Mitchum as Marlowe: A Blue Suit in The Big Sleep

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1978).

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1978).


Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, private investigator

England, September 1977

Film: The Big Sleep
Release Date: March 13, 1978
Director: Michael Winner
Costume Designer: Ron Beck


Following the recent theme of birthdays – particularly authors’ birthdays – today would have been the 128th birthday of Raymond Chandler, the author of popular hardboiled novels like Farewell, My LovelyThe Long Goodbye, and – perhaps his most famous work – The Big Sleep. It’s arguably impossible to discuss American noir or even modern crime fiction without recognizing Chandler’s influence; he redefined the genre with the character of Philip Marlowe, and his contributions to Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity have cemented its place as archetypical film noir.

I recently finished Tom Williams’ A Mysterious Something in the Light, a biography of Chandler, that included insightful commentary on Chandler’s own perception of his writing, resentful of the formula that he felt limited crime writers like himself and perhaps unaware of just how impactful his own work was in reinventing pulp fiction.

Chandler lived to see The Big Sleep first adapted to screen by Howard Hawks. Although it has become iconic film noir, the 1946 film suffered from studio oversight that wished to focus on the romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall rather than the hardboiled source material.

Three decades later, director Michael Winner helmed an adaptation that stayed truer to the complex source material… despite updating the setting from 1940s Los Angeles to 1970s England. Still, the modern film meant reintroducing the more explicit elements of Chandler’s book related to sex and drugs, and lord knows the ’70s couldn’t get enough of either. Robert Mitchum reprised the Marlowe role he had played three years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely, making him the only actor – as of 2016 – to play the role more than once.

What’d He Wear?

The 1978 film adapts Raymond Chandler’s original language straight from the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, a style blogger’s dream as Marlowe describes his clothing that day for his visit to General Sternwood’s residence. Mitchum’s Marlowe describes the scene:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning. I was wearing my dark blue suit, powder blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean-shaven, and sober. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on ten million pounds.

The only way Mitchum’s narration differs in from the literary Marlowe is flipping the shades of blue; Chandler’s written character describes “my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief.” (Of course, as the book was set in L.A., he is also calling on four million dollars rather than ten million pounds.)

Marlowe on the streets of London.

Marlowe on the streets of London.

We know Marlowe’s suit is dark blue because Robert Mitchum tells us so, but it appears to be more of a blue-gray constructed from a wool and mohair blend. In 1946’s The Big Sleep adaptation, Humphrey Bogart wore a heavier cloth, likely a dark brown birdseye wool.

Mitchum’s single-breasted suit jacket has a somewhat unflatteringly low two-button front, although the nipped waist counters that by emphasizing Mitchum’s strong build. The shoulders are padded and roped with 3-button cuffs at the end of each sleeve.

The suit jacket’s wide notch lapels – with a buttonhole through the left lapel – leave no doubt regarding the film’s contemporary setting. Another concession to the ’70s are the long double vents which work in Mitchum’s favor given his tall, 6’1″ stance.

Marlowe goes calling on ten million pounds.

Marlowe goes calling on ten million pounds.

The jacket has straight flapped hip pockets on the waist and a welted breast pocket where Marlowe wears the blue silk display kerchief that matches his tie.

Less is seen of the suit’s matching trousers, which have a flat front with belt loops around the natural waist. It has side pockets where Marlowe frequently places his hands, and the bottoms are plain-hemmed.

Marlowe makes a less-than-admirable first impression on Charlotte Sternwood Regan.

Marlowe makes a less-than-admirable first impression on Charlotte Sternwood Regan.

Marlowe’s “powder blue” cotton dress shirt by Frank Foster has a long-pointed spread collar that was fashionable during the decade. It buttons down a front placket and with a single button on each rounded cuff.

Despite some of the extra width seen on his lapels and collar, Marlowe’s blue silk necktie is still a relatively classic width, tied in a four-in-hand knot. As stated, it indeed matches his blue silk pocket kerchief.

All Blues.

Mitchum channels Miles.

Marlowe’s feet aren’t given much screen time, but his voiceover description suggests that he’s wearing brogues. In fact, he appears to be wearing a pair of unique wingtip slip-ons that indeed have broguing even if they’re not the lace-up brogues one typically thinks of.

Despite his potentially misleading description of the shoes, Marlowe’s socks appear to nicely match his recollection in both the book and the film narration. They appear to be a thin black cotton lisle (rather than wool) with blue side striping that is possibly a series of “dark blue clocks”.

General Sternwood (James Stewart) discusses his preference for champagne and brandy with Philip Marlowe.

General Sternwood (James Stewart) discusses his preference for champagne and brandy with Philip Marlowe.

Robert Mitchum was a fan of the Rolex – specifically the Rolex DateJust – in real life and often wore them in his movies. As Marlowe in The Big Sleep, he wears a stainless DateJust with a silver dial that gets some prominent screen time when looking over the porn he picked up from Arthur Gwynn Geiger’s shop. The watch is worn on an all-steel “Jubilee” bracelet.

Marlowe leaves no doubt regarding his watch brand of choice.

Marlowe leaves no doubt regarding his watch brand of choice.

Marlowe’s only other visible accessory is the pair of large tortoise-framed glasses that he whips out when “disguised” at Geiger’s store.

This thick, oversized frame appeared to be a very popular style in the 1970s with some examples still found on Etsy or Pinterest.

How to Get the Look

BS78blue-cropIt’s nice to see a film adaptation pay tribute to the clothing outlined by an author in the source material, even if there are some departures. Robert Mitchum wears a more subdued version of the suit worn by the literary Philip Marlowe.

  • Dark blue-gray wool-mohair blend suit, consisting of:
    • Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long double vents
    • Flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Powder blue cotton dress shirt with long-pointed spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs
  • Blue silk necktie
  • Black leather high-vamp wingtip slip-on loafers
  • Black thin wool dress socks with dark blue clock motif side striping
  • Rolex DateJust steel-cased wristwatch with silver dial and steel “Jubilee” bracelet

Marlowe is proud of the blue silk display kerchief he wears in his breast pocket to match his tie. He is slightly less proud of the oversized glasses he wears to disguise his appearance during his investigation.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Buy the movie and read Chandler’s 1939 novel.

The Quote

She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be a bit wearing for a steady diet.


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  3. ross

    Actually, Dick Powell played Marlowe twice, in Murder, My Sweet, on the big screen, in the 1940s, and in The Long Goodbye, on TV, in the 1950s.

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