HE WAS a big man, but not more than 6 feet 5 inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. . . . He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sport coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest-dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."
This tangy, humorous prose could be the invention of only one writer: Raymond Chandler. The passage, of course, records the first impressions of private eye Phillip Marlowe upon sightings Moose Malloy, destined to become one of his most unforgetable clients. A delightfully outrageous introduction, it occurs on the first page of "Farewell, My Lovely," the second of Chandler's seven detective novels. Originally published in 1940, the book was filmed three times by Hollywood, which never quite found a suitable Moose or a pictorial style that did justice to the author's descriptive flair. m
Nevertheless, Raymond Chandler and Hollywood were briefly and belatedly attracted to each other with an intensity that left an indelible impression on the movies of the '40s, due to the trend-setting success of three pictures based on his novels -- "Murder, My Sweet" (the second version of "Farewell, My Lovely") in 1945, followed by "The Big Sleep" and "The Lady in the Lake" in 1946 -- and a couple of mystery thrillers to which Chandler contributed conspicuously as a screenwriter -- the 1944 adaptation of James A. Cain's "Double Indemnity," scripted in collaboration with director Billy Wilder, and another hard-boiled hit of 1946, "The Blue Dahilia," an "original" cannibalized from an abandoned novel. Moreover, the impression created by these movies (and the imitators and competitors they helped inspire) lingered into another generation, like a stubborn nostalgic hangover.
A new revival series at the American Film Institute Theater, "Raymond Chandler: The Simple Art of Murder," has been designed to recall the origins and persistence of this influence. The opening program, scheduled for 8 p.m. today, is a double bill of "Murder My Sweet" and the 1975 remake, which restored the title "Farewell, My Lovely." Here's the Chandler-Hollywood connection in one generation-straddling package; from tawdry, explosive inception to overproduced, mawkish homage.
Eight of the 11 films in the series are adaptations of Chandler novels. He helped write the scripts of the remaining trio. When RKO acquired "Farewell, My Lovely" in 1942, the book's plot was immediately appropriated for "The Falcon Takes Over," an installment in a diverting B detective series starring George Sanders as the debonair sleuth created by Michael Arlen. This curious hybrid shares a bill on Wednesday, June 11, at 6:30 p.m. with "The Brasher Doubloon," a 1947 production based on Chandler's "The High Window." Although crisply directed by John Brahm, an exiled German with a resourceful, expressionistic touch, "Brasher" is generally regretted because in it Marlowe was played by George Montgomery, the most dubious stand-in for Chandler's disreputable, but incorruptible protagonist until Robert Altman and Elliott Gould goofed around with "The Long Good-bye" in 1973.
Only the last of the Chandler novels, "Playback," has not been turned into a movie of one kind or another. Ironically, it reversed the process Chandler went through on "The Blue Dahlia." When Universal declined to produce an original screenplay commissioned in the late '40s, Chandler eventually revamped the premise into a new, if rather exhausted, case for Philip Marlowe.
"The Little Sister," somehow overlooked in the '40s, was filmed in 1969 as "Marlowe." James Garner was cast in the title role, but the movie is best remembered for Bruce Lee's brief, sensational appearance as an inscrutable, intimidating visitor who devastates Marlow's office with karate chops and kicks. Michael Winner's ramshackle 1977 version of "The Big Sleep," perhaps the most unnecessary, unwanted remake ever made, has been omitted from the AFI Theater series, which concludes on Wednesday, June 18, with a 9 p.m. showing of the richly entertaining Howard Hawks version. Still the most astute and satisfying of the adaptations, it transposed the racy Chandler idiom and sinister atmosphere while finessing a number of plot complications, basically to avoid censorship problems.
Chandler was 51 when "The Big Sleep," the first of the Marlowe adventures, was published in 1939. He had begun to find himself as a writer only five years earlier, when attracted to the pulp detective stories in the magazine Black Mask. His imitation of their formulas -- and the writing styles of Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway -- evolved into a distinctive literary style that rejuvenated and somewhat elevated detective fiction. Chandler was extremely conscious of his achievement and wrote about it eloquently.
"My whole career," he said, "is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style. . . . Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack. . . .My theory was that readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action. . . . The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description. . . ."
Chandler never made more than $2,000 a year as a magazine writer. It was the movies that dramatically improved his financial standing. When approached by Wilder and Paramount executive Joe Sistrom to work on "Double Indemnity." Chandler suggested a salary of $150 a week while writing a treatment. Sistrom promptly got him an agent and negotiated an initial contract for 13 weeks at $750 a week. Film rights to "Farewell, My Lovely" and "The High Window" were purchased in 1942 for $2,000 and $3,500 respectively. Three years later MGM paid $35,000 for "The Lady in the Lake."
Considering their temperamental incompatibility and incorrigibility, it seems a miracle that Wilder and Chandler actually stuck it out and produced a script as expertly distilled as "Double Indemnity," one of the rare screenplays that read as crisply as they play. According to Chandler, "Working with Billy Wilder on 'Double Indemnity' was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much. Like every writer, or almost every writer, who goes to Hollywood, I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures. . . . But like others before me I discovered that this was a dream. Too many people have too much to say about a writer's work. It ceases to be his own. . . . The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn't take things too much to heart."
One recognizes the familiar and fundamentally justified inferiority complex of the screenwriter, his contributions inevitably subordinated to that of the director. Nevertheless, "Double Indemnity" seems to incorporate more of the Chandler style than any other movie, with the possible exception of Hawks' production of "The Big Sleep." The flashback structure allows descriptive passages to be spoken by the protagonist-narrator, played by Fred MacMurray, and his idiom is unmistakable. "The living room was still stuffy from last night's cigars. The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the Venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air. The furniture was kind of corny and old-fashioned, but it had a comfortable look, as if people really sat in it."
The movie that resulted from the evidently hostile but sensational collaboration between Chandler and Wilder was a big sucess and a leading Oscar contender, losing to "Going My Way," much to Wilder's consternation. After polishing the dialogue on two other Paramount films, Chandler received a second Oscar nomination for "The Bible Dahlia," a project rushed into production to give the studio one last Alan Ladd movie before he was recalled to military service.
The strange history of this fitfully amusing potboiler is recounted in full in "Front and Center," the memoirs of John Houseman, who produced "The Blue Dahlia." The triumphant scandal, of course, is that Chandler finished the script in a calculated state of drunkeness, supposedly provoked when a nervous management offered him a $5,000 bonus, which he regarded as a dastardly insult, to guarantee a prompt wrap-up. According to Houseman, "During those last eight days of shooting Chandler did not draw one sober breath, nor did one speck of solid food pass his lips. He was polite and cheerful when I appeared and his doctor came twice a day to give him intravenous injections. The rest of the time, except when he was asleep, with his black cat by his side, Ray was never without a glass in his hand. He did not drink much. Having reached the euphoria he needed, he continued to consume just enough bourbon and water to maintain him in that condition."
It is not coincidental that "The Blue Dahlia" opened with a group of characters entering a saloon and closed with the line, "Did somebody say something about a drink of bourbon?" Chandler went through recurrent bouts of alcoholism. In a letter written a few months before his death, he remarked, "Very few writers can write on alcohol but I am one of the exceptions. I don't miss alcohol physically at all, but I do miss it mentally and spiritually."
Although "Blue Dahlia" was a spotty performance at best, two hits and two Oscar nominations in succession gave Chandler potential leverage in Hollywood. According to MacShane, Paramount suggested that he produce and perhaps even direct his own scripts. Evidently, Chandler rejected the idea, and it probably would have been too late to start, but these are many indications in his ambivalent essays and letters about the film business that the medium tempted and haunted him.
For example, in 1951 he wrote to a friend, "You asked me how anyone can survive Hollywood? Well, I must say that I personally had a lot of fun there. But how long you can survive depends a great deal on what sort of people you get to work with. . . A writer who can get teamed up with a director or producer who will give him a square deal, a really square deal, can get a lot of satisfaction out of his work. Unfortunately that doesn't happen too often. A really creative writer ought to become a director, which means that in addition to being creative he must also be very tough physically and morally. . .
"If you really believe in the art of the film, it's a long-term job and you ought to forget about any other kind of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making. It's not what films are for. It's not my cup of tea, but it could have been if I'd started it twenty years earlier. But twenty years earlier of course I could never have got there, and that is true of a great many people."
Chandler's last major film project was Alfred Hitchcock's "Stranglers on ad Train." Begun in the hope that "I might like Hitch, which I do, and partly because one gets tired of saying no, and someday I might want to say yes and not get asked." This association proved unrewarking for both men. Hitchcock found Chandler's treatment unusable and turned to an assistant of Ben Hecht's to complete the script. Chandler seems to have treated Hitchcock shabbily and regarded the story as impossible to rationalize. The movie's eventual popularity baffled and annoyed him.
Chandler sometimes professed to be baffled at being taken more seriously than he intended: "Why is it that Americans -- of all people the quickest to reverse their moods -- do not see the strong element of burlesque in my kind of writing?"
The burlesque element emerged most amiably when he felt like kidding himself. "Yes, I am exactly like the characters in my book," he wrote to his first Hollywood agent. "I am very tough and have been known to break a Vienna roll with my bare hands. I am very handsome, having a powerful physique, and I change my shirt regularly every Monday morning. When resting between assignments I live in a French Provincial chateau on Mulholland Drive. . . I dine off gold plate and prefer to be waited on by naked dancing girls. . . I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favorite weapon is a twenty dollar bill."