James Garner as Philip Marlowe, cynical private detective
Los Angeles, Spring 1969
Release Date: October 22, 1969
Director: Paul Bogart
Costume Design: Florence Hackett & James Taylor
Save for a single season of a loosely adapted ABC TV series, he character of Philip Marlowe had gone more than two decades without a cinematic portrayal at the time Marlowe was released in 1969. Directed by the appropriately named Paul Bogart (no relation), this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1949 pulp novel The Little Sister updated the setting to contemporary Los Angeles.
James Garner took some criticism for his take on the famous private eye, but I think the likable actor’s vulnerable sincerity works for his interpretation of Chandler’s anti-hero. Marlowe is also credited for setting the stage for Garner to take on his signature role of Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files for six seasons on NBC.
If any criticism should be seriously leveled toward Marlowe, it’s that the whole vibe seems passé with Marlowe more in vein with characters like Paul Newman’s Harper or Frank Sinatra’s Tony Rome who were stylish in mid-decade but already anachronistic by the end of the tumultuous decade. After all, 1969 was the same year that George Lazenby decided James Bond was already out of date after his one-off turn as 007. This isn’t to say there wouldn’t eventually be a place for venerated literary characters like Marlowe and Bond, but they would need to catch up with a rapidly changing world to find their place with modern audiences getting used to a world beyond the strict Hays Code.
In fact, 1969 may have been the last year that an ambivalent detective like James Garner’s Marlowe could find his way onto the big screen before the divisive politics of Nixon-era zeitgeist split America’s big-screen cop heroes into violent avengers like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and cheekier and more sensitive de-escalators like Garner’s own Jim Rockford.
Perhaps to reintroduce ’60s audiences to the character, the title Marlowe was used in place of The Little Sister, though Chandler’s original title is referenced in the title song performed by Orpheus, which transitions to the radio inside Marlowe’s ’63 Plymouth convertible as he drives up to The Infinite Pad, a flop house in the fictional coastal town of Bay City, California.
Garner does his own work to introduce the cool-as-a-cucumber Marlowe to audiences as he steps out of the Plymouth, drops his shades down below his eyes, and approaches this den of hippie iniquity.
In the middle of his search for one Orrin Quest, Marlowe shakes down the shifty junkie managing the place who groans: “Lousy private fuzz, you oughta be ashamed of yourself!” to which Marlowe cracks back: “Just too proud to show it.”
When someone later mistakes the manager “for an ice block,” as Marlowe puts it, the case gets rolling.
Average day in a detective’s life. I’ve been stabbed, snubbed, and generally snookered.
What’d He Wear?
Though it’s not technically autumn yet, mid-September brings us even closer to tweed season.
James Garner’s Philip Marlowe makes his on-screen introduction – and spends most of the film – wearing a gray tweed sport jacket in the classic American sack cut with its natural shoulders, boxy profile due to lack of darts, and ventless back.
The 3/2-roll single-breasted jacket has slim notch lapels with swelled edges that roll over the top button to the center of three sew-through buttons in the same dark gray mixed plastic as the two spaced buttons on each cuff. The patch breast pocket and flapped patch hip pockets are double-stitched along the edges.
The suiting is a small-scale light gray-and-black herringbone tweed that has an overall gray effect.
Marlowe doubles down on his Ivy League aesthetic, wearing a white cotton oxford shirt with a gently rolling button-down collar. The shirt has a front placket, breast pocket, and single-button rounded cuffs.
The first tie he wears with this outfit is a plain black slim tie, knotted in a small Windsor knot though it’s worn loosened at the collar throughout the sequence, both communicating Marlowe’s general nonchalance and signifying to the audience that he’s already in the middle of a case when we meet him.
Marlowe spends the latter portion of the film wearing a different white cotton shirt with a narrow semi-spread collar rather than the button-down collar. The rest of the details – the front placket, breast pocket, and single-button rounded cuffs – remain the same, and he wears the same black leather holster over both of his shirts.
Despite the American influences of his attire, Marlowe’s skinny striped repp tie follows the traditional British “uphill” direction from the right hip to the left shoulder. With its wide stripes in maroon and dark navy blue, the tie follows the color combination of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London regiment of the British Army that was in continuous existence for 283 years until it was deactivated in 1968, the year before Marlowe was released.
The look of the all-American cop in a gray tweed jacket, light shirt, red-and-navy striped tie, and dark trousers would be revisited two years later in Dirty Harry when Clint Eastwood’s renegade cop dons the same ensemble but with a brick red sweater vest as an added layer against the San Francisco chill.
Marlowe balances the textured jacket with a subdued pair of dark charcoal straight-leg trousers. These trousers have a medium-high rise with a fitted, belt-less waistband that appear to have darts rather than pleats or a traditional flat front. These trousers have frogmouth-style front pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms.
With this outfit and both of his screen-worn suits, Marlowe invariably wears a pair of black calf cap-toe oxfords with black socks.
“He eschews fedora and trench coat for sunglasses,” writes a reviewer at Noirsville, referencing the subtle way that James Garner’s Marlowe updates an otherwise classic American look. While Bogie’s Marlowe had only worn tinted lenses as part of an effete disguise, sunglasses were de rigueur for any character to be deemed “cool” in 1969.
The first scene finds Garner stepping out of his Plymouth and dropping his shades to below his eyes… not removing them immediately, but instead visually communicating his disdain for his slummy surroundings. Marlowe’s black-framed sunglasses have a wraparound shape and long, curved lenses similar to the Ray-Ban Balorama, which had been developed only two years earlier and, two years later, would be the outdoor eyewear of choice for Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.
Marlowe’s steel wristwatch follows the emerging mid-sixties fashion with its black dial and black leather strap, likely James Garner’s own Heuer Carrera 3647N racing watch with twin sub-registers that would also appear on The Rockford Files.
Unlike Jim Rockford, Garner’s Philip Marlowe has no reservations about arming himself for his considerably dangerous profession. In a black leather shoulder holster, he first carries a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver with a blued steel frame, rounded wooden grips, and a two-inch barrel. The Model 10 originated as the Smith & Wesson “Military & Police” model just before the dawn of the 20th century and remains the quintessential American police revolver with its six-round cylinder and .38 Special round.
The decision to arm Garner’s Marlowe exclusively with revolvers is at odds with Chandler’s 1949 novel, where he carried a Luger, the iconic semi-automatic pistol of the German military.
After his Smith & Wesson is taken away by Sonny Steelgrave’s thugs, Marlowe takes up his secondary weapon, a Colt Python with a 2.5″ barrel dug out from his office desk drawer. While it resembles his previous revolver with its snub-nosed barrel, blued steel frame, and wooden grips, the Python was chambered for the more powerful .357 Magnum round.
After Mavis Weld (Gayle Hunnicutt) summons him to Steelgrave’s home, Marlowe takes her nickel Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket with white pearl grips to stage a suicide. Developed soon after the turn of the century, this pocket pistol was chambered for the anemic .25 ACP round, though Marlowe mistakenly refers to it as a .32 several times throughout the film.
Marlowe incorrectly referring to the Colt .25 as a .32 almost definitely comes from Chandler’s novel The Little Sister, where Steelgrave had gifted “a [little black] .32-caliber automatic with a white bone grip” to both Mavis Weld and Dolores Gonzales. This would imply the popular Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol, though the only other detail provided in the book is a nine-round magazine, one more than the Colt Model 1903 could carry.
How to Get the Look
James Garner’s Philip Marlowe spends much of his time on screen in the classic American Ivy League-inspired ensemble of a tweed jacket with a white button-down collar shirt, slim tie, dark trousers, and black oxfords.
- Gray-and-black herringbone tweed single-breasted 3-button-2 sport jacket with slim notch lapels, patch breast pocket, flapped breast hip pockets, spaced 2-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White cotton oxford shirt with button-down collar, front placket, breast pocket, and 1-button rounded cuffs
- Black skinny tie
- Charcoal flat front trousers with fitted waistband, frogmouth front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black leather shoulder holster (RHD)
- Stainless steel round-cased wristwatch with black dial on black leather strap
- Black plastic-framed wraparound sunglasses
If you’re the type that opts for more color, seek out a Marlowe-approved maroon-and-navy striped tie.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Her boyfriend tried to buy me first, then bury me… I resent both overtures.