    I’m definitely going to look these up. I watched the series when it was originally shown, although I only really remember the story about the car and Maurice Binder’s Bondalike opening titles (I love the bit of self-plagiarism when Marlowe walks across the screen, spins round, and fires). They must have used just about every American/Canadian actor in Britain at some point during the series, which in some ways was an even bigger give-away than the Brit actors doing American accents (you can always tell whether any episode of an American show is actually filming in the UK/Ireland by recalling which of the native actors are actually American residents).

    Boothe is good, but I remember feeling at the time that he was a character actor rather than a star. Boothe is perfectly convincing as a 40s private eye, but perhaps Marlowe needs to be a slightly bigger personality. I recently watched some old ROCKFORD FILES, and it’s telling how much of the strength of the show comes from James Garner.

    • Thanks Skywatcher, and yes, the likes of Bruce Boa and Ed Bishop did seem ubiquitous whether on TV or in Bond movies! Ah yes, Garner was wonderful in the show – the two really suited themselves perfectly (though what a great supporting cast he had to play with!) –

  9. Sergio, this was a very interesting post as I know so little about Chandler’s private eye or his television and film adaptations. In fact, I haven’t read much of Chandler. Given that, I’m surprised that Powers Boothe looked anything like this, at least as young as he does here, because I discovered him much later, probably in TOMBSTONE.

  10. Pingback: THE LITTLE SISTER (1949) by Raymond Chandler | Tipping My Fedora

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