Enough has been written about perhaps the greatest mystery writer of all time, Raymond Chandler. Born on July 23, 1888, Chandler was the author of several short stories and well-know novels such as The Big Sleep, Farewell my Lovely, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye and Lady in the Lake. He was also the creator of one of the most famous private eyes ever, Philip Marlowe. Iconic films have been made on his novels such as The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and Murder, My Sweet ( 1944, based on Farewell my Lovely), starring Dick Powell as the detective.
Today, 56 years on after Chandler has passed away, I look at his forays into screenwriting in Hollywood that resulted in two Oscar nominated screenplays, besides high voltage drama and highly combative collaborations with the likes of directors like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.
Chandler teamed up with Billy Wilder to first write the screenplay of what is now arguably one of the greatest film noirs of all time, Double Indemnity (1944). The screenplay was adapted from a book by another iconic mystery writer, James M Cain, who had based it on a real life case wherein a woman and her boyfriend murdered her husband, after she took out a huge insurance policy in the latter’s name with a double-indemnity clause. Chandler got the job when Wilder’s collaborator, Charles Bracket, who had worked on the treatment, decided it was too sordid for him and quit. Initially, Wilder did not think much of Chandler when he met him, thinking he looked more like an accountant! The two did not get along, with Chandler even leaving at one point, giving a long list of complaints to Paramount, who were producing the film. Wilder, however, persisted with Chandler seeing what he brought to the table rightly stating, “If two people think alike, it’s like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off of.” Fortunately for cinema lovers, their partnership produced a screenplay (and a film) that is now unanimously and deservedly regarded as a masterpiece. Much of the credit for its snappy, provocative, witty dialogue is due to Chandler, who pointed out to Wilder that Cain’s original dialogue would not translate that well to screen. Chandler also brought Los Angeles alive by doing a lot of on location research, even visiting Jerry’s Market on Melrose Avenue where the murder was planned. Double Indemnity also sees a little cameo by Chandler, glancing up from a book as Fred MacMurray passes him. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Screenplay and shockingly won none, Wilder and Chandler themselves losing out to Frank Butler and Frank Cavett for the mushy and feel-good Going My Way.
The Blue Dahlia (1946) is that rarity, a screenplay that Chandler wrote directly for the screen. The film looks at a Navy pilot (Alan Ladd), who is suspected of his unfaithful wife’s murder. Halfway into the script, Chandler developed severe writer’s block. An alcoholic who was abstaining at the time, Chandler was convinced he could only get inspired and finish the film if drunk! It is said that Chandler asked for a full case of scotch, got it, and stayed drunk for many weeks and completed the script. Nevertheless, though the film was unfairly upstaged that year by The Big Sleep (based ironically on Chandler’s own book), The Blue Dahlia garnered largely positive notices, for its Chandler-like cracker-jack dialogue among other things. Quoting well-known critic Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, “To the present expanding cycle of hard-boiled and cynical films, Paramount has contributed a honey of a rough-’em-up romance which goes by the name of “The Blue Dahlia” and which came to the Paramount yesterday. And in this floral fracas it has starred its leading tough guy, Alan Ladd, and its equally dangerous and dynamic lady V-bomb, Veronica Lake. What with that combination in this Raymond Chandler tale, it won’t be simply blasting that you will hear in Times Square for weeks to come. ” Once again, Chandler was nominated for the Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay and once again, he lost, this time to Murial Box and Sydney Box for The Seventh Veil.
The most volatile and highly publicized of Chandler’s collaborations was the one on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, the film looks at a psychotic socialite who suggests to a tennis pro, stuck in an unhappy marriage, that the two men should swap murders. Right from the beginning, Chandler thought it was a silly little story and the two men simply did not get along. While Hitchcock preferred long discussions, often not even talking about the film, Chandler preferred to talk business and move on to writing. Chandler made no bones about venting his feeling that these meetings were little more than “god-awful jabber sessions which seem to be an inevitable although painful part of the picture business.” Things got worse and more famously, at one point when Chandler saw Hitchcock struggling to exit his limousine, he remarked within the director’s hearing, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” That effectively ended their stint of working together. Though Chandler did write two drafts of the screenplay, he finally heard from Hitchcock, saying he was being removed from the film. The one thing that the two men did agree on – that since virtually none of Chandler’s writing remained in the final film, his name should be removed from the film’s credits but the powers that be at Warner Bros were very clear they intended to cash in on Chandler’s name and so he got screenplay credit along with Czenzi Ormonde.
There was just one more script that Chandler was involved in writing and that was Playback, an original screenplay written in 1949 for Universal. However, the film was never made and Chandler reworked the script as a basis for his novel of the same name, published in 1958. Playback was sadly, Chandler’s last completed novel, and also the final one with Philip Marlowe.