Like Sam Spade, Marlowe is a great hard-boiled detective, but I think the main difference is that he has a deep humanity that Sam has lost. He feels. Sometimes he’s afraid, such as when facing off against Eddie Mars, and sometimes he’s lusty, such as with Vivian Regan. The most Sam managed to convey in terms of feeling was his annoyance at characters like Cairo and Wilmer.
Marlowe appears to have the morality that Sam lacks, what Otto makes a point of saying distinguishes the PI from the noir. But I have to wonder at just how much that morality pervades through. While Marlowe doesn’t make a business decision like Marlowe, Marlowe chooses to allow Vivian one last chance to get Carmen help rather than send her to jail. Is this really a choice that is more moral than turning her over to the police?
I’m not sure how moral Marlowe is. He is certainly more moral than Sam as he acts out of compassion for Vivian, Carmen, and General Sternwood, but this is not a character who is stand out moral. That honor belongs to Harry Jones, and for his moral behavior he is executed. Marlowe witnesses the act, but doesn’t even attempt to intervene.
So Marlowe dances on that edge. He covers crimes up, lies to the police, and even smuggles in a bottle of rye when he’s not supposed to. Does this make him immoral? No, I don’t think it’s that clear-cut with Marlowe.
I need to take a brief aside that will help explain Marlowe’s actions. Throughout the book, there is a motif of a knight. Marlowe makes a note of a knight in stained glass supposedly rescuing a maiden. However, this knight is not very effective and spends more time leering at the woman’s physical assets than untying the rope. Marlowe expresses the desire to climb up and do the job himself, pointing out how incompetent the knight is. This is a hint at some kind of morality, at least for now, that Marlowe is the kind of man who would go and rescue a damsel in distress with no promise of reward. The impression is that he is a very moral and upright person, and he even rebuffs the blatant advances of Carmen Sternwood.
But the knight motif continues with another instance of Carmen’s unwanted advances. Marlowe examines chess game and famously notes that the knight, the piece he favored, was ineffective and of no consequence in the game. To move the knight was to ultimately forfeit the game. Metaphorically, to act as a knight is to lose the game, this is exactly what happened to Harry Jones (which I will go into more detail, later). The lesson here is clear: acting with outstanding morality will get you killed. Moreover, conventional morality is impotent. Only by not saving Harry Jones was Marlowe able to affect events later on that would allow him to complete his job. Jumping in with the moral action would have only resulted in Marlowe’s death as well. The world in which Marlowe operates doesn’t allow for such blatant morality.
But again, this is not to say Marlowe is amoral, or even on the same level as that of other characters in the book, many of whom are morally bankrupt in various ways. Instead of a clear-cut morality, Marlowe adheres to a code of honor, referencing the chivalrous knight, but never being so blatant about it, and fudging the lines as necessary to survive in the world in which he operates. These are mean streets he has to walk, filled with mob bosses, murderers, blackmailers, crooked cops, and even corrupt millionaires. Through it all Marlowe walks with his code, which puts the client first. That is his moral compass instead of any other kind of morality. Protect the client, benefit the client. Even if it means lying to the client or stepping outside the bounds the client specified. He’ll even return his clients’ money if they’re unsatisfied with the job he’s done.
So I’m not sure Marlowe is much more moral than Spade. It’s simply that he operates by his code of honor. And, like Spade, he comes away with very little in way of benefit after the case. He has some small measure of pay from the General, but he made enemies out of Eddie Mars and the cops. He doesn’t get the girl. He survived. He can take another case tomorrow. All so he can make a lousy $25 per day plus expenses.
I’m not so sure that the detectives aren’t losers.