Chandler and the Movies (and Poetry)

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has been filmed twice with a famous American actor playing detective Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart started it off in 1946 and Robert Mitchum reprised the role in 1978. Bogart’s is the one to see, directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Lauren Bacall. Here’s a clip with the wonderful Dorothy Malone in her only scene. Much of the dialogue is right out of the novel.

There’s a lot to look at and wonder about in this scene: the way the book shop is named Acme (like in an old Looney Tunes cartoon), the photo of FDR on the wall, the pocket handkerchief Bogie sports, Malone’s pince-nez, the bottle of “pretty good rye” Bogie just happens to have in his pocket…

Hawks had William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett work on the script for this movie. You may know Faulkner from his novels and, er, his Nobel prize a few years later. Brackett was a successful sci-fi writer; she also co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.

I had read The Big Sleep before I saw the movie and was a little surprised by Bogart as Marlowe. He’s not at all how I had imagined Marlowe, who is usually described as a big guy, constantly getting blackjacked and drugged and beat up by gangsters and corrupt cops, only to quickly snap back after a couple slugs of whiskey (surely one of the more ridiculous tropes of detective fiction).

Bogart might be alone in portraying not one but two famous detectives from American fiction. Five years earlier he had played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s directorial debut. In his novel, Dashiell Hammett describes Spade as big, six feet tall, looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” French critic Nino Frank, in his 1946 review of the Huston movie, wondered about Bogart as well:

As to the leading man, it is Humphrey Bogart: He is good, but not how we imagine this author’s heroes (no more, it may be added, would the William Powell type). That’s Hollywood.

(Powell played the lead in the series of movies based on Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man.)

Robert Mitchum, a combination hunk and galoot, is probably closer to the Marlowe of the books. The problem is the English director of The Big Sleep remake must not have understood that in Chandler, Los Angeles is practically a character, and so set it in London, which simply doesn’t work.

No amount of additional American actors in the newer movie (Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Candy Clark) can make up for the loss of LA. It’s like filming a Faulkner novel in Toronto and changing some of the characters’ names to boot (in the remake, old man Sternwood’s daughters, Vivian and Carmen, are now Charlotte and Camilla).

To my knowledge, Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake has only been filmed once, and it was a failure. Although star (and director) Robert Montgomery is a credible Marlowe, most of the film is shot from the point of view (literally) of Marlowe. Maybe this idea looked good on paper, but it doesn’t work at all and loses much of what makes the novel interesting.

After publishing this novel in 1943, Chandler went on to work on screenplays for several films, including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), from James M. Cain’s novel; George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), an original screenplay; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The first two got him Oscar nominations.

The Lady in the Lake feels very cinematic, and I’m surprised it was never made into a more conventional detective movie. The chapters are short, averaging about six pages each in my paperback edition, and the setting usually changes from chapter to chapter, creating the sense of movement that we expect in a modern detective story.

For example, the first two chapters take place in the waiting room and then office of Marlowe’s wealthy client, then a chapter at a suspect’s house, then a chapter in front of another suspect’s house across the street, then the drive to Little Fawn Lake via San Bernardino and Puma Point.

One thing about traditional detective movies is how so many scenes are just interior shots of people talking. These are not action pictures in the modern sense. For example, The Maltese Falcon has very few exterior scenes; in fact much of the movie takes place in Spade’s tiny apartment.

As a modern movie, Chandler’s novel could easily include plenty of outdoor scenes. Most of Chandler’s stories take place in LA or its environs, including the town of Bay City (a fictional Santa Monica). That’s true of this novel as well, but it also contains quite a few chapters that take place at Little Fawn Lake and in the resort town of Puma Point, almost rural and certainly rustic by our standards today.

Other than in a couple of short stories and a final novel (Playback), I don’t recall Chandler’s detectives spending much time outside of LA. And it sounds as though Marlowe, the solitary drinker and student of chess, doesn’t much like these locales. Here’s his description of Puma Point:

It was still broad daylight but some of the neon signs had been turned on, and the evening reeled with the cheerful din of auto horns, children screaming, bowls rattling, skeeballs clunking, .22’s snapping merrily in shooting galleries, juke boxes playing like crazy, and behind this out on the lake the hard barking roar of the speedboats going nowhere at all and acting as though they were racing with death.

Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the angel of death in any little holiday spot she’s visiting, darkness accompanies Marlowe wherever he goes.

Still, this could be done as an ironic comic scene, the sort of thing that breaks the tension for a little while in a detective movie. As Marlowe tells us, and you can almost hear him in voiceover: “At Puma Point, summer, that lovely season, was in full swing.”

There are poetic qualities in a lot of Chandler’s sentences. And it’s not just the striking similes that detective fiction is notorious for. Although there are some good ones in The Lady in the Lake:

His door closed on the pneumatic closer and made a sound like “phooey.”

We started off side by side, as friendly as puppies again.

He looked at us like a horse that had got into the wrong stable.

I think my favorite bits in Chandler, though, are the sentences that can sound like throwaway lines from Law and Order. Often ironic, they’re sometimes even metrical:

The whiskey won the fight, as it always does.

The star on his left breast had a bent point.

“Something,” I said out loud, “is all wrong with this scene.”

If you write poetry, a good exercise is to take an author with a distinctive style or voice and try to capture something of their writing in a poem. Not just imitation or pastiche, but rather like what Dana Gioia did in his memorable poem “In Chandler Country.”

The title tells us precisely where we are, and the first lines grab brilliantly at the style of Chandler’s writing:

      California night. The Devil’s wind,
      the Santa Ana, blows in from the east,
      raging through the canyon like a drunk
      screaming in a bar.

If this were prose, it might be considered fan fiction. But unlike most fan fiction, Gioia rivals the original. Here’s the opening of Chandler’s 1938 story, “Red Wind,” which the poem alludes to:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.

The speaker of Gioia’s poem is Marlowe himself, perhaps old and retired now, ruminating on past cases during a hot, sleepless night, his memories triggered by the kind of wind that was ever-present during the “Red Wind” case, thumping and howling at the windows.

Gioia captures the feel of Chandler’s prose and converts it to poetry using unobtrusive blank verse. It’s so natural sounding you might not even recognize it as that.

And like Chandler, Gioia goes for the pithy throwaway line as well:

      The weather’s fine as long as you don’t breathe.

© 10 Franks 2023

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