WEIRDLAND: Raymond Chandler's hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe transformed

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Raymond Chandler's hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe transformed

Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge), Sonia Darrin (as Agnes Lowzier) in "The Big Sleep" (1946) directed by Howard Hawks

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is self-critical as well as socially critical. What he sees as his work goes far beyond the often straightforward tasks imposed by his clients; self-employed and without family ties, he exploits the singular nature of his job to negotiate among contesting groups, ever conscious of the fact that simplistic definitions of "good" and "evil" will hamper his efforts. Richard Slotkin nevertheless holds to the old paradigm and overemphasizes 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."

In response to one of Orfamay's many complaints (in "The Little Sister") about the evils of Los Angeles, Marlowe simply says that "we have to take the bad with the good in this life", an offhand, sarcastic comment, yet one that neatly sums up the detective's philosophy. Marlowe eschews confronting problems idealistically, but he pragmatically confronts them daily on a professional and personal basis. And by guardedly engaging the citizens of the city, he 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, among other detectives, 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's primary criticism of Chandler is that he is too moralistic; Like other critics, Macdonald misreads Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder," overemphasizing Chandler's call for "a quality of redemption" as a "central weakness in his vision" in novels. Chandler isolates his hero, Philip Marlowe, by means of "an angry puritanical morality" and erects barriers, including those of language. 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.

While classics of film noir and exciting, entertaining narratives in their own right, 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.

“Murder, My Sweet” is Philip Marlowe’s film debut and director Edward Dmytryk certainly captured the look and feel of a good 1940’s crime film. While the film varies from the novel – most notably Anne Riordan, the persistent reporter, has morphed into a Grayle daughter from a previous marriage – the changes aren’t as drastic as they would be with the Howard Hawks’ production based on The Big Sleep or Robert Altman’s production based on The Long Goodbye.

An often-heard quote about Powell’s performance is that he was the “eagle scout” Marlowe. That quote originated with Dmytryk and it wasn’t about Powell, it was about Marlowe. In an interview about why he cast Dick Powell, Dmytryk said:

“[Dick Powell] fit the character, as far as I could see. After all, what is Marlowe? He’s no Sam Spade. He’s an eagle scout among tough guys. He’s a moral, ethical man, with a strong sense of responsibility.”

Philip Marlowe may be re-envisioned by filmmakers for whatever they need for their particular movie as many characters of literature often are. Chandler also cast Marlowe in many different guises and the Marlowe of Farewell, My Lovely varies a great deal from the Marlowe of The High Window or the Marlowe of The Big Sleep or the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye.

The Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely is a very passive Marlowe, subjected to the whims of Moose Malloy and Dr. Sonderborg and Jesse Florian. This is not the Marlowe of control but the Marlowe of defeat. It is one of the rare times that Marlowe doesn’t understand what is happening until the shooting starts and where the motives of any number of people don’t become obvious until it is almost too late.

Anne Shirley as Anne Grayle and Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in "Murder, My Sweet" (1944) directed by Edward Dmytryk

That isn’t the Marlowe of other novels and in this novel – unlike any of the others – he gets the girl. Not the rich, well-settled Anne Grayle of the movie who will inherit everything from her father but the down-to-earth Anne Riordan of the novel who has nothing and owes nothing to anybody.

This is a ghost of Marlowe surrounded by the poetry of Chandler. It is the smoke of Marlowe and not the fire and in this case someone such as Dick Powell is perfect for the role of Marlowe because a tough guy would show that this book is only hard-boiled in plot. As with The Big Sleep and The Lady In The Lake, Farewell, My Lovely was based on short stories that were published in the pulp magazines. None of those stories featured Philip Marlowe although after Chandler became successful those stories were collected for publication and the main characters were then renamed Philip Marlowe.

In the book, Marlowe is working for the police who are trying to find Malloy after Malloy kills the owner of a nightclub where Velma once worked. LAPD Detective McNulty convinces Marlowe that Marlowe needs “friends” in the police department and Marlowe accepts the non-paying job of trying to find Malloy.

“Nothing made it my business except curiosity,” Marlowe muses in the book. “But strictly speaking, I hadn’t any business in a month. Even a no-charge job was a change.”

However one tries to frame this relationship, the word “informer” keeps entering the picture. Marlowe tells McNulty, “Okey, if I think of anything, it’s yours. And when you get the mug, I’ll identify him for you. After lunch.” Yet he sets out to track down Velma – who might lead him to Malloy – immediately after the conversation. Source:

"Will you make love to me tonight?" she asked softly.
"That again is an open question. Probably not."
"You would not waste your time. I am not one of these synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts."
"Just for half an hour," I said, "let's leave the sex to the side. It's great stuff, like chocolate sundaes. But there comes a time you would rather cut your throat. I guess maybe I'd better cut mine."

I turned west on Sunset and swallowed myself up in three lanes of race-track drivers who were pushing their mounts hard to get nowhere and do nothing. "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."

We crossed La Cienega and went into the curve of the Strip. The Dancers was a blaze of light. The terrace was packed. The parking lot was like ants on a piece of overripe fruit.
"Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that bawled me out back there. We've got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit-and Cleveland. We've got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped onto the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pigeon English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit."
"It is the same in all big cities, amigo."
"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. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else."
"You are bitter tonight, amigo."
"I've got a few troubles. The only reason I'm driving this car with you beside me is that I've got so much trouble a little more will seem like icing."
"You have done something wrong?" she asked and came close to me along the seat.
"Well, just collecting a few bodies," I said. "Depends on the point of view. The cops don't like the work done by us amateurs. They have their own service."
"What will they do to you?"
"They might run me out of town and I couldn't care less. Don't push me so hard. I need this arm to shift gears with."
She pulled away in a huff. "I think you are very nasty to get along with," she said. "Turn right at the Lost Canyon Road."

"I was pretty good in there, no?" she said softly.
Then the car backed violently with a harsh tearing of the tires on the asphalt paving. The lights jumped on. The car curved away and was gone past the oleander bush. The lights turned left, into the private toad. The lights drifted off among trees and the sound faded into the long-drawn whee of tree frogs. Then that stopped and for a moment there was no sound at all. And no light except the tired old moon
"The Little Sister" (1949) written by Raymond Chandler

Where Carroll John Daly's, Dashiell Hammett's, and Mickey Spillane's heroes display the self-sufficient, self-aggrandizing traits of classic rugged American individualism, Chandler, through Marlowe, critiques the individualist ethos. While other hardboiled detectives often abuse the power they possess and isolate themselves in the process, his actions are pointed consistently at getting contentious or potentially contentious individuals to work together. 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).

"No matter how smart you think you are, you have to have a place to start from; a name, an address, a neighbourhood, a background, an atmosphere, a point of reference of some sort." -Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye" (1973) directed by Robert Altman

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)

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