“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” 
Phillip Marlowe The Long Goodbye

When somebody asks you "Who is the best film noir hero?", the answer is highly subjective, as always. But, more often than not, it references one hero. The hero of all noir heroes, the landmark of the genre and milestone in literature and film art - Phillip Marlowe. The brain child of troubled but gifted writer (are there any other kinds?) Raymond Chandler, he is the protagonist of 8 novels and a bit more short stories, most of which have been adapted into movies.  

One has to ask what makes Marlowe such a "hit"? During the golden age of Hollywood film making, when some of the best actors ever to grace the screen gave some of their best performances (thus, some of the best performances ever to be captured on film), what makes Phil here such a stand out? There is an answer, but it's not an easy, or indeed, a trivial one. 

Becouse Marlowe is not an ingenue, not a hero, not a anti hero. What differentiates Marlowe from a slew of other 1930 detectives, is that he falls completely off the set spectrum and builds his very own category that many followed afterwards.

As compared to other contemporary detectives, Marlowe is neither Continental Op, Sam Spade, or the Saint - they are all cynical, hard as nails, corrupted, sometimes worse than the criminals they are after. Yet, Marlowe is neither Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes or indeed Nick Charles - they are debonair, manor born, elegant, logical above all reproach. Marlowe is non of those things.    

He takes traits from both of them and mashes them like only a true artist can. He is cynical, like Sam Spade. He mingles with the rich and powerful, like Poirot. Yet, he is neither a anti hero nor a prince of the white horse - he is a "hero of our times", jaded, in part disillusion, but forever fighting for his ideals - he is the perpetual warrior, fighting the evils of power and greed, but not without his very own failings and mistakes.  

Is there a better embodiment of the Knight in Sour Armour trope than Marlowe? This becomes clearer when we learn what the knight in sour armour really is. On the fabulous TV tropes site, he have the perfect description of such a man: 

The world is filled with idealists who believe in truth and justice and devote their lives to fighting for it. And then the world keeps letting them down. For them, Being Good Sucks. But rather than giving up on their goals, they replace their shiny armor with a full plate of pure cynicism. These characters realize they live in a dark, cruel and brutal world and choose to fight not because they believe they will truly make a difference, but because it's the right thing to do.

Marlowe is the working class hero, the champion of bad decision who sticks to them and willingly takes the thornier and more difficult road. He mingles with the rich, comes to learn their follies and caprices better than anyone, yet steers clear from them. He is constantly lured, and he constantly resists. He gently refuses to play the game, to entangle himself into the dark arts. 

He is the modern Sisyphus, always doing the same things and seemingly never learning anything from it. The world is a greedy, bad place, and there is nothing to do but small things. It's won't solve anything - the beat will go on. This is the way of the eternal return, of the endless circle. Marlowe takes his cases one after one - and always the same thing, the same thing. Evil people kill, greedy people steal, lost dames seek his help. And nothing ever much changes. For every criminal jailed, there is another one, just waiting to slide into his place. For every dame who knocks on his door with a major problem not easily solved, there are thousands more, with even worse problems. As the world spins, so do the problems of Phil Marlowe. And he just goes on.
For the knight in the sour Armour, there is no end, he can rest, for at least a bit.

And then, tomorrow is another day. 

There is a bit of an existentialist in Marlowe, in the malevolent evil oozing from his very surroundings, from the people he associates with, from what life throws down his way. With every new case, Marlowe gets beaten a bit closer to the ground, and one day the Earth will claims him - but he fights regardless.  

Humphrey Bogart, always weary and never without a trace of cynicism, IS Marlowe, in so many ways. Other actors have played him, and some of them did it very well (Dick Powell, for instance), but the deep note is only struck with Bogart. Just as he never manages to be the ice cold, mirror-edge sharp Sam Spade, so he is the perfect Marlowe. When you watch him in The Big Sleep, the most famous and best Marlowe movie, you can feel the weight of all the stones he's carried. But you know he will continue to carry them. 

Because he is, as Christopher Wicking said of him "a moralist in the age of amorality, a romantic in the age of realism,an idealist in the age of Watergate. He is a man of simple faith, honesty, trust and complete integrity" 

He is a man for all seasons, a hero of our times, and the champion of bad choices. He just need to take his hand and walk down that road.  

Published by Stela Zoric