Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe receives a makeover courtesy of TV director Paul Bogart and Oscar-winning writer Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Charly) in Marlowe. Although James Garner might seem miscast as the hard-boiled detective to some folks, Garner's cynical portrayal of Marlowe reminds us that Marlowe is a distant cousin of Jim Rockford and Maverick, two of Garner's most popular TV characters.
Featuring a top-notch supporting cast including Carroll O'Connor, Bruce Lee, William Daniels, Rita Moreno, and Gayle Hunnicutt, Marlowe finds the detective trying to tie together two very different cases that seem to overlap in peculiar ways. Hired by Orfamay Quest (Sharron Farrell) to find her missing brother (Roger Newman), Marlowe finds, instead, two murder victims with ice picks driven into the back of their necks, a hallmark of gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H. M. Wynant). When Marlowe discovers that Steelgrave's girlfriend (Hunnitcutt), a model, paid a visit to the last victim (Jackie Coogan) prior to his killing, he begins to piece together an unlikely and strange conspiracy.
Made in 1969, Marlowe has all the hallmarks of a 1960s film, from the polyester suits to the counterculture. Silliphant's attempt to bring Marlowe into the late '60s is largely successful and that's due primarily to Garner's deft, cynical portrayal of the detective, which although it lacks the harder edge of Chandler's creation largely reflects the noir roots of the character. Made as MGM was struggling and on the verge of financial ruin, the film is dated but still manages to be entertaining due to the top-notch cast and their performances which prevent the film from being strictly of its time. In some ways that very dated quality adds to the charm of the film much as a '40s film appeared dated to audiences of the '70s.
Marlowe would be one of Garner's last movies before returning to television in the cult classic TV series Nichols. After the stinging failure of Nichols (which, pardon the pun, garnered enough critical recognition and audience support to almost be renewed), Garner briefly returned to theaters with another MGM project, They Only Kill Their Masters, and the little-seen films One Little Indian and Castaway Cowboy before triumphantly returning to TV with his critically acclaimed series The Rockford Files.