Friday, March 16, 2012

Picturing Raymond Chandler (in Living Black-and-White)

Raymond Chandler was no stranger to Hollywood. He was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars, for collaborating with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity and for his solo outing on The Blue Dahlia. He also clashed colorfully with Alfred Hitchcock while hashing out a screen version of Strangers on a Train. He knew Hollywood well, both the workaday place and the state of mind. And no one is better than Chandler at capturing in prose the mix of seediness and splendor that marked the Hollywood of his day.

Hollywood was fascinated by Chandler too. Many of his taut little novels have been filmed, and his archetypal private eye, the tough-but-tender Philip Marlowe, has been played by some of the industry’s biggest names. I’m thinking especially of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, with Lauren Bacall as his love interest and a screenplay by none other than William Faulkner. Marlowe was also portrayed by Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and (of all people) Elliott Gould, who starred in Robert Altman’s somewhat goofy version of The Long Goodbye.

Since I’m both a lover of libraries and a devoted Santa Monican, I have long been involved with a Santa Monica Public Library program called Citywide Reads. Each year library staff and volunteers pick a novel, order many copies, and persuade lots of locals to read it. We then hold a series of book discussions – come one, come all! – along with film screenings, lectures, and special events. In 2012, to mark the program’s 10th anniversary, we’re spotlighting Raymond Chandler. After all, the Bay City described in his pages (a tawdry place, full of gambling dens, bad women, and crooked cops) is none other than our beloved home town. That’s why I’ve immersed myself in Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. And why I watched one of the weirder films ever to come out of Hollywood.

Lady in the Lake (1947) stars Hollywood stalwart Robert Montgomery. He also directed, which may (or may not) help explain the film’s curious aesthetic choice. Though Montgomery plays Philip Marlowe, the viewer rarely sees him. He appears in the opening scene, sitting behind his desk, and explaining that he’s letting the audience solve his most recent case: “You’ll meet the people; you’ll find the clues. . . . You’ll see it just as I saw it.” This means that throughout the movie the camera becomes Marlowe’s point of view. Viewers hear his voice, follow his gaze, and occasionally see his hands (when he extends them to be handcuffed, or to land a punch). We catch occasional glimpses of him in a mirror, and the camera work sometimes suggests he’s gone woozy, on the brink of passing out.

MGM tried hard to sell this as “a revolutionary innovation in film technique.” The trailer breathlessly touts “the most thrilling of all mysteries, and YOU play the starring role with Robert Montgomery.” Moviegoers, possibly disappointed by the near-absence of the film’s star, stayed away. Chandler had worked on the screenplay, but heartily disliked the concept, and quickly extricated himself. (He may also have disliked the very Hollywood addition of a big romance for Marlowe, and a blissfully happy ending.) But for an example of genuine cinematic experiment within the studio system, Lady in the Lake is worth taking the plunge.

Also worth pondering is a book with a Roger Corman connection. Roger’s daughter Catherine – the one Corman offspring actively pursuing her own creative career – recently published Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imaginary City. Her moody black-and-white photos, coupled with quotes from Chandler novels, showcase L.A. as “a city of well-guarded secrets.” So true, so Chandler.

(A free screening of Lady in the Lake will be held at the Santa Monica Public Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium on Thursday, March 22, at 6:30 p.m.)


  1. I LOVE this movie! My older brother had seen it when I was VERY young, and then one afternoon he saw that it was going to be on the 2:00 movie - and we watched it together. It was so completely unlike any other movie I'd ever seen - and I got to watch it with my brother. I have seen it a couple of times since - it remains one of my very favorite noir-ish 40's detective movies. I have discovered Chandler's prose in the last couple of years - wow could that guy write! - and I hope to read more sometime soon. Nice spotlight on a little known gem, Ms. G!

    1. Thanks, Mr. E. The commentary track on the version I saw is by Alain Silver and Jim Ursini, film history buffs who are also big Roger Corman fans. They make some very interesting points about how hard it was on the performers to have to play toward the camera, just the opposite of what film actors are trained to do. And the heavy camera of that era made some scenes extremely difficult to shoot, as when a battered and drugged Marlowe is supposedly crawling across a dirt road. (A Steadicam would have helped a lot, but of course nothing of the sort existed in 1947.) Personally, I was bothered by some huge plot changes, a very different ending, and the fact that we never DO see a lake (which is an important element in the novel). Some really cool performances though, especially by the women, Audrey Trotter and Jayne Meadows.

  2. Feel free to call me Craig, by the way!

  3. Just rewatched LA Confidential recently. I think it had a lot of the Raymond Chandler noir feel. A very satisfying movie!

  4. I agree, Hilary. I was a great admirer of that film.