WEIRDLAND

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Neo-noir "Trouble is My Business" (2018), The case of Raymond Chandler

For those who are fans of classic film noirs that came from the 1940s and the 1950s, including The Big Sleep, The Big Combo, and Murder My Sweet, the 2018 film Trouble is My Business pays homage to those classics from yesteryear. Taking place in Los Angeles in the 1940s, Trouble is My Business is a neo-noir crime drama centering on detective Ronald Drake (Tom Konkle). After a romantic evening with Katherine Montemar, he wakes up the next morning to bloodstained bed sheets, leaving him confused as to what happened. Katherine’s older sister, Jennifer (Brittney Powell), arrives on the scene asking him to search for both her missing father and sister. The search ultimately leads Drake down a dark and winding path as he finds himself caught in a nightmarish situation involving several shady characters, including a corrupt police detective (Vernon Wells) and Evelyn Montemar (Jordana Capra), the wicked mother of Katherine and Jennifer.

Trouble is My Business was also produced by, co-written, and directed by Tom Konkle. Despite being shot on a low budget, it does a remarkable job at capturing a gritty noir atmosphere. It has all the ingredients necessary to make it work well, including femme fatales, dark characters, and disreputable policemen. Konkle appears to have done his homework in capturing the tone and look of a film noir, right down to the outfits that characters wear. The action, while minimal, is still compelling with great dialogue and excellent one-liners. Trouble is My Business arrives in a 2-disc set; one disc featuring the film in color, and the other in black and white. The colorized version is fairly sharp and saturated with good textures. Source: www.thedigitalbits.com

This is one of those rare indie, lower budget films I truly loved. Not just as a good independent film, but as a great film in general. What I ended up getting with "Trouble Is My Business" was a stylized, well thought out production, that captured the feel it was going for perfectly. This doesn't just look like it was based on the stylized concepts of the genre, it plays like the real thing. From the excellent use of cliche shadows, from blinds and fans - and whatever else could possibly make a great looking shadow, straight through to comedic yet believable dialogue... Sayings like "being a flat tire" and dead-pan one liners, fill the sound space and brought a grin to my face. Generally speaking, Tom Konkle and Brittney Powell have penned an excellent script and Konkle himself has done some excellent work directing it.

The down on his luck private dick. The mysterious dame... and in this case, her sister as well. The rivalry of a competing detective and of course, a slew of villainous characters that are either quirky enough to be sinister, or just down right bad. All the characters within "Trouble Is My Business" feel right at home onscreen, meaning that the actors must have felt at home as well. Lines were corny sounding when they needed to be. Witty when it worked for the scene, and everything you expect from a film of this nature. It's just one of those rare indie productions where everything managed to fall in place. I write that rather loosely, since the reality of things "falling into place" no doubt required a "lot" of hard work. Source: www.indyred.com

Trouble Is My Business is a humorous homage to film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, among them John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Konkle stars in the sort of role that back in the ’40s and ’50s belonged to the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Alan Ladd. As the femme fatale, Brittney Powell is supposed to evoke memories of Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor. This is pure homage to the stories of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Ross MacDonald, and the films that showcased them. Trouble Is My Business uses the artifice of props and costume and special effects to create 1940s Los Angeles exteriors and lush interiors all of which is slightly unreal, if not a little surreal. Orson Welles, himself a master of the unreal in a number of ways, would be most impressed. Source: www.altfg.com

“I wouldn't say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors.” —“Playback” (1958) by Raymond Chandler

The case of Raymond Chandler: To a correspondent who suggested that Marlowe was immature, Chandler replied sharply that if being in revolt against a corrupt society was immature, then Marlowe was extremely immature. The influence of Chandler is far beyond a detective novelist (he admired Dickens, Flaubert, Fitzgerald). Chandler was admired by Auden, Camus, Graham Greene; modern story-tellers as James Ellroy owe him a hefty debt (Frank Miller, Sin City novels' author, described Dwight McCarthy as a 'modern iteration of Philip Marlowe'), although he'd conform with "twenty-five a day and expenses". Blade Runner (1982), unique combination of sci-fi and noir, contains a similar interrogatory structure. Paul Auster: "Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since".

Josh Brolin as Dwight McCarthy and Eva Green as Ava in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

And then there’s that tough-but-lyrical prose: “The rushing sound of the traffic had died a little and the air from the open window, not yet cool from the night, had that tired end-of-the-day smell of dust, automobile exhaust, sunlight rising from hot walls and sidewalks, the remote smell of food in a thousand restaurants, and perhaps, drifting down from the residential hills above Hollywood-if you had a nose like a hunting dog-a touch of that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather.” Chandler's forte were his wisecracks and similes: “Her eyes became narrow and almost black and as shallow as enamel on a cafeteria tray.” The sun “drops like an angry brick at nightfall”; a night clerk has “one of those moustaches that gets stuck under your fingernail.” The main action takes place in anonymous spaces that seem at once set-designed and decayed. For Fredric Jameson (Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality) the artistic accomplishment of Chandler’s work appears to be its formal evocation of 'the big sleep' itself: “I claim that it is this opening onto the not-world, onto its edge and its end, in the void, in non-human space, in death, that is the ultimate secret of Chandlerian narrative.” 

When MGM purchased the rights to Raymond Chandler's fourth Philip Marlowe mystery in 1945, they asked the novelist to adapt The Lady in the Lake for the screen. It would be the only time Chandler would write a screenplay based on his own work. The result, a rambling 175-page script, was deemed unfilmable and Steve Fisher was brought in for a rewrite. Chandler insisted on a screen credit until he read Fisher's revised screenplay and then wanted his name removed from the credits. While Chandler had issues with the subjective camera gimmick and the deletion of the Little Fawn Lake sequence (a key scene in the original novel), critics were impressed with the film. Newsweek called it "a brilliant tour de force," and The New York Times reported that "The picture is definitely different and affords one a fresh and interesting perspective on a murder mystery." Source: www.tcm.com

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Raymond Chandler and the Hard-Boiled Detective as War Veteran in American Fiction

Raymond Chandler was evacuated to Britain, concussed and “shell-shocked,” where he began drinking heavily. In all likelihood, Chandler’s experience of war caused the author psychological injury, yet because the existing biographical material is vague it does not allow us to comprehend the gravity of Chandler’s war experiences. The First World War was a pivotal moment for the twenty-eight-year-old Chandler. While Frank MacShane believes that the psychological impact of war would make Chandler block out the memory of it, many have overlooked the experience as a key influence upon Chandler’s formulation of Philip Marlowe. Chandler’s only overt depiction of warfare, a short piece of prose titled “Trench Raid,” has generally been cited as the writer’s only attempt to exorcise his demons. Written between June and December 1918 while recuperating in England, “Trench Raid” is the only work in which Chandler explicitly attempted to recount his war experiences. In 1957 he wrote, “Once you have led a platoon into direct machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again.” Officially discharged from the Canadian Army on 20 February 1919, Chandler returned to America, but quickly became restless. 

He traveled the Pacific Coast, becoming particularly familiar with Washington State, a familiarity that he would later use in his short story “Goldfish” (1936). In 1932, Chandler was dismissed from his job at Dabney Oil Company as the direct consequence of his alcohol dependency and love affairs with secretaries. In hindsight, MacShane believes that Chandler’s novels were successful because “Marlowe was an ordinary Black Mask character: tough, an honest man in a crooked trade. This kind of hero is common in American literature and seems to represent a faith in the incorruptibility of at least part of the population”. In a letter to Edgar Carter in 1957, Chandler expressed: “Marlowe is a character of some nobility, of scorching wit, sad but not defeated, lonely, and never really sure of himself. He doesn’t talk or behave like an idealist, but I think that he is one at heart.” 

In 1946 Ray and Cissy moved to La Jolla, a community within San Diego, in Southern California. The Long Goodbye can be interpreted as Marlowe’s drawn-out farewell to his war veteran friend Terry Lennox. Furthermore, the novel also suggests that it was Chandler’s attempt to rid himself of the psychological symptoms of his own postcombat stress. Despite this valiant attempt, neither objective was actually achieved since the novel ends with Marlowe more disillusioned than ever, being both deceived by Lennox and still beset with an overwhelming sense of desolation. Chandler received his biggest blow in December 1954 when, after long periods of hospitalization, Cissy finally died. It was not until his fourth suicide attempt on 22 February 1955, when Chandler attempted to shoot himself in a drunken stupor, that those closest to him actively responded to his plight. Cissy had been Chandler’s major stabilizing influence on his troubled life. With her death his depression and suffering came flooding back with devastating effect. The remaining five years of Chandler’s life proved to be his most destructive: “life was empty in every respect, and the future seemed completely without purpose”. As Jerry Speir noted, Chandler’s last lonely years “serve as an indicator of the depths of the frustration of this man.” On 23 March, after yet another heavy bout of drinking, he was admitted to La Jolla Convalescent Hospital suffering from pneumonia. Two days later he was transferred to the Scripps Clinic where he died on 26 March 1959. 

Chandler’s lonely existence was echoed in his death. After a funeral service that was attended by just seventeen people, he was buried in a small plot in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego. It was not until one decade after Chandler’s death that critics such as Wilson Pollock in his 1962 article “Man with a Toy Gun” for The New Republic, began to appreciate the striking similarities between the so-called “low” cultural work of Chandler and the “high” literature of the Lost Generation. Pollock argued that the major difference between Chandler and Hemingway was an artificial demarcation based entirely on the literary canon. Chandler first utilized the modernist style of Hammett, which he then advanced into something new, imposing his own unique stamp on the genre. Hammett’s heroes—the Continental Op, Sam Spade, Ned Beaumont—were violent, but, arguably, that violence was not necessarily sensationalist. Instead, as Philip Durham suggests, “It was rather a kind of meaningful violence, sometimes an explicit description and implicit criticism of a corrupt society.” 

By articulating themes common to the Lost Generation, and in belonging to, as Malcolm Cowley notes, the “World War One generation,” Chandler can be considered alongside this group of distinguished writers. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe define the Lost Generation as the cohort of writers born from 1883 to 1900, who came of age during World War I and the Roaring Twenties. In Europe, they are mostly known as the "Generation of 1914", for the year World War I began. Chandler can justifiably be discussed alongside canonical writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Dos Passos and T.S. Eliot simply due to historical terms and ideology. 

In his essay The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler noted: “Hammett was an ace performer. For all I know, Hemingway might have learned something from Hammett.” As stories became more about the “self,” Stephen Knight notes, “It is through this sense of isolation that the private-eye story is in fact more innovative. The world-weary feeling of the Hammett-Chandler detective seems related to a growing dismay with modern mercantile society, with its sense of lost dreams and the dangers of over-sophistication.” Marlowe’s chivalric persona comes, in fact, from a much darker place, and his inner conflict and sense of estrangement are suggestive of a far more complex cause. The recurring themes in Chandler’s novels are significant indicators of Chandler’s affinity with the Lost Generation, involving numerous examples of both physical and psychological trauma. 

In a similar style to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922) and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), Chandler’s novels represent an urban environment as a source of alienation and decay; the city of Los Angeles has been reduced to a hollowed-out void, a colorless place whose inhabitants have been stripped of identity. Feelings of “melancholy, regret and emptiness” are common in the hard-boiled genre. Fragmentation, complexity, and ennui, which are unique to early American crime fiction, are characterized by violent tensions and occasional irreconcilable contradictions. In this turbulent urban landscape, Chandler created a war veteran detective who has been robbed of any recognition of “self” in exactly the same way as he had been robbed of his individuality while serving as a cog in the nation’s war machine. In the same way we observe the parallels between Jay Gatz in The Great Gatsby and Joe O’Keefe in Manhattan Transfer with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. 

Chandler’s fictional detective is thus an attempt to bridge the gap between the noble ideals for which war was fought and the degrading actuality of contemporary society. Marlowe strives to work to ameliorate society’s ills against seemingly overwhelming corruption because if he does not, he believes his sacrifices will have been in vain. The detective can thus be viewed as a broken and disillusioned man on a quest to find justice and decency in an increasingly corrupt and selfish society. The detective is reconfigured as a Lost Generation character in a hard-boiled crime fiction setting. Marlowe has the appearance of an ordinary yet unusual man trying to restore what he perceives as the balance between “good” and “evil,” often ending with him “trying to mete out simple justice.” 

The transgressors in Chandler’s novels are almost always women—Carmen Sternwood, Velma Valento, Elizabeth Murdock, Mildred Haviland, Orfamay Quest, Eileen Wade—and all of them are helped by Marlowe to avoid punishment for their various crimes, deceptions, and misdemeanors. But this open-mindedness toward female characters is also balanced by the fact that some of Marlowe’s closest personal acquaintances in the novels are women, such as Anne Riordan and Linda Loring. It is no coincidence that Bill Chess, Terry Lennox, and Roger Wade are all men characterized as war veterans, and each is willing to confide in Marlowe and discuss their residual war experiences. Chandler acknowledged: “I don’t mind Marlowe being a sentimentalist because he always has been. His toughness has always been more or less a surface bluff.”

Marlowe shows tenderness at the end of The Long Goodbye, where, after spending the night with Linda Loring, Chandler writes: "We said good-bye. I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach. To say good-bye is to die a little." This scene demonstrates that Marlowe is perfectly capable of displaying genuine affection for women, a feature that is evident in his friendships with Merle Davies, Anne Riordan, and his marriage to Linda Loring in the unfinished Poodle Springs (1958). But while Marlowe may occasionally place women on a pedestal, he nevertheless recognizes, unlike other “traditional” hard-boiled detectives, their democratic human value and social parity; a distinct departure from either the highly sexualized femme fatale—for example, Cora in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Effie Perrine in Hammett’s Sam Spade novels. Marlowe demonstrates this empathy when responding to Terry Lennox’s complaint about “women screwing up their faces and tinkling their goddam bracelets and making with the packaged charm.” Marlowe simply replies by saying, “Take it easy. So they are human. What did you expect—golden butterflies hovering in a rosy mist?” 

Jerry Speir argues about Marlowe’s biggest downfall: “he is never able to achieve an understanding of himself as operating within a fallen world.” While this is a reasonably accurate summation, Marlowe certainly does acknowledge on many occasions that American society has let itself slide into immorality and corruption. Society’s fragmentation increasingly disturbed Chandler as it placed the accumulation of wealth and power above all else regardless of the consequences, and to the detriment of moral and ethical values. He used the decaying cityscape as a metaphor for the decline in social accountability, and with it, society’s ignorance and renunciation of veterans. Michael Parish explains that this awareness stood in stark contrast to the social decadence. “In their first sustained experience with a full-blown consumer culture, Americans learned the truth of the ancient poet Juvenal’s observation that ‘luxury is more ruthless than war.’ A consumer society that sanctioned perpetual technological change, the generation of new fashions and the ultimate sovereignty of the market did not respect inherited values or the social status quo.” 

Chandler reserved his bitterness and contempt for society as a whole and those who occupied the upper echelons in society in particular, whom he considered “phoney.” As Marlowe says in The Big Sleep, “To hell with the rich. They make me sick.” Roy Meador observed the disillusioned affinity between Chandler's The Big Sleep and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wraith, also placing them alongside Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust; all of which were published in 1939. However, of these novels, Meador argues that The Big Sleep is by far the most popular because as a character, “Marlowe encompasses the others and reaches out to new dimensions”. As a result, The Big Sleep has, in his opinion, “established as permanent a hold in American culture as Bogart’s twitch.” Marlowe makes a funny reference to Hemingway in Farewell, My Lovely. After detective Galbraith repeats Marlowe’s words, the detective begins calling Galbraith “Hemingway.” He says “Listen, Hemingway, don’t repeat everything I say.” Galbraith asks, “Who is this Hemingway?” Marlowe replies, “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”  In letters to Blanche Knopf, Chandler argued that one of Hemingway’s biggest problems was that “ninety per cent of his writing is self-imitation. He never really wrote but one story. All the rest is the same thing in different pants—or without pants. And his eternal preoccupation with what goes on between the sheets becomes rather nauseating in the end”.

As Merle Davies states in The High Window, “People are always telling you to forget unpleasant things. But you never do.” By denying Marlowe a past, Chandler may have been granting the detective a freedom that he himself did not have, a life free from emotional or familial ties. In The Lady in the Lake, after being knocked unconscious, Marlowe says, “Someday it will all come back to you. And you won’t like it.” MacShane argues that Marlowe’s sarcastic dialogue is “not just for the sake of the jokes and wisecracks. It is his chief weapon. Chandler has Marlowe choose his words in such a way as to throw his opponents off base.” In The Long Goodbye, before playing a chess game, Marlowe inspects his pieces. He says, “I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen, and inspected them.” Marlowe describes the game as “seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object… and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.” Speir has suggested that Marlowe’s comment in this scene is one of disdain intended to signal that he no longer holds playing chess in high regard. However, by using chess as a representation of the detective’s cynical view of society, Marlowe’s contempt is reserved not for the game, but for society itself. Marlowe, in his most ambitious case to date, feels as though he has played “seventy-two moves to a draw,” showing how weary the detective has become. He is playing the game to the best of his abilities, but all he can achieve is a stalemate in a social order that thrives on deception. Life itself has become a literal contest of “irresistible force meeting the immovable object.”  —"War Noir: Raymond Chandler and the Hard-Boiled Detective as Veteran in American Fiction" (2016) by Sarah Trott

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel (2018)

In 1955 Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye won the Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Now Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel (2018) has been nominated for a 2019 Edgar Award (Best Mystery Novel). In this brilliant novel, commissioned by the Raymond Chandler estate, the acclaimed author Lawrence Osborne gives us a piercing psychological study of one of literature's most beloved and enduring detectives, told with a contemporary twist. It is an unforgettable addition to the Raymond Chandler canon. The year is 1989, the Reagan presidency has just come to an end, and detective Philip Marlowe--now in his seventy-seventh year--is on the case again. For Marlowe, this is his last roll of the dice, his swan song, and he is back on his home turf. Set between the border and badlands of Mexico and California, Marlowe's final assignment is to investigate the disappearance of Donald Zinn: supposedly drowned off his yacht in Mexico and leaving his much-younger wife a very rich woman. But is Zinn actually alive, and are the pair living off the spoils? Lawrence Osborne's Philip Marlowe investigates. Source: www.amazon.com

In a 1945 essay, Edmund Wilson, America’s premiere man of letters in the 1940s, singled out Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled fiction for grudging praise. Dismissing the novels of Dashiell Hammett as little more than a comic strip, Wilson saw Chandler’s value as atmospheric: “It is not simply a question of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms.” Chandler, who regarded Wilson as the kind of snobbish intellectual he despised, agreed. Chandler was clear-eyed about the reason Hollywood studios had hired him. He knew it was because of the atmosphere he gave to screenplays. Robert Towne cited Chandler’s description of California as the inspiration for his Academy Award-winning script for the neo-noir film Chinatown. 

Ridley Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher summoned Chandler when they made the future-noir Blade Runner, with its burn-out, alcoholic detective played by Harrison Ford amidst a rain and pollution-drenched Los Angeles. Chandler was not crazy about The Big Sleep (he thought he ran his trademark similes into the ground). Nevertheless, the editors of this Black Lizard’s new annotated edition of The Big Sleep, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto, regard the novel as a masterpiece. Chandler considered himself “an intellectual, as much as I dislike the term.” Although he followed the prejudices of his day when dealing with gay characters (in The Big Sleep he called homosexuals “queens” and “fags), unlike other mystery novelists such as Jim Thompson or James Ellroy today, Chandler didn’t follow the noir theme of a good, honest man seduced and then brought down by a femme fatale.

By contrast, his female characters were sometimes perverted and insane, like the certifiable nymphomaniac Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” who, when angered, hissed through her animal-like teeth. Throughout almost all of the novels, Marlowe, in pursuing the task he was hired for, discovers along the way a much bigger crime. In The Big Sleep, Chandler was hired to muscle a blackmailer away from the Sternwood family. But he learns what actually happened to the father’s best friend, Rusty Reagan. Reagan didn’t run off. He was murdered by the spurned Carmen. Critics have often characterized Chandler’s plots as confusing. Chandler himself had no real interest in plotting. But read carefully, his novels did have a distinctive and pioneering plotting. In 1950, Chandler admitted modestly in a letter: "As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published." “Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence,” said crime novelist Ross Macdonald—author of The Way Some People Die (1951), reviewed by The New York Times as: “The best novel in the tough tradition I've read since Farewell, My Lovely and possibly since The Maltese Falcon.” The Chicago Tribune stated:“Ross Macdonald gives to the detective story that accent of class that Raymond Chandler did. His enduring virtue is compassion.”

Frank McShane wrote the first biography of Raymond Chandler: The life of Raymond Chandler in 1986. A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler (2012) is an interesting study by Tom Williams, an excellent examination of Chandler's personality and also provides insight into his style of writing. Judith Freeman investigated—in The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (2008)—Chandler's romance and long marriage with Cissy Pascal. The final chapters are especially heartbreaking following Cissy’s death as Chandler spirals out of control. He’s rarely sober and while he’s often in and out of rehab facilities. Romances were attempted—notably Helga Greene, his literary agent and Jean Fracasse, his secretary—but eventually failed as he was never able to get over the loss of Cissy. His crippling loneliness leads to suicide attempts and cries for help before he ultimately passes away following a bout with pneumonia. "What a man wants and needs... and surely a woman too, is the feeling of a loving presence in the home, the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared," wrote Chandler in one of his letters, unveiled by Freeman. "To take care of Cissy. That was his driving life force," Judith Freeman concludes. Chandler turned himself into a crime writer for supporting his wife, while feeling he never "wrote a book worthy of dedicating to her."

Wallace Stegner once referred to California as “America only more so.” Interestingly, the politically correct of Chandler’s day, the American Communist Party, claimed Chandler as an authentic proletarian novelist. In response, Chandler revealed himself to be more politically astute than the dutiful Stalinist Dashiell Hammett. In a series of excellent letters—Chandler was as good at correspondence as he was with fiction—he informed the left that Marlowe didn’t hate the “rich because they take baths.” He hated them because they were “phony.” Politically, Chandler had no sacred cows. He denounced J.Edgar Hoover as inept and dangerous. He bashed the Catholic Church for having “fascist” tendencies. Yet he also was highly critical of Communism. Indeed, in his estimation, Catholicism came off better. Unlike Communists, they were capable of “internal dissent,” and in a typically pithy passage, he wrote that priests didn’t “shoot you in the back of the head for being 48 hours behind the Party line.”

Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet and Hawks' The Big Sleep not only simplify Chandler's novels but also defuse Chandler's social critique, transforming plot and adapting characters when not eliminating them outright. Chandler was equally critical of other writers. For example, he lamented Hemingway’s poor performance in the late 1940s. James M. Cain, the author of the novel Double Indemnity that Chandler adapted for the screen, was akin to a pornographer. Chandler did, however, praise some writers such as Somerset Maugham, who set the gold standard for spy novels. And he was particularly admiring of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and Chandler make an interesting comparison. Although Fitzgerald had a much more rosey-eyed view than Chandler, both were capable of poetic atmosphere. Toward the end of his life, Chandler came to feel that L.A. had become a grotesque and impossible place to live. It was a “jittering city,” sometimes dull, sometimes brilliant, but always depressing to him. In his later years, Chandler commented that he felt L.A. had completely changed in the years since he’d arrived. Even the weather was different. “Los Angeles was hot and dry when I first went there,” he said, “with tropical rains in the winter and sunshine at least nine-tenths of the year. Now it is humid, hot, sticky, and when the smog comes down into the bowl between the mountains which is Los Angeles, it is damned near intolerable.” Source: www.judithfreemanbooks.com

Monday, May 06, 2019

Under the Silver Lake, Raymond Chandler

Under the Silver Lake (2018): It’s a movie that loves the art of decades past, and hates who perverts it. It reminded me of both David Foster Wallace and Raymond Chandler. David Robert Mitchell described the Cannes premiere as difficult. “I always knew the film would be divisive, but you never know quite to what degree,” he says. “But if I have a frustration, it’s that some people have perceived the film to be misogynistic, which is personally very painful. I just so strongly disagree. This character is disconnected from the world and is struggling with feelings of misogyny — that’s a core element of what this movie is about. I assume that most people will see him beating up children and staring at women’s bodies as offensive behavior, and I don’t think I need to constantly tell everyone that. For people to imagine that we’re celebrating it is just disappointing.” The names Sam and Sarah plus the Kurt Cobain poster in Sam’s bedroom are references to the Samsara and Nirvana of Buddhism, which could mean the whole movie is Sam’s dying fever dream. 

Is Sam a private dick, or just the common of garden variety? In a discussion about the pervasiveness of pop music, Sam glances up from a Fender Mustang guitar and says “I don’t believe you”– the same words Bob Dylan used in response to the heckler who branded him a Judas for going electric? In a daring and brilliant coup, the movie conspires finally to show Sam stranded outside his own life, staring in at it like the homeless people he admits to despising. The plush orchestral score maintains the connection to LA film noir, and Sam does his bit, too. He’s the big sleepwalker, stuck in a lonely place, about as much good as the corpse in the pool in Sunset Boulevard. And the film’s barrage of dream-logic surrealism should pay royalties to the Lost Highway-era David Lynch. Source: www.newstatesman.com

Film noir is often referred to in spatial terms, as a world or a universe. The classical canon is itself replete with enigmatic aphorisms about it, whether “a blue, sick world” (Dead Reckoning, John Cromwell, 1947), or “a bright, guilty world” (The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles, 1948). In The Big Sleep (1939), the novel in which private investigator Philip Marlowe makes his first appearance, Raymond Chandler gives us this condensed version: “The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.” As the novel reaches its climax, the wetness has gained momentum: “The tumbling rain was solid white spray in the headlights. The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through.” At some point, Marlowe reaches an outer limit where social space ends, yet something is evoked beyond it. The hallmark of Chandler’s prose, Fredric Jameson argues (in his essay 'The Synoptic Chandler'), coordinates this social environment against “the presence of some vaster, absent natural unity beyond this ephemeral set of episodes in punctual human time.” Jameson demonstrates how the novels move toward such fringe areas at the end of the road, or, in the Heideggarian sense, at the end of the world. The “cognitive map of Los Angeles,” charted through his investigations, “has no grounding or resonance unless it circulates slowly against the rotation of that other, deeper anti-system which is that of the Earth itself.” -'The Phenomenology of Film Noir' essay by Henrik Gustafsson, included in "A Companion to Film Noir" (2013) by Andrew Spicer & Helen Hanson

In The Long Goodbye Marlowe has changed: he has the total realisation that not only is he alone in the world, but that the connection he had thought he had found was a fallacy. What hope he had for true friendship is extinguished in the last pages of The Long Goodbye. In Marlowe’s eyes, Terry Lennox seemed to share his vision of the world. Part of Marlowe does want Lennox to turn back because he is so lonely but, in the end, his moral conscience wins out. He knows that he is on his own and he recognises that his own choices have brought him here, and he is content that he has done the right thing. Chandler wanted him to be betrayed and to understand why. Marlowe was a knight with a code of honour that was unshakable, even in the most testing times. Chandler recognised that he had put him in a situation that might be hard to understand for many of his readers. The honourable martyr was, of course, also the sort of man Raymond Chandler imagined himself to be. In a letter to Hamish Hamilton in 1951, Chandler expressed his admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Fitzgerald is a subject no one has a right to mess up. If the poor guy was already an alcoholic in his college days, it’s a marvel that he did as well as he did. He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, a real distinction, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets. Yes, where would you find it today?" -"A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler" (2013) by Tom Williams

Richard Slotkin emphasizes the Western provenance of the hardboiled detective as exemplified by Marlowe. He posits, intriguingly, for example, that Chandler's detective, like James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye, is first and foremost a "rescuer" of the innocent, that both heroes are "engaged in unmasking hidden truth." Chandler avoids the opposite extreme of nihilism as found in Hammett, whose Continental Op in Red Harvest, for Sinda Gregory, "is made to appear as guilty and morally reprehensible as the rest of the gangsters". One might then expect Chandler's class bias to have endeared him to a Marxist critic such as Ernest Mandel, who, however, feels that Marlowe is a sentimentalist who wastes his energy on pursuing criminals who wield only "limited clout". It is doubtless Chandler's reluctance to make any global condemnation of the capitalist system that bothers Mandel. Chandler consistently and symbolically sought redress for social ills within the democratic system as he knew it in the United States, within the liberal tradition. In "The Simple Art of Murder," for example, he insisted that no social or political hierarchy is truly divorced from the "rank and file" in a democracy, and thus cannot be completely blamed for its failures. Ross Macdonald misreads Chandler's call for "a quality of redemption" in "The Simple Art of Murder," overemphasizing Chandler's moralistic tone.

Unlike other hardboiled heroes, Marlowe is acutely critical of his own thoughts and actions; he questions his own role and the power he wields, and his actions reflect changes in attitude as he learns from others; In a world in which the police are as guilty of egregious violence as criminals, Marlowe roundly condemns both; his toughness is measured not by resorting to such extreme measures, but by his refusal to respond violently to the threats of gangsters (Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep, Laird Brunette in Farewell, My Lovely) or the police (Christy French in The Little Sister, Detective Dayton in The Long Goodbye). Chandler's deepest concerns - his interest in the community as well as the individual, his hatred of the abuse and the abusers of power, his conviction that ethical conduct cannot be reduced to simplistic formulae and must be continually scrutinized - are inevitably what Hollywood was most concerned to change. Cynthia S. Hamilton insists that, in keeping with the genre, "Chandler's misanthropy demands an absolute separation between Marlowe and the moral squalor of his society". In her view Marlowe is antisocial, an "alienated outsider who vindicates that stance by his demonstrable superiority in a society unworthy of his services." Chandler took on the daunting challenge of using the highly individualistic figure of the private eye to explain how and why American rugged individualism has failed. In transforming the figure of the hard-boiled detective, he created a new paradigm, not only for a new detective, but for a new individual as well. -"Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed" by John Paul Athanasourelis (2011)

In The Big Sleep Bogart's Marlow accuses Mona's husband Eddie Mars of being "a blackmailer, a hot-car broker, a killer by remote control. He's anything that looks good to him, anything with money pinned to it, anything rotten". The novel's theme rises from what Dennis Porter in "The Pursuit of Crime" essay called "the ironic form of an unnecessary journey". Marlowe continues to search for a man everyone says looks like him, Sean 'Rusty' Regan, because "too many people told me to stop". Mona Mars (played by Peggy Knudsen), whom Marlowe calls "Silver-Wig", is insignificant in the movie, but she's possibly Marlowe's most romantic interest in the novel. She wears a silver wig (she cut off her hair) and shelters in Realito away from the police. The "hide nor hair" expression takes a sharp twist here by Chandler's genius. "On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again". -The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Producers, Raymond Chandler found, were generally ‘low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat and the artistic integrity of a slot machine’, though there were enough ‘able and humane’ ones to give hope. The same proportion of integrity applied, Chandler decided, to the world of agents, directors and publicists: there were abundant bad ones to make Hollywood stink, but always enough decent, friendly and amusing ones to make working there enjoyable. Had that not been the case, he insisted, the money alone would not have been enough to keep him there. "I used to like this town," I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. "A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual, used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum either."

"Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We've got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys. We've got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city. Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood-and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city."  -"The Little Sister" (1949). The transformation of the city and the feelings it engenders in Marlowe are made clear when he spies a club with a packed terrace and parking lot. It is so overcrowded, that the people are “like ants on a piece of overripe fruit.” The image immediately tells the reader what has changed Los Angeles: the population boom of the early twentieth century. Marlowe, too, is reminded of what Los Angeles has become, and begins to name its faults. Source: ue.ucdavis.edu

Dick Powell is often mentioned as Chandler's favorite incarnation of Marlowe, praise that was rightfully earned. Powell's Marlowe is both jaded and optimistic, world-weary yet open to life. He delivers certain lines with cutting self-deprecation, others with calculated softness. His Marlowe is always pushing buttons, probing people for weakness, wresting control of the situation. Though he isn't physically imposing (something about his face is too gentle to completely intimidate) his confident delivery and compromised sense of values sell his dangerous side. "Dick Powell is even dryer in the part than Bogart, erasing entirely the crooner's geniality that had made him a popular fixture in Warner musicals. The only echo of the earlier Powell is the actor physical's grace -he has a dancer flowing ease. Powell's voice is flat, his face taut and frozen in the masklike noir vein, and he plays Marlowe as a blunt, no-nonsense professional. His work is wonderfully tight and economical; he is guarded and sardonic, but he falls short of projecting Bogart's aura of absolute integrity." -"The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir" (2008) by Foster Hirsch

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

November Criminals: novel vs film

Why the Aeneid? It’s exciting but also difficult to understand. The stories in it are kind of incomprehensible. Aeneas returning from the underworld through the Gate of Ivory, the gate through which Virgil says false dreams arrive in the world. And the way it ends: in a single instant, just like a human life. It all appears at first to be nonsensical, but that’s because it belongs to a world that no longer exists. In the centuries between us and Virgil, we kind of lost interest in things that are hard to understand. I don’t know why this has happened. Everyone, though, seems sort of bricked into his own life. Not in “quiet desperation”—the phrase comes from a terrible author my teachers forced me to read, Henry David Thoreau—but just by the fact of living in the small, boring modern world. And this explains why all my teachers have been so terrible. I mean because they, like Thoreau, see their own selves not as prisons but as subjects of thunderous interest. I don’t want to sound harsh, but holy fuck! No one who admires Thoreau should be permitted anywhere near a school.

Stupidity can be a form of strong character. The pain was an affront to my honor! It was this testimony about the shameful and emotional side of our relations, which we tried to ignore. She was being consistent. Without sentiment, without remorse. She was following the terms. I spent my birthday with Digger. Before she gave me my present, we didn’t do anything. Just kind of wandered around smoking cigarettes. We drove past Kevin’s house. The heavy, glazed-looking green curtains shone out of the front windows, and swayed a little. I love her. I don’t love her in some stupid way. If it were stupid, trivial, the rest of this would be easy. It’s hard and frightening, so I must love her for real. How else would you know? I love Digger. You’re thinking: Love? He’s using the word love? What a fucking joke. He’s too young to understand. If you think that, fuck you. I don’t tell lies. Not about Digger. I may be guilty of a long list of petty and secret enormities. 

Not, however, lying about loving Digger. When Digger blew out my birthday candle, as she bent her head, a summer-colored moon of light rested on her face. I saw its pinpoints dance in her deep eyes. She was clenching her turquoise-beaded bag. Lips parted for speech. She’d put a crimson streak in her hair, above her brow. She had on a black T-shirt with a picture of this musician she admires, Lou Reed. And she was wearing makeup, which she never does. I know I told you she’s not hot. But I swear to fucking God: at that moment some beauty was in her or shone through her, a beauty that demands respect and even fear. I had never seen anyone or anything so infused with such beauty. Even in the dead light of my room you could see it.

Everything comes at a price. Sometimes you can put the price in signs or symbols, words, an amount of money. But I can’t even tell you what I owe. I know that it exceeds the value of my entire life, simply by geometrical principles. People cut you slack if you’re in the hospital. They get off on indulging you. Now everyone would just think I’m crazy, or trying to get attention. They’d think I was jealous of Alex getting in the paper. I’d never be able to convince anyone that this wasn’t the case, that I don’t give a shit about fame, that if I wanted fame I’d want Virgil’s fame, eternal fame. I love to help people, and that’s my best quality, but sometimes I have trouble thinking of my own needs, and that’s my worst quality.

The one person who might understand this is Digger. You can’t exert your will over life. If there’s one thing the study of Latin should teach you, it’s that human beings cannot direct reality. They can do a great many things, yes, even incredible things, going down to the realm of the dead. Or founding Rome. But with permission. They have to have the blessing and assistance of a god. This is gained through loyalty. I’m not even talking about suicide. Suicide would be too orderly and too self-respecting. I don’t even deserve that. That would make me seem too important, you know? I only have one triumph: my outburst at Alex Faustner’s lecture. Faustner and Vanderleun and Karlstadt and the whole disgusting system, the whole intolerable wreck and mockery of life, created and preserved as lip service to the highest progressive principles, and dedicated in actuality to the perpetuation of hatred. Hidden, covert hatred, yes. But hatred all the same.

You’d think that with how fragile everything is, it would be the same as a lie. It’s not. Not at all. I don’t believe that. I’m not a nihilist. Death is the consummate falsehood. Maybe that’s the real meaning of the Gate of Ivory. That perfection arrives through it, which is basically the same as death. Because life—where’s the perfection there? Lacrimae rerum, right? The sign of life. Perfection would kill it. Extinguish it. I’m going to leave the melted gun here while I’m out, to hold down the unruly pile of torn-out notebook paper I’ve been scrawling on. As proof. In case anyone finds my essay and thinks it’s all fiction. —November Criminals (2015) by Sam Munson

November Criminals (2017) follows the story of Addison (Ansel Elgort), a high school senior in Washington, D.C. who just recently lost his mother and is preparing for life after graduating. He has recently started going out with Phoebe (Chloe Grace Moretz) and they are beginning to build a good relationship together. Things change when Addison gets word that his friend Kevin was murdered just hours after having an interaction with him. The media and police claim that the murder happened because of gang involvement but Addison doesn’t believe it. With the help of Phoebe he starts his own investigation into the death of his friend to find the truth. November Criminals gives the viewer a unique look of life in the D.C. area and how one young man refuses to simply accept "the easy way out". 

Addison (Elgort) is an awkward teen with no friends. Phoebe (Moretz) is her only/best friend. As Addison and Phoebe become physically and emotionally closer, his single-mindedness to solve Kevin's murder alienates everyone around him. He learns things about Kevin that seem hard for Addison to reconcile with the jazz musician, the intellectual friend he knew. Addison spirals out of control but when a new lead appears he finds himself in a world of drugs and violence. Although, his true underlying motivation is to try and deal with the grief and helplessness he feels over his mother's death.

Elgort is certainly talented, so his portrayal of the distraught Addison is solid and very well done. He gives the character a certain naiveté that helps make his performance believable. He does a great job at making sense of the apparent leaps in logic his character was assigned. I felt like Addison might be a real person, if slightly insane, and Elgort's "human touches" made him a likable character when he could have just been annoying. Chloe Moretz is also a strong actor and the two of them have a chemistry that can't be faked. Overall it is certainly the performances and the pacing of the story that make November Criminals a worthwhile film. It’s hard to get past the fact that the filmmakers don’t want to focus their full attention to the main, more interesting part of the novel and that’s what makes this somewhat of a disappointment. This is definitely worth seeking out but it had the potential to be so much better. Source: www.flickeringmyth.com

Monday, April 29, 2019

List of Best Noir Films: #8 Nightmare Alley

 #8. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Once described as the greatest noir movie not made by arch cynic Billy Wilder, Tyrone Power gives his finest performance as the fairground hustler who works his way into society by fair means and foul, including murder. But Power’s fall is every bit as precipitous as his rise as he ends up back in the fairground as the carnival geek in this unforgettable and disturbing movie. #1 of the list is Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder. Source: www.independent.co.uk

The film's ending is not an egregious betrayal of the novel. In Gresham's last scene, Stan is forced to sell himself with a childlike politeness we haven't seen before, and is offered the geek job at the carny. In the film Stan's face is distorted by alcoholism, his eyes ringed and droopy, the pupils swimming in soup. The film's coda, in which he goes on a rampage and discovers that Molly has been hired on to the same carnival and is going to save him, is happy only to the degree that we believe he can take a cure for drink and safely hide out from the industrialist he bamboozled. Gresham paints the opening scene in the novel: “The ‘marks’ surged in—It was like a kaleidoscope—the design always changing, the particles always the same.”

The script improves on the novel in one aspect, enhancing the role of shifty psychologist Lilith (played by an ominously still and half-smiling Helen Walker) as a skeptical member of Stan's nightclub audience, rather than the shrink he sees to cure his dreams of running down a nightmare alley. On the other hand, the filmmakers could not resist adding an up-to-date technological wrinkle - a home device for recording transcription discs, which Lilith uses to blackmail Stan. The fascination of "Nightmare Alley" does not reside in logic but in qualities beyond the powers of a novelist: the expressive chiaroscuro of the lighting - even Lilith's office is a model of German expressionism, with inexplicable bar-like shadows turning the walls into a cage - and Power's vanity-free dissection of Stan in the final scenes. This picture turns conventional Hollywood starlight upside down and inside out. If he hadn't died so young, Power might have had the chance to tell Zanuck, "I told you so."  Source: www.nysun.com

Daryl Zanuck instructed screenwriter Jules Furthman to create a new ending for Nightmare Alley, believing the original version would be too cynical for audiences to take. As a result, instead of having Stan end up alone and destined to work as a carnival geek for the rest of his life or even looking for an early death (as Gersham had originally written), Furthman concluded his screenplay on a redemptive note, with Molly holding Stan in her arms, reassuring him of her love and his future.

For the role of the unscrupulous society psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter, a character Gersham created while undergoing psychotherapy, Zanuck considered casting Luise Rainer or Constance Bennett, before ultimately deciding on the much younger Helen Walker. Nightmare Alley was also a big departure for the 27-year-old actress, who had earned a solid reputation as a commediene since making her film debut in Frank Tuttle's Lucky Jordan (1942), but she found Lilith to be just the kind of "grown-up" role that she had longed for earlier in her career. Lilith uses psychoanalytic tricks of the trade to manipulate Carlisle, preying on his lack of confidence and issues about his mother abandoning him as a child.

In Time magazine (November 24, 1947), film critic James Agee wrote: Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching. Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. The lady psychiatrist that Walker plays is as cold-blooded as Stanton, and has one advantage: No inner geek. No weakness. 

In a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling betrayed. Despite its initial box office flop, Nightmare Alley is now regarded as "one of the gems of film noir," according to Stephanie Zacharek in Turner Classic Movies (December 2, 2015.) Source: www.loa.org