Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Raymond Chandler and the lure of noir

Damn, I love a night reading old noir stories. And a little Blue Trane playing in the background. Good times.

People went to L.A. in search of the dream, perhaps to make it as a movie star, and if you didn’t make it, that lonely city could be unforgiving, the flipside of that dream is where noir takes its name.

It all started for me one afternoon in the city, too hot, too humid, too loud; the sound of the traffic felt like a rumba band playing in my head. I picked up a secondhand copy of Raymond Chandler short stories to take home. I should have known better…



Fantastic stuff. I'll Be Waiting has an especially nasty sting in its tail, and it includes The Red Wind:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband's necks. Anything can happen."


I recently picked up the biography: The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman. The book focuses on Chandler’s thirty year marriage to Cissy Pascal, a married woman 18 years his senior. Apparently she lied about her age on all legal documents and managed to deceive Chandler into believing she was only 10 years his senior.

Freeman paints the relationship in a tragic light. When Chandler was middle-aged, Cissy was elderly, and ill a lot of the time, and when she died he didn’t last long without her, his final few years consisted of alcoholism, an attempted suicide, humiliating outbursts and messy attempts at courtship. Cissy was his muse and appeared in his stories as different femme fatales.

Chandler had been a bookkeeper and auditor, but his alcoholism and the Depression culminated in him being out of work.

In 1950, he described in a letter to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, why he began reading pulp magazines and later wrote for them:

Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away and because I never had at any time any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women's magazines. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.
  
He taught himself how to write by studying the work of Dashiell Hammett and the Perry Mason story formula of Erle Stanley Gardner. His style was inspired by the pictures of Edward Hopper and, in turn, inspired the likes of the screenplay for Chinatown





Chandler was the king of killer lines. 'From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.' He said that the wordplay he used in a lot of his fast dialogue had become a lost art.

His first professional work, Blackmailers Don't Shoot, was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933; his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939 when he was 51 years old, featuring his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, his ideal self, the incorruptible good guy. He planted this character in LA, notorious for corrupt systems and desperate, isolated individuals, a city writers were yet to write about. 

He and Billy Wilder co-wrote Double Indemnity (1944), based on James M. Cain's novel of the same name. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Chandler's only original screenplay was The Blue Dahlia (1946) which I remember being a neat little thriller. The Hollywood-movie system paid well but the stress almost killed him.

Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia, she starred alongside Alan Ladd 

Chandler seems to be one of those unfortunate souls for whom success wouldn’t bring any contentment or satisfaction. He never settled in one place for long because his creative juices constantly needed new environments, and he never liked L.A., the town that fed his work. 

Hardly the darling of the American press, when he published The Little Sister in 1949, American critics were harsher than European counterparts who considered him much more than an author of crime stories. An American critic called it ‘a scathing hatred of the human race.’ For the Europeans, Chandler was describing 'an alluring world, formless, dangerous, free and exciting, and more depressing, a modern world, crazy, cutting edge, free form, consumer driven, personality obsessed, image culture which would soon be exported to the rest of the globe.' (Freeman) English readers did not feel it was a hatred of the human race but a genuine concern for it. Chandler was bringing news of the future, portending what lay in store not just for America but for the rest of the world.


1 comment:

E Craig said...

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