Marlowe’s Music


On a dark city street, a man in a trench coat steps forward into a pool of light. He’s almost conventionally handsome except for an aura of tough cynicism. Is that a wisecrack about to come from his lips? When he cups his hands and lights a cigarette, you realize this is Philip Marlowe, the famous detective created by Raymond Chandler, the shamus who helped define a genre. There’s a damsel in distress behind him and a dame offering a different kind of trouble ahead, and he’s taking a moment to think over the clues.

Hold it! What’s the music cue for this image?

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

Marlowe (1969)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

The Big Sleep (1978)


Before we get to Marlowe, let’s briefly consider the two other 40’s films scripted by Raymond Chandler.


For Double Indemnity (1944), widely considered one of the very greatest film noirs, Chandler not only worked with Billy Wilder on the adaptation but even (as we learned only recently) appears in a brief cameo.

Indemnity is graced further with a wonderful score by Miklós Rózsa. The death tromp of the overture is indelible, one of the most memorable instrumental themes from 40’s noir. Later on the California setting is conjured by a string theme that dances in a minor key:  “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Rózsa was professional composer of a high order, and some of his concert music is still heard today, although it’s doubtful if his name would be as familiar if it weren’t for his illustrious Hollywood associations.

The score of Double Indemnity is non-diegetic. The characters can’t hear it. 


However, the other non-Marlowe Chandler movie of the era, The Blue Dahlia (1946), features mostly a diegetic score that the characters do hear. Unusually, diegetic music is a major plot point in Dahlia. Big band music on a juke box, radio or record player drives William Bendix’s character Buzz to distraction and possibly even violence.

Victor Young is credited with musical direction but he didn’t compose anything: the few uses of non-diegetic orchestral music (notably a waltz for Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake romancing each other) are stock.


Movie Marlowe truly begins with Murder, My Sweet (1944) starring Dick Powell. (Earlier, unheralded Chandler adaptations Time to Kill and The Falcon Takes Over had detectives that weren’t even called Marlowe.) Based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely, Murder, My Sweet was a hit at the time and still has a good reputation today. Each film frame is perfectly composed and just gorgeous to look at. 

Chandler’s plots seldom make much sense. After being hired in questionable circumstances, Marlowe moves forward through bizarre circumstances. Behind every door there seems to be a body on the floor, a thug with a gun, or a woman who can’t wait to kiss a shamus.

The plots are bad enough in novel form, but in the movies they are usually even worse. The scriptwriters are forced to improvise short cuts while attempting to tie all the loose ends together. To make this perpetual motion machine work, style is all.

In Murder My Sweet, Roy Webb’s overture is glamorous, declarative, and dark. The wandering melodies, string tremolos, active bass lines, and chromatic harmony are straight out of the Mahler/Strauss tradition but fluffed up or streamlined in order to make it suitable for Hollywood. It is far from atonal, but the key centers are deliberately vague, just like the twists and turns of a Marlowe plot. 

When Marlowe first stepped into a pool of light in the 40’s, this rich orchestral palette was the most appropriate music cue.

Webb really gets his chance to shine in an expressionist fantasia while Marlowe is drugged and delirious. Bela Bartók never wrote any movie scores, but the studios should have given him some royalties anyway, for many noir and horror flicks appropriate Bartók’s most sinister adagios for moments of emotional confusion.

Notable diegetic music includes some honky-tonk stride piano that stops abruptly as Marlowe and Moose Malloy enter a bar, a cue borrowed from countless Westerns. At the Coconut Club, some musical “exotica” is a comparative low point. 


The next adaptation is the most famous, The Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. For this high-end production the studio naturally hired Max Steiner, arguably the most important composer in cinema history, with hundreds of scores to his credit including King Kong, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind

Steiner insisted on giving major protagonists their own leitmotifs, and for Philip Marlowe he offered a scampering 12/8 borrowed from Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” initially heard when Marlowe sardonically gives his name as “Doghouse Reilly.” Steiner’s assessment of Marlowe as primarily a jokester doesn’t work so well when the cutesy theme returns in moments of dramatic action. When the curtain falls, placing the leitmotif in C major as a final wink is a corny miscalculation. 

In terms of craft, Steiner is obviously a better composer than Webb, with his best work on Sleep being a dramatic and searching overture, although even there Steiner goes overboard with orchestral bells doubling the strings. This is probably heresy to some, but in final analysis, I find Webb’s smaller-scale work on Murder, My Sweet more compelling — simply more noir — than Steiner’s overwrought production for The Big Sleep.

The only prominent diegetic music is once again in clubs. Bacall even gets a shot a being a chanteuse.

While I don’t have space to give a rundown on all the future Marlowes, comparing Dick Powell to Humphrey Bogart is one of the great bar stool arguments. My two cents: Somehow I hear the original Chandler voice in Bogart’s performance more than Powell’s, although the immortal bantering scenes with Bacall have nothing to do with Chandler. On the other hand, Bogart is also just this side of too elegant and studied to be a real shamus. Powell’s goofy and vulnerable interpretation makes for somebody you could go actually out and hire for a case. 

At any rate, both are, of course, classic Marlowes.


From the sublime to the ridiculous: The Lady in the Lake (1947) enters with a bizarre Christmas theme and an even more bizarre “camera first person” conceit. We “see” more or less the entire movie through Marlowe’s eyes. Marlowe is played by Robert Montgomery who also directed this slow-moving turkey. 

Composer David Snell had a really unusual assignment. In addition to the mediocre opening choral Xmas medley, the few other cues are also saccharine chorales. One hopes Snell had fun writing a car chase scene for a cappella voices, an effect that strangely foreshadows György Ligeti’s Requiem. As far as diegetic music goes, Marlowe has a jazzy “signature whistle.” Even Audrey Totter can’t redeem this mistaken exercise in unconventional style.


With The Brasher Doubloon (1947) we are thankfully back on firmer terrain, although delightful cinematography and location work don’t quite redeem an aura of cliché. The change of title from The High Window suggests how much more the script borrows from Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon than the source novel.

David Buttolph begins in fine sweeping style with a foreboding orchestral overture. However, along with many other aspects of Doubloon, that initial energy peters out. There are too many stretches without any music whatsoever: Surely the long teté a teté between George Montgomery and Nancy Guild could use a little atmosphere. When present, Buttolph’s score does its job well enough, with the whole tone clouds underscoring the discovery of Anson’s dead body being particularly fine. 

Fans of the genre should still see Doubloon because it’s the end of an era. Hollywood would give Chandler a miss for over twenty years.

When Marlowe finally returned in a disparate quartet, the first question each production had to answer was simply, “Does our hero live in the past or the present day?”


Based on The Little Sister, the James Garner vehicle Marlowe (1969) begins exactly like many other films of the era, with a pop tune and modernist graphics, a clear cue that this is strictly a contemporary take on Chandler.

The excellent title song “The Little Sister” was written by the score composer Peter Matz with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. It’s performed by Orpheus, a bona fide rock group, although the outsize production (reminiscent of Phil Spector) is also presumably by Katz (who was best known as Barbara Streisand’s music director). 

In a nice touch, “The Little Sister” becomes diegetic on Marlowe’s car radio in the first scene. 

Matz never uses an orchestra. While there is the occasional mysterious atonal slide from a jazz chamber ensemble, nothing references European-informed classical music, at least in comparison to scores from the heyday of noir. These cues are usually pop or jazz. Flute and bongos were big in 1969. 

Matz’s only miscalculation is a few moments of Sousa-style march when Marlowe negotiates with a Hollywood bigwig. That bit of unlikely outsized humorous pomp is indicative of the movie as a whole, which just doesn’t hang together. The plot is even more nonsensical than usual, but that is less of a problem than the general tone. The serious detective tale at the center can’t take the relentless battering from clowns and comedy. It’s almost like a failed cross between gritty Bullitt and ludicrous The Pink Panther  (with no less than Bruce Lee standing in for Cato).

Eventually they perfected a mix of serious, comic, and James Garner for The Rockford Files.


Robert Altman must have seen Marlowe and been impressed with the first scene, where an old-school investigator in a classy suit interfaces with stoned hippies. The transfer of the song “The Little Sister” from overture to car radio obviously inspired him as well.

The Long Goodbye (1973) wasn’t understood at the time of release but has gone on be acclaimed as a key work of neo-noir. It is absolutely not for Chandler purists, for the source novel is hidden under a thick coat of digression, intentional anachronism, and meta. Just to start: Marlowe is Jewish (sensational Elliot Gould), and spends the first ten minutes of the film trying to feed his cat.

John Williams’s monothematic score has nothing to do with his later blockbuster work for George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg. Again, I suspect the “theme on the car radio” moment in Marlowe is an influence. Other possible inspirations: Laura has one glorious theme by David Raksin throughout. For Beat the Devil, Franco Mannino put the same melody on the ship’s player piano and in the square’s military band as well in his non-diegetic music. The score to The Third Man is mostly Anton Karas’s famous zither tune. 

There must be other examples, but surely The Long Goodbye is the most extreme use of one tune in varied fashion for the entire film.

At the very top of Long Goodbye we hear a bit of an old-timey rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” before fading into Marlowe being woken up by his cat. The music for his apartment is a Dave Grusin’s jazzy trio playing an ornamented version of Williams’s lovely ballad “The Long Goodbye.” This seems non-diegetic, but Marlowe also hums a few snatches. We cut to a title card and Jack Sheldon croons Johnny Mercer’s lyrics as Terry Lennox interacts with a guard initiating Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. (Mercer also wrote the lyrics to “Hooray for Hollywood.”) Back to Gould, and the soundtrack is a straight female version. 

Continuing on here’s a partial list of all the different versions, both diegetic and non-diegetic: Muzak in the supermarket — Spanish guitar when entering Tijuana — Entertainer in bar sings and fumbles out-of-tune upright piano (saying, “I’ve got to learn this damn thing”) — Doorbell to Wade residence in Malibu Colony — Trumpet with strings for Eileen Wade — Sitar music for yoga neighbors — Marching band in funeral procession — Rock vamp at Wade party — Informally sung by gangster Marty Augustine — Hummed by Eileen Wade in car while Marlowe is chasing on foot — Short hallucinatory orchestra + guitar cue after final murder…

Finally, in perhaps a nod to the end of The Third Man, Marlowe improvises some silly harmonica (sounds like Karas’s zither?) when walking into the distance. The harmonica blends into a non-diegetic full rendition of old-time “Hooray for Hollywood.”

It’s an impressive movie with an impressive score. The Long Goodbye is also the most interesting Marlowe movie for film students, who these days delight in unpacking the metatextual themes.


With Farewell, My Lovely (1975) we leave the updates of Marlowe and The Long Goodbye behind, instead traveling though time with faded noir star Robert Mitchum to a 40’s set. David Shire’s jazz theme for the opening credits is attractive enough, especially with unusually prominent rhythm guitar. 

Back to the shamus, trench, and pool of light: The style of Shire’s theme has become lingua franca for the sound cue supporting a modern image of retro Marlowe. I’m uncertain when this became common practice, but it was definitely established by the early 70s. (Jerry Goldsmith wrote superb jazz tune for 1974’s Chinatown, another retro detective tale from the 1940s.) However it began, from this point forward, any sketch comedy or bit player part with a stock gumshoe automatically cues up a jazzy trumpet or saxophone over strings.

Sweet/sexy jazz orchestra melodies work for a retro Marlowe because they emulate the popular music of original film noir. Interestingly, that style didn’t appear in the 40’s movies except as diegetic entertainment, usually in clubs.

Perhaps part of the shift was simply a change in musical values. The European orchestral mastery of a Miklós Rózsa or a Max Steiner has been mostly gone from movies since the early 60’s. John Williams is an obvious exception, but little of Williams is as harmonically complex as the scores to Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep. Bernard Herrmann, usually considered to be the last of original line, composed his final score for Taxi Driver (1976) which has a saxophone jazz theme similar to Shire’s for Farewell My Lovely.

Shire does do some nice mysterious writing for strings for Lovely, but it’s hardly the advanced style of 40’s Hollywood. Indeed, the flat counterpoint for Charlotte Rampling’s romantic entrance is weak enough to be called amateurish. By Shire’s time, all the diverse genres film composers had to be familiar with seemed to preclude acquiring the thoroughly grand orchestral statement that was second nature to an earlier generation. On the other hand, perhaps even Steiner would be impressed with how ominous a few simple bass glissandi and pizzicato thumps are for the scene where Marriott is killed. 

Costume drama is frequently a mixed bag for crime movies. Robert Mitchum is always good, but a quick comparison of him in Farewell with the alert and vital star turn in the The Friends of Eddie Coyle from two years earlier shows how much Mitchum himself doesn’t know how to redo the past. When he sings a sentimental tune with Jessie Florian, the elegiac feeling is real; it also has nothing to do with the original sharp Marlowe.


Mitchum actually seems younger when he returns three years later for the second The Big Sleep (1978), which is not only contemporary but moved to England. This change of locale has been hotly criticized by fans but it makes some kind of sense as Chandler was not only educated in England but also took the name of his detective from the Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe. The curves of the European luxury cars and the cut of conservative British fashion give the film a look closer to classic film noir than if it had been set in late 70’s LA.

Many hate this movie, usually complaining that it fails next to the Bogart/Bacall version. However, it deserves credit as the last look at the idea of Marlowe not as the cliché with all the shamus/trench trappings, but simply as a working detective placed inside a surreal story.

I admit I have a soft spot for the second Sleep because I saw it very young and loved it. Part of the initial attraction was certainly the first scene, where Jerry Fielding’s throbbing 7/8 rock beat big band/orchestral theme underscores Marlowe’s Mercedes driving to the Sternwood mansion.

The rest of Fielding’s score works similarly. The groovy percussion-only cue for an early foot chase is impressive; other moments of tension have more conventional but still creative orchestral sounds. In retrospect, 70’s scores with abstract strings on top of funky electric bass and drums would be a genre high point. This kind of music works for detectives of all sorts, but doesn’t instantly summon the retro Marlowe cliché like Shire’s for Farewell, My Lovely. 

Again, there’s hardly space here to address all the actors in all these movies, but I must single out Oliver Reed as Eddie Mars. There’s a certain kind of soft-spoken British tough guy who can be even more menacing than his American counterparts.

The second Sleep is not a great film, perhaps it’s not even that good (the women are noticeably weak this time around), but despite updating and relocation it is closer to the source material than any other adaptation. Unlike the 40’s version, the ending of the second Sleep follows the book. We are left feeling that kind of wistful regret essential to the most memorable of noir films. 

Chandler’s prose can be strikingly poetic. Truthfully, for our final image of a shamus in a trench, we don’t even need a composer: Mitchum’s final voiceover of the novel’s fabulous coda is just about perfect. No background score is needed, for Mitchum and Chandler together is already sublime music. 

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump [“stagnant lake” in Mitchum’s version]  or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.


This article was originally written for the indispensable Noir City, commissioned by Vince Keenan and edited by Eddie Muller. Thanks to that team for letting me reprint on DTM.