Raymond Chandler was one of the greatest classic noir writers. He wrote The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake, and The Long Goodbye, amongst others. Even if you’ve never read any of his work, you likely recognize at least some of those titles, since each one of them has been made into a movie, some of them several times.

Raymond Chandler

The editor, Barry Day, has done a lovely job of allowing Chandler to tell his own story. Chandler did interviews and wrote about the process of writing, and he was also a prolific letter-writer. So Day mined these pieces, as well as Chandler’s fiction, and pulled from them a coherent narrative about Chandler’s life and his craft. Day organized the work into themes that become chapters: Writing, Philip Marlowe, Cops…and Crime, The City of Angels, and so on. And then Day offers running editorial comments that help pull the whole work together.

Chandler had a real love and knack for language, and his novels are told from the first person point of view of his immortal Private Detective, Philip Marlowe (who shall, in my mind, forever be associated with Bogart). Chandler blessed Marlowe with some unforgettable lines.

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Farewell, My Lovely.

“I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name…I was a page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket.” The Little Sister.

“You have to have your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The Big Sleep.

humphrey-bogart-and-lauren-bacall-big-sleep
Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep

I’ll share from the book two stories from Chandler’s life that I hadn’t heard before.

Chandler did a fair amount of screenwriting in Hollywood. His first effort came when he was hired to collaborate with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity, this despite the fact that Chandler had little respect for James M. Cain, who wrote the novel.

Chandler was a neophyte, and so didn’t have any familiarity with the form of a screenplay or with the craft of screenwriting, which is different from novel-writing. Further, he and Wilder were both strong-willed characters, so there was some head-butting going on. However, once Wilder started working with Chandler and realized how brilliant he was, things went a bit smoother.

Wilder said of Chandler: “He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn’t used to it. He was a mess but he could write a beautiful sentence. ‘There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool’. That is a great line.” (p. 128)

The second story has to do with the classic noir film Blue Dahlia, the Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake movie, for which Chandler also wrote the screenplay. Ladd was “Paramount’s current hot property. The only problem was that the war was still on and Ladd had a firm call-up date from the army…The film could not afford to go over its rather tight shooting schedule.” (p. 140)

John Houseman, who later became an actor (in The Paper Chase, for example), was the producer of the film, and George Marshall was the director. Marshall was shooting scenes faster than Chandler could write them, sometimes leaving his film crew standing around with nothing to do.

Chandler had a drinking problem, even at this early point (1945). So he came to Houseman with a solution to their Ladd/film schedule issue: “the only way he could complete the task in time was to write while he was drunk.” Houseman reluctantly agreed, and “for the next several weeks there was round-the-clock limo transportation standing by, six secretaries working in shifts to take Chandler’s dictation, and a doctor on call to give him glucose injections in lieu of solid food.” (p. 144)

Rather remarkably, this strategy worked. The film was completed with six days to spare, Ladd made his Army date, the movie made a lot of money for the studio, and Chandler was nominated for his second Oscar.

This is an excellent read about a great writer.

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