More than a dozen actors have played Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe on radio, in film, and on television. Each has his fans, though some have achieved greater fame and popularity. Is the best Marlowe the one that seems closest to Chandler’s vision? Should kudos go to the best actor? The one in the best scripted production? The handsomest lug?
As with all fan debates, there is no “right” answer to the question of who’s the best Marlowe. (And I still haven’t seen James Caan or George Montgomery yet.) A better question, I find, is Who’s YOUR Marlowe? So in this post, I’ll tell you my favorites, and in comments you can tell me yours. Ok, baby?
Honorable Mention: Robert Mitchum
I’d like to put Mitchum in my Top 5. As an actor for the role, he can’t be beat. But when he finally made his two Marlowe films (Farewell My Lovely in 1975 and The Big Sleep in 1978), he was too worn to pull it off. To me, he looked too much like a pervy old uncle opposite Charlotte Rampling. So he gets a honorable mention because he should’ve been the screen’s ideal Marlowe, but Hollywood waited too long.
5. Danny Glover
In 1995, Showtime produced Fallen Angels, a noir trio of tv films, including an episode called “Red Wind,” featuring Danny Glover as Philip Marlowe. I adore Glover’s acting, and he does not disappoint as the first and only black actor to claim the role.
Watch the episode here and see what you think:
4. James Garner
I’ve read the reviews of James Garner’s 1969 film Marlowe, and I can see why his gruff-meets-fluff charm doesn’t do it for every viewer. But I truly enjoy his energy as an actor, and if his Marlowe is not what Chandler envisioned as he wrote, Garner makes the role his own and I like the result. (And though it’s not fair to judge a man by the company he keeps, the presence of a sizzling Rita Moreno, a grouchy Carol O’Connor, and a high-kicking Bruce Lee gave him good foils to work off of.)
3. Gerald Mohr
Mohr was the voice of Marlowe for 114 episodes of CBS radio’s Adventures of Philip Marlowe. He offers charm and wit with toughness only when necessary, creating a Marlowe full of honest concern and determined skill. I confess I don’t enjoy Gerald Mohr’s film presence (e.g. his ship’s captain in The Angry Red Planet or as a sleazy Latin Lover in Gilda ): his smoothness on radio appears slimy and lecherous in the movies. But I always get a thrill hearing him say, “Get this, and get it straight: Crime is a sucker’s road, and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end … but they never learn.”
2. Humphrey Bogart
It surprises me to put Bogart so high on my list of Marlowes. When I first saw The Big Sleep, it was after reading Chandler and listening to some of Mohr’s radio shows. I wanted a handsome Marlowe, a smooth and sexy shamus, and Bogart wasn’t it. But when I watched the film again, followed by Key Largo and High Sierra as well as The Petrified Forest, I began to like Bogart’s take on Marlowe — particularly opposite Bacall. I’ll never find him handsome, and he’s sexy only with and because of Bacall, but he owns his roles, and he does exude that alpha male thang.
1. Toby Stephens
My number one Marlowe is something of a surprise, to me as well as anyone reading this, I imagine. A contemporary British actor, sandy-haired Toby Stephens voices Marlowe in the radio drama series by the BBC. As with Mohr, the audio-only medium means I can imagine Marlowe to be as handsome as I like — though Stephens is a looker and I’m guessing could handle the role on film, too. His voice is rough and low, and he does a fantastic American accent with hard-boiled style. Head over to audible.com and listen to a sample; if you’re like me, you’ll soon be shelling out the bucks for every episode.
There you have it. My favorite Marlowes. No Robert Montgomery or Dick Powell or Powers Boothe or Elliot Gould for me. To each our own, right sweetheart?