Bruce Lee has a reputation for playing kung fu heroes, but in one movie – Marlowe – the martial arts legend portrayed a bad guy. This occurred before the actor achieved stardom in the 1971 Hong Kong film, The Big Boss, so it wasn’t as much of a big deal at that time.
After a career as a child actor in Hong Kong, Lee attempted to make his mark on Hollywood with his martial arts skills. Instead of breaking into the movie business right away, Lee made the jump to the small screen in ABC’s The Green Hornet, where he was able to put his kung fu expertise to use as the titular protagonist’s chauffer and sidekick, Kato. When The Green Hornet was cancelled after just one season, Lee made guest appearances in other shows while awaiting an opportunity to appear in a Hollywood film, hopefully as the star. In 1968, he was hired to work as the “karate advisor” for the actors in The Wrecking Crew, but didn’t get an actual part in the movie.
He received his first role in an American movie in 1969 when he was cast as the gangster Winslow Wong in Marlowe, a noir movie centered on pulp fiction novelist Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective hero Phillip Marlowe. James Garner played the title character. In a scene in the movie, Winslow Wong enters Marlowe’s office and begins wrecking the place. He then proceeds to offer Marlowe $500 to get him to stop investigating a case. Wong also threatens that there will be consequences if Marlowe doesn’t cooperate. Unsurprisingly, James Garner’s character refuses the offer.
In turn, Wong unleashes several kung fu moves on his office in a display that was both memorable and impressive. Later on, Marlowe battles Wong on a rooftop, and taunts him into using a jump kick. When Marlowe dodges, Wong plummets off the building to his ɗᥱαꚍɧ. Bruce Lee’s role as a kung fu enforcer in Marlowe was short, but it did help expose him to American audiences. Unfortunately, however, Marlowe did little to convince Hollywood studios to hire him.
As studio executives remained hesitant to take a chance on casting an Asian lead, Lee’s time in Hollywood didn’t yield the results he was looking for, which was to become a bigger star than Steve McQueen himself. Lee ended up leaving the United States and heading back to Hong Kong, where the kung fu movie genre was already picking up steam. It was in the 1971 Golden Harvest movie, The Big Boss, that Lee crafted his image as a kung fu hero.
Because of The Big Boss and what it meant for his career, Winslow Wong became his only villainous character, and Marlowe marked the last time he filmed a bit role in a project. All of the Bruce Lee movies that followed saw him play heroic martial artists forced to oppose a dangerous enemy.