Is Liam Neeson the right man to play the new Philip Marlowe?

Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe. Can you see it? Do you like the idea?

Does the fedora fit?

First, let's talk about Raymond Chandler, and a couple of key syllables in the realm of film noir. By themselves, the words "mean" and "streets" evoke only so much, as monosyllables go. Together, though, they conjure an entire city grid of trouble, an atmosphere of film noir menace and sinister possibility.

Chandler, the writer who dreamed up private detective Philip Marlowe, put those words together in a 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder," for Atlantic Monthly. The phrase stuck. Chandler may well have swiped it from British author Arthur Morrison, who wrote the 1894 book "Tales of Mean Streets," but "mean" didn't signify quite the same thing. Chandler made the streets mean.

Martin Scorsese lifted the phrase for the title of the 1973 film that made his career. Meantime, Chandler remains very much with us in spirit. His fantastically witty ear for tough talk made all the misogyny, brutality, callousness and noble urban Galahad stuff immortal. Decades after Chandler's heyday, every true detective, every false face put on by a noir-inclined femme fatale, every hard-boiled egg of a wisecrack uttered on the trail of a missing person, owes a little something to Chandler, and to Marlowe. And to Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade before them.

Marlowe's back in the news. A forthcoming film adaptation of the recent, Chandler-inspired novel "The Black-Eyed Blonde," titled "Marlowe," is set to star Neeson in the role played by many actors in many previous Marlowe films, Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (1946) most indelibly.

William Monahan, Oscar-winning screenwriter for Scorsese's "The Departed," has adapted the early 1950s-set Marlowe tale written by Benjamin Black. Black, for the record, is the pen name for former Irish Times literary editor and Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville.

Is Neeson a good pick? I have my own thoughts, mostly inclined toward: "Yes, depending on every single element of the movie besides Neeson."

I asked Susan King, longtime Los Angeles Times entertainment writer. She'll be introducing an April 28 screening of Howard Hawks' classic film version of "The Big Sleep," the one with Bogart and Lauren Bacall and the plot nobody can actually follow, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif., not far from Chandler's fabled LA streets.

"Hopefully," King says, "they'll be true to the spirit of Chandler, and true to his sense of humor. That's the most important element, I think. I hope they try to appeal to both men and women. And I hope they get the right leading lady, someone who's not 14 years old."

This week's announcement in the trades that Neeson had attached himself to the "Marlowe" project brought a fair amount of speculation regarding Neeson's age. He's 64 now, and may be 65 once the project goes before the cameras. That's an older Marlowe than Chandler ever envisioned. But the conceit of the novel "The Black-Eyed Blonde" finds Chandler's hero at a more vulnerable point in his career.

The concern for King (one I share) has to do with violence. The easy answer to the question of adapting Marlowe for a new generation usually involves making the acts of violence rougher, more heartless, more explicit. "I don't really want to see 'Taken' in a fedora," King says, with a laugh.

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Some Marlowes have been humorless through and through (Robert Montgomery in the audacious first-person-camera stunt "The Lady in the Lake"). Others have cast actors against type. Dick Powell, former singing juvenile, made an intriguing Marlowe in "Murder, My Sweet," while Elliott Gould shambled his own way in Robert Altman's spellbindingly slippery '70s reverie "The Long Goodbye."

Bogart is his own planet, and his touch is so light so often you forget how tough Marlowe is, to the cynical, honorable core. "The Big Sleep" delights in insinuation and sexual shell games. The double entendres rule here, along with a blithe disregard for the specifics of the narrative. "Screwball noir" is one apt description for the tone of "The Big Sleep." Monahan's writing, in "The Departed," suggests his may well be the writer to make sense and tease out the wit in the latest Marlowe incarnation.

"Down these mean streets," Chandler wrote in 1944, "a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."

The Chandler I love is the gag writer with the gritted teeth, turning out lines that launched a thousand parodies. "From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class," Chandler wrote in "The High Window." "From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away."

From "Farewell, My Lovely": "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."

Two more, or we'll be here all day. From "The Big Sleep": "She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain." And, from the story "I'll Be Waiting," the kicker, written by a famous, melancholy writer who drank himself to death but left us with archetypes and avenues that go on forever: "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."

Here's hoping Liam Neeson, William Monahan, Philip Marlowe and Raymond Chandler make a quartet to remember.

Movies on TV: This month, Michael Phillips hosts the "TCM Spotlight" on post-World War II dramas and melodramas, Friday evenings through April 28. The first lineup, includes the bizarre, Ayn Rand-scripted "Love Letters," 7 p.m.; "The Best Years of Our Lives," 9:15 p.m.; and "The End of the Affair," 12:30 a.m. For the complete April schedule, go to tcm.com.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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