Powers 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
LA 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
The 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 Director: Sidney 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: