Culture, Screen

Raymond Chandler, the American mystery writer


He  was 55 years old when he started at Paramount in 1943.  He was a detective writer whose works are known only by enthusiasts of this genre and he and his wife are on the verge of destitution.

Two years previously RKO had bought the rights to ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ for a few hundred dollars.  One of the films from the ‘Falcon’ series was filmed using the book, with the main character then played by George Sanders.  The classic B list film was soon forgotten.  The following year he sold the rights to ‘The High Window’, but this time to Fox.  It was another ‘B list’ type that few saw and nobody remembers.  His arrival at Paramount therefore marked his true debut in Hollywood.

This debut saw him working with Billy Wilder on the adaptation of James Cain’s novella of the same title, ‘Double Indemnity’. It is a key title in film noir in which the leading duo, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, murder for ambition and adulterous passion.

As Wilder writes in his memoirs, when he met him it was “hate at first sight”.  The writer seemed to him to be a bitter and hysterical man with the haggard complexion of an alcoholic in hiding, scruffy and smoking a pipe that reeked.  What is more, he had heard that he had lost a good job due to excessive drinking and that he was married to a much older woman.  He admitted that Chandler was an author who could write the most incredible descriptions and dialogues. But it was easier to co-write a script with playwrights than narrators.

The Viennese writer believed that for a playwright, a play or a film is like a game of chess where each movement conditions and determines the next. One movement could contain all the beauty imaginable, but if it did not move the story forward, it was useless.

Chandler too felt uncomfortable.  Amongst other things, he could not cope with Wilder’s frankness, irony and pretentious talk.  He felt humiliated when Wilder gave orders such as asking him to open a window, close a door or get a cup of coffee.  He also thought that it was simply rude to wear a hat of any kind whilst working.

In other words, two completely contrasting personalities had collided to the extent that when they went their own ways, Chandler remembered his collaboration with the filmmaker as an unbearable experience that most definitely shortened his life.  Wilder was not far behind in saying that he had never worked with someone who irritated him more.

No turning back

In the end all turned out well.  The story gained liveliness in the narrative.  It opened the path to a new way of making films for the big screen in North America.  The script got an Oscar nomination and when James Cain saw the film he thought that it was better than his book.

Shortly after, Chandler was assigned to improving the dialogues of two scripts that had already been written; one that was to be played by Alan Ladd and the other by Joel McCrea.

As the days progressed he learnt new secrets of film text.  His biggest challenge was when Paramount asked him for an original script for their star Alan Ladd, and so he wrote ‘The Blue Dahlia’. It is an incomplete novel that was made into a script where all of the ingredients characteristic of his style can be found – his accurate portrayal of the psychology of his characters and clear understanding of the society being depicted.  He is quite the master when it comes to thrillers.

Billy Wilder

The other great director who Chandler worked (and suffered) with was Alfred Hitchcock.  In 1951 he wrote the script for Strangers on a Train, a story based on the novel by Partricia Highsmith.

Between one thing and another, the collaboration was a disaster.  The writer saw the producer as someone who was incapable of accepting anything that was not his own idea.

The filmmaker, who was more restrained, merely stated that things had not worked out well between them.  However, that said, he held Chandler fundamentally responsible for the failure of the script and began to argue about it.

For example, he pointed out that when he told Chandler why he did not want something done one way or another, he invariably answered that if Hitchcock already had the answer than why was he needed.  In the end Hitchcock called on Czenzi Ormonde, another scriptwriter, to finish the script.

A rare specimen

It is possible that Hollywood has underestimated this most important detective novel writer, regarding as a mere writer of detective novels, a literary craftsman who clocked in at 8 o’clock in the morning and just knuckle down.

Very few people in the film industry admired his stories, dialogues and bold imagery.  Even fewer knew of his strong artistic integrity and desire for freedom, all of which made him a rare specimen of the sophisticated world that is Hollywood.

On his way through the traditional centre of American cinema, he made a number of observations.  Some of these give testimony to his sharp irony, others to his strengths: “If my books had been worse, Hollywood would never have called on me.  And if they had been better, I would never have gone.”

“Finding a good script in Hollywood is a phenomenon as extraordinary as it is ingenious.  I am not worried about my reputation as a scriptwriter.  I don’t like writing scripts and I will never go back to doing it.  If I do it will only be for the money.”

“Hollywood is like a South American presidential palace taken by storm by the military dressed in costume suitable for an operetta.  When all is over and they can examine the deaths and the tattered remains that fill the streets underneath the walls, one can unexpectedly understand that there is nothing so funny about it; it is merely chaos which marks of the end of a civilisation.” PL.

(Translated by Emily Russell – email: er@tisef.com)

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