At 64, is the Ballymena actor too old to play Ramond Chandler’s much acted detective?
It seems as if Liam Neeson is about to play Philip Marlowe. William Monahan, writer of The Departed, will be adapting Benjamin Black’sThe Black-Eyed Blonde – a sequel to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe stories – and the Ballymena man has agreed to walk the mean streets.
“It’s hard to tell who has the more of a lion’s heart and soul, Philip Marlowe or Liam Neeson,” Monahan said. “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 first thing to say is: it’s about bloody time. We think of Chandler’s private detective as one of cinema’s essential protagonists. But it has been nearly 40 years since he appeared in a major motion picture. (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. Trust Mr Winner to kill off a much-loved icon.
Memories of that film bring us to a second uneasy observation. One of the main criticisms of Winner’s The Big Sleep hung around the lead’s superannuation. 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.
Is it unkind to mention that Neeson is 64? Banville’s novel is set in the early 1950s when, if Chandler is to be trusted, Marlowe was approaching his middle 40s.
Ah, never mind that. Raised on a diet of cigarettes and rubbing alcohol, tough men aged a lot more rapidly in those days. Humphrey Bogart, who died at 57, never looked younger than Neeson looks today. Age need not be a consideration.
Professors in Chandler Studies will, however, remain cautious about seeing an accurate translation of the literary character. After all, it’s never really happened before. There have been some excellent adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels.
A case could be made for The Big Sleep (1946) as the best film of Howard Hawks’s illustrious career. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is one of the great Los Angeles odysseys. Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (1947) made famously audacious use of the subjective camera.
Yet none of those films really featured the character we meet in the books. They were none the weaker for that. But I make the observation anyway.
Phillip Marlowe drinks too heavily, but he is not an alcoholic. He is cynical about the compromises around him, but he never gives in to amorality. Bogart’s performance in The Big Sleep does not grind against those gears. The actor was, however, neither so tall nor so handsome as Chandler suggests.
He is also probably a little less well read. Banville described Marlowe as “a bit of an intellectual” in a recent musing on the creation of The Black-Eyed Blonde. Educated at Dulwich College in South London, Chandler was always proud of his learning and passed that on to his creation.
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. John Le Carré said much the same about Alec Guinness’s portrayal of George Smiley (who was supposed to look like Arthur Lowe).
But Marlowe’s character remains reasonably consistent throughout the books. He is never so slovenly and disorganised as Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. He is never so amiable as James Garner in the too-swinging Marlowe (1969).
The sense of an inner Englishman that Dulwich lent to Chandler’s creation is missing from all those performances. Marlowe is a deceptively nuanced creature.
It offers no great challenge to accurately represent an empty cipher on screen. 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.
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein on something else, there’s no there there. Such great actors as Bogart, Gould and Garner have, in contrast, made a workable hybrid from their own psyches and Chandler’s immortal material.
We ask no more than that Neeson do the same.