As promised, here’s part two of my Noir-stravaganza. Today, I’m talking about the second author who is considered a founder of the genre – Raymond Chandler. Along with Hammett, Chandler is the guy who helped to codify hard-boiled fiction. Moral ambiguity, snappy dialogue, private eyes with their own monologues, femme fatales, ruthless big shots, stupid goons, the hero getting beat up at some point, larger conspiracies surrounding a seemingly simple murder – Chandler’s work has it all. These days, the originators of genres may seem derivative – because we’ve been flooded with other works they inspired – but that’s not the case for Chandler. I feel that his hardboiled Phillip Marlowe mysteries are as tough, bleak, and brilliant as they ever were.
Chandler himself didn’t live a particularly interesting life. Unlike Hammett, he was never an actual detective. Instead, he worked as an oil executive and lost his job in the Great Depression, then tried his hand at writing fiction. Like a lot of early hardboiled writers, his work appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask. After a while, he created the character of Phillip Marlowe, who starred in such classics as The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye, and plenty more. Chandler consciously set out trying to move mysteries away from the snooty, whodunits of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle– where Lord Wumbleby is murdered at a tea party by a mysterious blow dart and the detective solves the crime by examining dirt on the party-goer’s shoes thanks to his magic scanning powers. Chandler wanted his mysteries to be more about character – the reader doesn’t try and parcel out clues to solve the mystery themselves before flipping to the end, like in Encyclopedia Brown, but is instead taught something about the human condition and the corruption American life. He also put down exactly what the private detective – the hero for his age – should be: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.” But if I’m going to be showing Chandler quotes, we’ll be here all day, because each one is great.
I started reading Chandler in high school, as I was checking out Hammett. I really liked The Big Sleep – it’s got a subplot about a sleazy pornographer and a shoot out! – but I couldn’t really get into the others. The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely didn’t have the crazy action I craved (Though I liked Farewell, My Lovely’s hulking Moose Malloy). Plus, Phillip Marlowe wasn’t a very cool protagonist. He was a sap and a loser – not a badass, and he got manipulated, instead of doing the manipulation like Hammett’s protagonists. All in all, not a young Frank Miller fan’s cup of tea. But now that I’m (hopefully) more mature, I went back to Chandler, reading The Long Goodbye, Farewell, My Lovely and The Little Sister, and I see them for the masterpieces they are. Marlowe’s not a super man and he shows that being a private investigator, even in hardboiled fiction, is a terrible, dirty job. He’s someone who tries to do the right thing, but only sometimes succeeds, and is controlled by dark forces that he can’t understand. It’s the perfect metaphor for the darkness of Post-War LA – and our own era as well.
Recommended Reading: I considered going with The Big Sleep, which probably has the most overt action in a Marlowe story, but I’m gonna go with The Long Goodbye instead – which is doubtlessly Chandler’s best work. While it does include the occasional murder, The Long Goodbye is really about a friendship forming between Chandler and upper class drunk Terry Lennox and then falling apart. Marlowe is a sucker here, pushed back and forth by rich people trying to get ahead, and constantly ground up under the supposed forces of law and order. When it ends, Marlowe’s been taken for a sucker again. But the true tragedy is that his friendship with Terry Lennox is ruined. I don’t want to recap the plot or anything, but Lennox uses Marlowe just like everyone else does. At the end, Marlowe is alone. It’s a sad and poignant story and probably one of the best Noir stories of all time.
Recommended Viewing: I could recommend the Howard Hawks 1947 The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, or the Robert Altman 1973 The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould (which perfectly captures the feeling of living with a fussy cat). But you probably already know to watch those. Instead, I’m going to urge you to check out the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum. Unlike The Long Goodbye, which updates Marlowe to the 70s, Farewell, My Lovely is a largely faithful period piece, set just before the Second World War breaks out. It’s great largely because of the casting. Mitchum is old and he plays Marlowe as old – an old loser, who vaguely knows that his world is ending as everything slides inevitably toward war. The private eye monologue voiceover can be kind of cheesy, but Mitchum’s weary, weathered baritone pulls it off. It perfectly sums up everything appealing about Noir. In Dead Man’s Drive, I based the PI Walt Weaver on a young Mitchum in Out of the Past, but there’s a lot of Phillip Marlowe in there as well, and this movie is why. I urge you to check it out.
Tomorrow –we’re finally going to reach that Frank Miller sweet spot with Mickey Spillane.