Who Was Raymond Chandler’s Unexpected First Choice to Play Philip Marlowe?

Hint: not Humphrey Bogart. Also, not Elliott Gould.

Cary Grant
Imagine a world where Cary Grant played Philip Marlowe...
RKO Pictures

Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective, has been played on screen by a number of fantastic actors — including Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould. For many viewers, the definitive take on Marlowe comes from Humphrey Bogart, who first played the character in Howard Hawks’s 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep. Revisiting the film on its 70th anniversary, Samuel Wigley wrote that, in addition to its noir qualities, “it’s also a feature-length excuse to have Bogart and Bacall bat innuendo back and forth at each other with such relish that you’re amazed such talk got past the censors.”

But for all of that, Bogart wasn’t Chandler’s first choice to play his signature character. At CrimeReads, Olivia Rutigliano wrote about the author’s own take on his character on film — which, if he’d gotten his way, would have led to viewers seeing Cary Grant play the world-weary gumshoe.

“I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition, an education slightly above the Reader’s Digest fan,” [Chandler] mentioned in a letter to his colleague, the writer George Harmon Coxe. When writing to movie producer John Houseman, he stressed that Marlowe was an “honorable man” above all, and this quality needed to shine through.

As Rutigliano writes, Grant was also Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond. In some alternate timeline, then, the same actor would have played both Bond and an iconic detective. One might well argue that Daniel Craig’s starring role in Knives Out — following several films playing Bond — is the universe’s way of rectifying this.

It’s worth noting that Chandler did come around to Bogart in the role, writing in a letter that Bogart “has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” It’s a fascinating look at the way cinematic history and crime fiction can converge.

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