Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Philip Marlowe: Murder Is a Grave Affair (Goodson-Todman Productions, TV, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a rather intriguing archive.org download: an episode in a short-lived (1959-1960) half-hour TV series based on Raymond Chandler’s detective character Philip Marlowe. It was produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman — odd names to see on a dramatic series since they usually only made quiz shows — and though Raymond Chandler died in 1959 he was involved in the pre-production of the program and reviewed at least one of the scripts before it aired. This episode was called “Murder Is a Grave Affair” — the title refers to the fact that during the story a corpse is exhumed, then re-buried after the police discover it’s missing from its grave when they receive permission to exhume it themselves — and it opens with a young aspiring actress named Lydia Mitchell (Connie Hines) arriving at the home of major director Larry Gilbert (Gene Nelson) and announcing to Gilbert’s wife Marian (Betsy Jones-Moreland) that she wants Marian to divorce her husband so he can marry Lydia. Marian is just fine with this, mainly because she is herself in love with someone else — her attorney, Hank Lawford (Dean Harens) — but Larry Gilbert has utterly no intention of leaving his wife for Lydia, who to him was just a quick pickup on an out-of-town shoot in Arizona. He is in love with his secretary, Janet (Maxine Cooper), though he’s not all that serious about pursuing that relationship either.

Marlowe and his friend from the LAPD, Lt. Manny Harris (William Schallert) — with whom he seems to have a Holmes-and-Lestrade relationship going, a far cry from the desperate antagonism between Marlowe and the official police in Chandler’s books (in this script by Gene Wang Marlowe is described as a former L.A. police officer; in Chandler’s stories he was a former investigator for the L.A. County District Attorney, and the implication is that both Marlowe and his former boss at the D.A.’s office, Bernie Ohls, don’t think too much of either the professionalism or the integrity of the LAPD) — enter the story when Lydia Mitchell is found dead in her apartment with the gas jet from her heater still running. The person who discovers the body is a nebbishy aspiring actor named Artie Wells (an almost unrecognizable Jack Weston), and though the official verdict is an accidental death both Wells and Marlowe, who’s hired to find Lydia’s killer by her parents, think it’s murder. While they’re investigating Larry Gilbert is found shot dead in his home — his wife was there at the time but claimed not to have heard the shot (a cop from a situation in Chandler’s next-to-last novel, The Long Goodbye) — the police think it’s suicide induced by guilt over his having killed Lydia Mitchell, but in the end Marlowe proves it was murder because whoever faked Gilbert’s suicide put the gun in his right hand, and Gilbert was left-handed (which Marlowe knew from having seen him slap his wife). The finger of suspicion points to poor, nerdy Artie Wells (who blamed Lydia’s death on Gilbert even though it really does turn out to have been an accident), but in the end Marlowe realizes that Wells was being set up as a fall guy and the real killer is Mrs. Gilbert. (I had thought it would turn out to be Lawford on the least-important-person principle.)

Marlowe was rather oddly cast with Philip Carey, a tall actor (so was Dick Powell, but he didn’t look it on screen) with a scar on his cheek (real or a makeup department fake to make him look more weatherbeaten?) with an imperious manner but better in the role than any of the big-screen Marlowes after Powell and Bogart (Mitchum’s was a nice try but he was a quarter-century too old for the part by the time he finally got it), and while much of the show was pretty straightforwardly directed (by former actor Paul Stewart — ironically, his film debut was an uncredited bit part in the 1937 film Ever Since Eve, the last movie William Randolph Hearst personally produced; and his second film, and the one that launched his career, was playing the slimy butler at Xanadu in Citizen Kane), photographed (by William Margulies) and edited (by Henry Batista — I guess he had to do something after he was thrown out of Cuba — joke), and the modern-day (late 1950’s) cars make it look more like an episode of Perry Mason than a film noir, the cheery amorality of the script and the noir compositions that start to come in later in the story, especially during scenes that take place at night, put this firmly within the Chandler mythos. So does the thinly veiled contempt for the movie industry Chandler came away with after spending several years as a screenwriter at Paramount and then attempting to land free-lance gigs in the film biz. It’s an interesting program and whets my appetite for more episodes in the Marlowe series.