Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Was Samuel Marlowe the Inspiration for Fictional Detectives Sam Spade & Phillip Marlowe?

Original Film Noir? Black private eye Samuel B. Marlowe
As a boy growing up in the mostly-white  Washington DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, there were very few black families in my neighborhood and few black kids in the hallways of the public and private schools I attended.

Although I always had friends, I was one of those kids who was shy and relatively quiet, but an avid reader with a vivid imagination who loved movies.  

But it wasn't always easy to see "myself" in the characters in the books I read, or in the films or television shows I watched.

When the groundbreaking 12-part television series based on author Alex Haley's dramatization of his family history, "Roots", premiered in 1977, it not only sparked a renewed passion for Americans of all races and backgrounds to research their own family history; it opened a window onto American history that allowed many people of color to glimpse their past for the first time.

"Roots" was a catalyst for my own seeking out of the stories of many men and women of African descent whose historical contributions have often been relegated to the proverbial side door of "mainstream" history - people who weren't in the history books my teachers gave me.

Earlier this afternoon in a fascinating segment of NPR's 'Marketplace', Adrienne Hill interviewed LA Times reporter Daniel Miller about one of the most intriguing stories I'd never heard; about a black Jamaican-born private investigator named Samuel B. Marlowe (pictured above).

According to research conducted by former Orion Pictures and New Line Cinema executive Louise Ransil, Samuel Marlowe is the actual inspiration for the famed fictional detectives Sam Spade (created by Dashiell Hammett) and Phillip Marlowe (created by Raymond Chandler).

A little-known black private eye who traversed the glittery world of Hollywood and the seediest sides of Los Angeles in the 20's, 30's and 40's being essential to the development of the Film Noir icons epitomized by Humphrey Bogart playing private detective Phillip Marlowe in the 'Big Sleep' or Fred MacMurray's cynical, greedy insurance salesman in 1944's 'Double Indemnity'?

If that interests you, definitely check out Daniel Miller's fascinating article 'Finding Marlowe' in the LA Times.

Samuel Marlowe was born in 1903 and fought in WWI. According to Ransil, he became the first black licensed private investigator in LA, and specialized in helping studios and stars do the kind of PI dirty work they didn't want to get their hands into.

He helped Hollywood figures out of jams in the off-limits African-American clubs and bars in LA that many white actors and execs enjoyed frequenting on the sly.

Marlowe was supposedly called on to help stars like Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin track down runaway lovers, and was tapped to keep an eye on a $8,000 blackmail payment Marelene Deitrich's studio made to the son of her female makeup artist - because she was in a relationship with her...

Writer Dashiell Hammett
According to Ransil's research, Marlowe first connected with writer Dashiell Hammett (pictured left) in 1929, the same year Hammett published his first novel 'Red Harvest'.

Marlowe wrote a letter to Hammett to complain about details of his portrayals of private investigators and the two supposedly became friends; with Marlowe eventually sharing real-life details that would show up in Hammett's later books.

According to Miller's LA Times article (and Ransil's research), in 1930 when Hammett published 'The Maltese Falcon', the "Sam Spade" character was a private nod to Marlowe's help; a private joke between the two based on a twist on the derogatory term for blacks.

Marlowe also helped out Raymond Chandler too by not only sharing his real-life expertise and tracking down police files, but also escorting the writer around the seedier parts of LA where it was difficult for whites to navigate because of the strict segregation at the time.

Scenes and settings which supposedly show up in Chandler's work 'Farewell My Lovely' according to Miller's article.

Apparently Louise Ransil is currently trying to pitch a screenplay she wrote based on Samuel Marlowe's experiences; now THAT would make for a cool update on the Film Noir genre - no pun intended.

As a film buff, classic Film Noir occupies a special place on the spectrum of cinema history.

The idea that the real-life experiences of a black private eye helped to shape the immortal characters and shadowy celluloid scenes they'll haunt forever offers a very different perspective on the influence of the black perspective in Hollywood and popular American culture.

Maybe for the first time, I can glimpse something of myself in the Hollywood Film Noir experience.


Steve Morrow said...

I remember seeing this story in the L.A. Times, I too hope that they do a movie about him, as he would be the real life Easy Rawlins, especially living in that time frame.

culturegeist said...

Agreed, it would be a great leading role for Denzel Washington or Idris Elba or any number of actors. The Dashiell Hammett role would be a potential Best-Supporting Actor role as well, if you look at a photo of Hammett, Benedict Cumberbatch could probably nail that - with the right script of course...