How Raymond Chandler Made a Killing at the Movies

by Hugh Tynan


"Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and a brilliant smilereeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box." Philip Marlowe

Hollywood wasn't always as indifferent to the raw materials of its movies as it is now. Back in the 40s and 50s, the big studios took a much more pro-active (ouch!) approach to acquiring stories and scripts. They had to. The auteurs were not nées yet. There was no scope for clever homages to past cinematic glories, because there simply hadn't been too many of those. Sam Goldwyn didn't buy beermats from Joe Esterhasz when his accountants told him he needed a major feature. Jack Warner was not given to the lazy 'snap up the rights to the next Grisham' method of film production. No: they were businessmen, goddammit, and they ran their affairs in a business like fashion. So they invited the cream of the international literary community to come and work for them under contract, paying them - sometimes very well - to congregate in writers' blocks and think. Write. Produce. Picture Barton Fink arriving onWilshire Boulevard, brimful of passion and ambition. Now forget him. Picture instead F.Scott Fitzgerald writing tripe to fuel his blood sugar levels, impressing everybody with his decency but receiving less and less party invitations as his boozy reputation spreads. Hold that image. At least it's historically accurate.

While on contract, the writers had little or no creative control over what they were writing. They were given assigned projects, co-operated and co-wrote, perhaps occasionally encouraged to dream up some kooky new idea. Generally, however, it was a case of 'It's Monday - we need a war movie by Friday' from the producers. It was hack work, in theory,but paradoxically it gave us some of the enduring classics of cinema history. Plus, it paid by the hour, and writers are habitually a lazy lot, and hence predisposed to holding endless story conferences in the studio bar and making a bit of cash at the same time. It was what they called the Golden Age of the studio system. Hollywood was one big party. The public couldn't get enough movies and the movie moguls couldn't get enough money, and the brilliant California sun beat down on the redwoods and the beaches and the Cadillacs. Pop into Musso and Frank's restaurant on Sunset any night of the week and you might meet George Bernard Shaw, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway,J.B. Priestley, Christopher Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht, Graham Greene, Paul Gallico, P.G.Wodehouse or Thomas Mann.

Or you could take the beach road to La Jolla, one of Los Angeles' many reluctant suburbs,where you could pay a call on hard-boiled crime novelist Raymond Chandler. He wouldn't let you in, of course. Sitting at the typewriter resisting the obligatory writer's addiction to the demon drink, while simultaneously attending to his infirm and elderly wife, he seemed very unlike the fictional tough-guy detective he created and immortalised, Philip Marlowe. He was. Although tough enough to tell J. Edgar Hoover to 'Go to hell!' in a crowded restaurant, Raymond Chandler was, after all, entering his sixties. Nevertheless, he still had some of themost creative years of his already-remarkable life before him.

Chandler's legacy in modern cinema -particularly film noir - is quite extensive, at least equal to his literary influence, which forged in granite the stereotype of the wise-cracking trench-coated-private-dick of the mean streets, cynically relating his adventures as they occur (in fact, he has been credited with introducing the voice-over narrative technique to film). Like many other writers however, he experienced an ideological difficulty with the often mundane, sometimes base and always - ugh! - commercial work of screenwriting. True, most writers happily accepted the studio buck, swallowed their pride and got on with the sergeant's pep talk to the men before he sends them over the top. But others moaned about the debasement of their art,or the liberties which wayward directors were taking with their finely-honed masterpieces. Thelatter type usually ended up writing recriminatory and bitter novels exposing the rotten heart of Tinseltown when the money ran out, or when they could prostitute their talent no more. Chandler did (The Little Sister - indicted by Anthony Boucher for its scathing hatred of the human race); Fitzgerald did (The Last Tycoon); so too did Nathaneal West (The Day of the Locust) and Aldous Huxley (After Many A Summer Dies The Swan).

Chandler's Hollywood sojourn began discreetly, with the sales of the movie rights to some of his books, commencing in 1941. He remained aloof from actual film-making until mid-1943,when Paramount producer and avid mystery reader Joe Sistrom suggested inviting him in to work on a screenplay for James M. Cain's Double Indemnity with famous director Billy Wilder. Chandler's antipathy with Wilder is well documented, but the picture that was finally released in April 1944 is still considered a classic of the noir genre, thanks in no small part to Chandler's rapid-fire, densely-packed dialogue. The following extract, from the first encounter between Fred McMurray's slimy insurance investigator and Babs Stanwyck's femme fatale, is indicative; she is chiding him over his seductive overtures:

PHYLLIS: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles per hour.

WALTER: How fast was I going, officer?

PHYLLIS: I'd say around 90.

WALTER: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?

PHYLLIS: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time?

WALTER: Suppose it doesn't take?

PHYLLIS: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles?

WALTER: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder?

PHYLLIS: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder?

WALTER: That tears it!

Chandler found himself a sudden "hot property" when the film's script was nominated for an Oscar: it didn't win, but that didn't matter. He was in demand. Remaining with Paramount on a lucrative contract, he did some undistinguished but competent work on Rachel Field's And Now Tomorrow and Hagar Wilde's The Unseen. His next assignment, however, turned out tobe one of the strangest stories in the crazy carnival that was fruitcake 40s LA.

In January 1944, Paramount discovered that their biggest star, Alan Ladd, was due to be drafted to fight in Europe, andt was suddenly realised that there was no vehicle ready for release which would sustain his public image while he was away. The studio heads were delighted, therefore, when Chandler mentioned that he had some work on hand that might be suitable, which he called The Blue Dahlia. Casting began instantly. Veronica Lake wasc hosen to play opposite Ladd, and within weeks director George Marshall was rapidly catching up on the existing written screenplay. Pretty soon, there were only a few pages left to shoot, but the conclusion was nowhere in sight, and nobody - including Chandler himself - knew who would turn out to be the villain. Chandler had designated Buzz, a brain-damaged veteran who was subject to amnesiac blackouts, for this fateful place, but the U.S. army vetoed the idea, not wanting to suggest to Joe Q. Public that the returning wartime heroes were anything other than cerebrally solid citizens. Panic ensued. The nervous heads of production promised Ray a five thousand dollar bonus if he finished on time. He was affronted by the offer: he had every intention of completing his assigned and paid-for task. This insulting bribe, in the opinion of his producer and friend John Houseman, shattered his self-confidence, and he withdrew from the project in despair and rage. The next day however, he decided there was only one way he could finish the script: drunk.

So it came about that Chandler spent two weeks in a state of permanent intoxication, lounging about his house, now idly working on a couple of pages of script, then lightly dozing for a couple of hours, maintaining his optimum level of drunkenness with continual sips of bourbon, not eating but receiving regular vitamin jabs from a specially-commissioned doctor. All this required two limousines, six secretaries, and a direct telephone line to the studio open day and night....

"The remainder of this article can be found in Film West 31.