High Window, the fourth in BBC 7’s season of Chandler revivals with Ed Bishop in the role of Philip Marlowe, tells a familiar tale of
bribery, corruption and immorality in 1941 California. The
initial premise concerns the theft of a valuable coin from a rich widow Mrs. Murdoch (Tucker McGuire), who engages Marlowe
to recover it. However the story departs into familiar Chandleresque territory involving blackmail, corrupt police officers,
double-crossing rogues, femmes fatales and heavies pursuing Marlowe at every tick and turn.
High Window seems rather mechanical when compared with Chandler’s
more well-known tales (Farewell My Lovely, The
Big Sleep). While the coin is returned to its rightful owner, and we discover in the process that Mrs. Murdoch is not
only a ruthless killer but a victim of blackmail, we clearly feel the hand of the author manipulating the plot so as to contrive
a happy ending. If this is the case, then the role of Marlowe as private detective trying to solve a case becomes rather superfluous.
Or perhaps this is precisely Chandler’s point; in an amoral world where good and evil can no
longer be distinguished, whose inhabitants are preoccupied with themselves, and where murder becomes a daily fact of life,
perhaps private detectives are superfluous. All we can do is to admire Marlowe (Ed Bishop) for his single-minded dedication
to preserving his integrity, even if that brings him into conflict with the police. He will not be intimidated into passing
on any information, even though he risks imprisonment if he does so. He is a classic example of the American male hero who
refuses to submit to authority and stands up for the cause of individualism. Even when he understands that his chivalric concern
for Mrs. Murdoch’s secretary Merle (Toby Robins) is actually futile (as Merle steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Mrs.
Murdoch as a criminal, even though her employer has murdered her husband), Marlowe resolves to take her away from the seamy
world of Los Angeles to her home in Wichita. Perhaps she will then have the chance to establish a new life, free from corruption.
John Tydeman’s 1978 production was
perhaps more cynical in tone than his other Marlowe adaptations: although dedicated to his work, Marlowe actually preferred
to work out chess problems, while sitting alone in his office with a bottle of bourbon. At least this was a game that was
free from corruption, whose outcome could be determined by logical thinking (rather than by the interfering hand of the author).