The Big Score
After decades of searching, Hollywood still has not found its perfect Philip Marlowe
Picture this: A writer is in a pitch meeting with network execs. The writer says, “I have this idea. I want to do a one—hour drama set in L.A. about the haves and the have-nots—what happens when Bel Air intersects with the seedier side of Hollywood. There’ll be plenty of sex. Lots of women in Dolce & Gabbana stilettos and men who know how to lure them.
“The show will center on a detective who, though he can’t afford to hang out at those stylish places, has a rugged strength and authenticity that’s even more appealing than the guys with AmEx Blacks in their pockets. This detective will be our eyes into this world, and his take will be so spot-on accurate it will make you smile because he nailed it so perfectly.
“His wry attitude will take enough edge off of reality that the show will be truthful and entertaining at once. And the character already has name—brand recognition in this country and an international fan base, so you can get started making deals for foreign rights.”
Sounds like a perfect idea for a TV show, right? But perfect is a tough sell when you’re dealing with Raymond Chandler’s legendary detective Philip Marlowe. Many have tried to bring this character to the big and small screen, but success has been elusive. Yet the desire for another shot never goes away. Marlowe is like that person you keep trying to break up with because you know it won’t work out, but you can’t get her (or him) out of your mind.
Over the years, it seems everyone has wooed Marlowe. In the ’40s, he was the right fit for studios cranking out gangster films. In the ’50s, network television got into the act, followed by cable. CBS, ABC, Showtime and HBO have all had Marlowe projects. Actors who have walked in his heavy-soled shoes include Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Elliott Gould, Powers Boothe and James Caan. Bogart’s 1946 performance in The Big Sleep is the most memorable, but in the 1973 film The Long Goodbye, Gould made strides toward proving Marlowe could work for a younger audience. Problem is, the promise of a reconceived Marlowe hasn’t been fulfilled yet.
I was part of the team that most recently tackled the Chandler challenge. Greg Pruss and I wrote and shot a pilot for ABC’s 2006–07 season. Our Marlowe was set in contemporary L.A. Lucky for me, Pruss can practically channel Chandler, which came in handy, as we wrote the entire script in the first person.
Around the time we were toiling away, Universal announced it would develop a feature—assumed to be the first in a franchise—to star Clive Owen as Marlowe. As of now, that’s about as far as the studio has gotten—a Hollywood Reporter headline.
Our show, starring Jason O’Mara (a terrific Marlowe), never made it on air, and though I’m not sure why, it’s possible networks might be a little gunshy when it comes to pulling the trigger on a character and genre where there’s not a lot of room for error. It was a disappointment, but like real love, the pain passes and the flame burns on, raising the question of why—why the enduring pull toward this character and his world?
Maybe one reason is that the L.A. of Chandler’s time and the L.A. of today aren’t all that different. The city still lures people with the promise of a golden life. Femmes fatales and gangsters may be outdated terms, but L.A. is still full of women who parlay their beauty into a shot at the big time and men who are just a scam away from the big score.
Then there is the fascination with L.A. noir, a genre that explores the underbelly of sunny California and the price you pay when your gamble for the good life doesn’t pan out. Here’s where the right balance comes into play. Some have erred by concentrating too much on the gritty side, narrowing the audience to those with the stomach for bleakness. Others err by avoiding the grimness—as Pruss put it, “when that dark underbelly gets liposuctioned out.”
The consensus seems to be that the best noir has always been a mix of grit and style. Chandler’s book The Big Sleep succeeded as a film not because of its lethal plotlines—which to this day no one can quite figure out—but because of the way the story was told, the way Bogart talked, the way Bacall dressed. It was a story as much about glamour as it was about guns.
Even as I get excited by the possibilities of another stab at Marlowe, I’ve been in enough pitch meetings to know something is missing. Recently I spoke to producer Mark Pedowitz, who was running ABC/Touchstone when we did our pilot. I rambled on that L.A. hasn’t changed much since Chandler’s days, and he said that though this city has been multicultural, those cultures now have more say in how the city is run (legally and illegally, I presume), and any detective operating needs to know his way around this new setup.
Maybe a 2010 Marlowe isn’t Caucasian. Or if so, maybe he’s not a complete loner. Maybe he has a pal. Maybe that pal is even female. As blasphemous as that may sound to die-hard noirists, maybe we can worship at the altar of Chandler without being a slave to the past.
I’m a Chandler purist, too. But for me, the most crucial thing about Marlowe was not the whiskey he drank, the bars he hung out at or the shady characters he encountered; what’s crucial is he lived the examined life. He saw it all, knew what it meant...and survived by his own honorable code.
Maybe the closer for any future TV pitch is this thought: With a shaky economy and cynicism running high, Chandler’s “mean streets” haven’t gotten any gentler. With so many people feeling increasingly confused and desperate, it might be nice to have Marlowe around again.
It might be the right time to bring back a guy who looks squarely at what’s happening and figures out the truth. Even if he doesn’t have the power to rid us of the “big deceit” that seems to be all around us, he does his bit by fighting the good fight. One of these days, someone’s going to come up with a way to make his show happen. Someone should, because the audience is waiting.
CAROL WOLPER is a novelist and screenwriter currently working on a project for HBO.