Every actor who has played Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin – has wrestled effectively with the agent’s inner nothingness. It seems as if Liam Neeson is about to play Philip Marlowe. Banville’s novel is set in the early 1950s when, if Chandler is to be trusted, Marlowe was approaching his middle 40s. It offers no great challenge to accurately represent an empty cipher on screen. John Le Carré said much the same about Alec Guinness’s portrayal of George Smiley (who was supposed to look like Arthur Lowe). ‘I’m very proud of it’
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Ah, never mind that. One of the main criticisms of Winner’s The Big Sleep hung around the lead’s superannuation. Trust Mr Winner to kill off a much-loved icon. We think of Chandler’s private detective as one of cinema’s essential protagonists. He is also probably a little less well read. But I make the observation anyway. Marlowe is a deceptively nuanced creature. The sense of an inner Englishman that Dulwich lent to Chandler’s creation is missing from all those performances. But it has been nearly 40 years since he appeared in a major motion picture. But Marlowe’s character remains reasonably consistent throughout the books. Bogart’s performance in The Big Sleep does not grind against those gears. Yet none of those films really featured the character we meet in the books. Professors in Chandler Studies will, however, remain cautious about seeing an accurate translation of the literary character. He is never so slovenly and disorganised as Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. Robert Mitchum got away with the role in Dick Richards’s fine Farewell My Lovely three years earlier, but, by 1978, then 60, the star was looking a bit scuffed around the edges. Age is just a number – Doris Day celebrates 95th birthday two years early
Being Miranda in Sex and the City? Ian Fleming admitted that, after reluctantly accepting Sean Connery as James Bond (who was supposed to look like Hoagy Carmichael), his perception of his own character began to change. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is one of the great Los Angeles odysseys. “It’s hard to tell who has the more of a lion’s heart and soul, Philip Marlowe or Liam Neeson,” Monahan said. Educated at Dulwich College in South London, Chandler was always proud of his learning and passed that on to his creation. Raised on a diet of cigarettes and rubbing alcohol, tough men aged a lot more rapidly in those days. Is it unkind to mention that Neeson is 64? Memories of that film bring us to a second uneasy observation. (Meanwhile, in the last 15 years, we have had no fewer than three Spider-Men.)
The last big-screen Marlowe adaptation was, alas, Michael Winner’s misbegotten take on The Big Sleep from 1978. Phillip Marlowe drinks too heavily, but he is not an alcoholic. He is never so amiable as James Garner in the too-swinging Marlowe (1969). They were none the weaker for that. A case could be made for The Big Sleep (1946) as the best film of Howard Hawks’s illustrious career. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein on something else, there’s no there there. Banville described Marlowe as “a bit of an intellectual” in a recent musing on the creation of The Black-Eyed Blonde. The first thing to say is: it’s about bloody time. Such great actors as Bogart, Gould and Garner have, in contrast, made a workable hybrid from their own psyches and Chandler’s immortal material. “I hope I’ve done the both of them and a picture I could not anticipate more some service.”
Benjamin Black is, of course, a penname for John Banville, Booker prize-winning novelist and former Irish Times Literary Editor. The actor was, however, neither so tall nor so handsome as Chandler suggests. William Monahan, writer of The Departed, will be adapting Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde – a sequel to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe stories – and the Ballymena man has agreed to walk the mean streets. He is cynical about the compromises around him, but he never gives in to amorality. We ask no more than that Neeson do the same. Humphrey Bogart, who died at 57, never looked younger than Neeson looks today. There have been some excellent adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels. After all, it’s never really happened before. Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (1947) made famously audacious use of the subjective camera. Age need not be a consideration.