Every Philip Marlowe Performance, Ranked

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Every Philip Marlowe Performance, Ranked

Private detective Philip Marlowe is less a person than the physical residue left after something is hard boiled. As author Raymond Chandler said of his most famous creation’s origin, “Marlowe just grew out of the pulps,” so deafening was the contemporary demand for rough-around-the-edges, outside-of-the-law dicks. When noir became the prevalent genre in ‘40s Hollywood, Marlowe wasn’t far behind—appearing in four different adaptations of Chandler’s novels. All four Marlowes were portrayed by different actors, continuing a near-unbroken trend for the character’s film appearances; only one actor has starred as Marlowe in more than one film, resulting in a lot of performers caricaturing the pessimistic but honest investigator. That means it’s tough to rank the best. Together they form a patchwork of womanizing, whip-smart and commanding Marlowes, but with Liam Neeson being the latest actor to throw his fedora into the ring, how do they stack up against each other?

Here is every on-screen Philip Marlowe, ranked:

9. Robert Montgomery, Lady in the Lake

Even if Montgomery’s performance as Marlowe was halfway decent, it would still end up at the bottom of this list—because we barely see the actor throughout the film. Montgomery, who also directed Lady in the Lake, elected to shoot this mystery from Marlowe’s perspective, in an attempt to mimic the novels’ first-person narration and put the audience in the detective’s head. It was a bold but doomed choice: So much of Marlowe’s character is in his physicality, a bullish presence that slinks heavily around the room. Here, he’s relegated to a distant-sounding voiceover in a noir-themed puzzle game. It’s not helped by the studio-imposed introduction and epilogues of Marlowe expositing directly at the camera, giving us a good view of Montgomery’s too-jolly voice and soft eyes, evoking less of a hardened detective and more of a amiable conservative dad sternly schooling his children. Did Montgomery feel Marlowe was so archetypal by 1947 that they could get away with not showing his body for 90% of a film? Regardless, he’s dead last.


8. George Montgomery, The Brasher Doubloon

Chandler’s novel The High Window had previously been adapted for film in 1942, but as the detective was not called Philip Marlowe, it has been omitted from this list. In The Brasher Doubloon, George gave the superior Montgomery performance as Marlowe, capturing the detective’s intimidating gait (Chandler described his character as 6’ with a medium heavy build) and relentless womanizing—which is easier to buy thanks to the actor’s incredible handsomeness. Montgomery suffers from laying on the charm instead of leaning into the gruff cynicism of a hard-boiled dick, and the film even acknowledges how out-of-place he looks as Marlowe, with a wealthy client commenting, “I expected an older man, someone more intelligent looking.” The film itself is charming but slight, suffering from an overly stagey and mannered vibe in the golden era of richly moody noirs. Montgomery may be miscast, but by God is he charming.


7. James Caan, Poodle Springs

The only feature-length Marlowe appearance to not be released in cinemas, this unassuming adaptation of Chandler’s last, unfinished Marlowe novel aired on HBO in the late ‘90s. James Caan confidently adopts the guise of an older, recently married Marlowe in a plot involving pornography, land schemes and antipathetic cops—just another day in Marlowe’s California. Caan is easily one of the most charismatic actors to play the detective and his charm has certainly not faded in middle age; as this older Marlowe sets about his business, you can easily imagine the younger adventures of a swaggering, rugged Thief-era Caan. Unfortunately, Caan is too content to coast on autopilot, and as the story progresses, you feel like the choice to soften Marlowe’s gruffness just conflates his personality with so many other hard-boiled dicks. Still, seeing Marlowe squirm under the inherent rot of domesticity is something fresh.


6. Liam Neeson, Marlowe (2023)

The only Marlowe film to be adapted from a book not penned in part by Chandler, Liam Neeson takes the stage as another older Marlowe. Irishness pervades the Neil Jordan production, with actors from Celtic regions cropping up in a film that puts “The Big Sleep” back into Marlowe mysteries. Dullness aside, Neeson does a commendable job—he greets cases with the air of someone tired of going through the same rigmarole over and over, and like we’ll see in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, there’s a sense that everyone seems to have moved on from Philip Marlowe. It’s a lonely L.A. this detective finds himself in (maybe a symptom of the film’s low budget and digital filmmaking trappings), but Neeson brings a grit and occasional fierceness to the gravelly, shabby-suited PI that’s lacking from the other older portrayals of the character. It’s also cute that Marlowe is hanging up his hat in 1939 Hollywood, just before noir films and Marlowe cases would hit the silver screen.


5. Robert Mitchum, Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep (1978)

Were these adaptations made 15 years earlier, Robert Mitchum would rank a lot higher. As it stands, going for a much older portrayal of the character is a legitimate course of action (and would be frequently imitated), and Mitchum plays the detective with an incredible ease, choosing to lean into Marlowe’s sluggishness, resulting in a character who feels a touch…tired. Does it work? Kinda! Less salacious and more sexless, this Marlowe reflects on his own increasing age, but feels much less aggressive than his younger counterparts, as if his edge was a side effect of youth. Mitchum is the only actor to play Marlowe twice on film, but where Farewell, My Lovely reinstates and emboldens all the social context and plot details that were ironed out of the Hays Code-era Murder, My Sweet, his Big Sleep jumps forward to a contemporary ‘70s British setting. Mitchum is sleepy in both.


4. Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet

Fans are divided on the inaugural cinematic depiction of Philip Marlowe. There’s plenty of calculated venom (especially directed at cops) but he’s awfully young and sweet-looking—even though Marlowe’s age fluctuated repeatedly across the novels. Something that works in Powell’s favor is a weirdly old-sounding voice, often displayed with Marlowe’s incessant clever comments made at the cops’ expense (Powell went on to play Marlowe in radio adaptations). It provides a layer of tired grit to imbue the character with noirish characteristics—ones that hadn’t yet become commonplace. Murder, My Sweet shares with a handful of early ’40s films the privilege of ushering in the classic wave of noir films in American cinema, so it can’t be criticized for not fleshing out the tropes and traits that subsequent Marlowe and hard-boiled films would. Powell was keen to distance himself from the jolly musicals he was at this point being typecast in, a lateral move that proved successful for his career, even if his depiction of Marlowe may not be the most iconic.


3. James Garner, Marlowe (1969)

Marlowe takes the ‘60s! The private dick hadn’t graced the silver screen for a couple decades when James Garner hit Californian streets to untangle a TV star’s secret affair with a gangster, and he was joined by Rita Moreno and…Bruce Lee? Regardless of how successful updating the character to a contemporary era was, Garner does a great job as Marlowe—he’s more rugged, sweaty and on his back foot than ever before. He deals out silly-voiced disguises in higher frequency here, and even though his relationship with cops is a little more amiable (almost like they’d been enjoying a fraternity since Powell’s 1944 turn) all the right elements are in play: He’s a shaggy, scruffy man with a fierce integrity. An appropriately ‘60s-feeling Marlowe, he’s not without his moments of sympathy and an increased habit of self-deprecation, and marks a transition phase before Robert Altman’s interpretation of the character. Plus, Garner has one up on every other Marlowe: None of them beat Bruce Lee in a fight.


2. Humphrey Bogart, The Big Sleep (1946)

The most iconic Marlowe actor was no stranger to hard-boiled detectives before playing Chandler’s detective, having ventured deep into noir in The Maltese Falcon a few years previously. What’s more, no leading lady was as perfectly cast as Lauren Bacall in this defining film, ensuring The Big Sleep would receive rapturous praise for decades to come. At a hair under 5’7”, Bogart is shorter than we’d expect from Marlowe, but his face—much older than Powell’s, with angular but heavy features—is everything. Sweatier than successors, Bogart’s Marlowe is a man who doesn’t need to be told he’s sweaty, and one content with roughly manhandling a delicate situation until it’s sufficiently subdued. Bogart feels older than other Marlowes, a testament to his astute rendition of Chandler’s hero, as Bogart was a similar age to a good deal of the other actors listed here. Try to not crumble at his withering stare.


1. Elliott Gould, The Long Goodbye

A man out of time, a private eye equally neurotic and somnambulant, Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe emboldens all the character’s stereotypes in an act of graceful parody. The bassy grumbling, the clapback at institutional and dangerous authority—everything Marlowe-esque is poured into an anachronistic shell and let loose on the streets of ‘70s L.A. The film was an initial disappointment, partially because audiences expected a straightforward mystery film, but it has been reappraised since as one of Robert Altman’s best. Marlowe, along with his investigative ideology, is out of place in the contemporary neo-noir landscape, and the film comments on Chandler’s character as much as it brings him to life. Sweat, grime, an endless parade of matches and pilgrimages to buy cat food—everything adds to Gould’s inspired turn.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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