WEIRDLAND: Noir World, Raymond Chandler's Moral conscience

Monday, November 11, 2013

Noir World, Raymond Chandler's Moral conscience

Film noir is often referred to in spatial terms, as a world or a universe. The classical canon is itself replete with enigmatic aphorisms about it, whether “a blue, sick world” (Dead Reckoning, John Cromwell, 1947), or “a bright, guilty world” (The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles, 1948). In The Big Sleep (1939), the novel in which private investigator Philip Marlowe makes his first appearance, Raymond Chandler gives us this condensed, haiku-version: “The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.” As the novel reaches its climax, the wet has gained momentum: “The tumbling rain was solid white spray in the headlights. The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through.”

The nocturnal drive described by Chandler is exemplary in this regard, for this passage also describes the most identifiable of credit sequences in the films noir to come: the view through the windscreen shot from the interior of a car tunneling down a dark road, sometimes with a pair of eyes framed in the rearview mirror. The flickering cones of the searchlights do not so much reveal what lies ahead as they make the surrounding darkness visible, charging the unseen with foreboding presence. Through rain-washed glass and slashing wipers we sense, rather than distinguish, the phantom shapes passing by. It is a subjective shot, yet we haven’t been introduced to the source of that subjectivity. Rather than identifying with a character, we’re pulled by this motion, transported into a space that is familiar precisely in its lack of clarity. Described in this manner, this also marks a departure from the palpable space of Classical Hollywood Cinema.

At some point, Marlowe reaches an outer limit where social space ends, yet something is evoked beyond or beneath it. The hallmark of Chandler’s prose, Fredric Jameson argues (in his essay 'The Synoptic Chandler'), coordinates this social environment with and against “the presence of some vaster, absent natural unity beyond this ephemeral set of episodes in punctual human time.” Jameson demonstrates how the novels move toward such fringe areas at the end of the road, or, in the Heideggarian sense, at the end of the world. The “cognitive map of Los Angeles,” charted through his investigations, “has no grounding or resonance unless it circulates slowly against the rotation of that other, deeper anti-system which is that of the Earth itself.” -'The Phenomenology of Film Noir' essay by Henrik Gustafsson, included in "A Companion to Film Noir" (2013) by Andrew Spicer & Helen Hanson

The difficulty Marlowe faces in The Big Sleep lies in restoring the balance between public and private worlds. Despite his sense of guilt at having concealed her murder of Rusty Regan, Marlowe considers himself to have acted honorably in enabling Carmen Sternwood to receive psychiatric treatment, thereby protecting her and her father from the public ordeal of a trial. The schizoid behavior of Carmen Sternwood, who is unable to communicate her feelings of rejection except through killing, that is, through acting only on materiality, represents the beginnings of Chandler’s attempt to explore the identity and status of the individual in the twentieth century.

In The Long Good-Bye, Marlowe is increasingly aware of the meaninglessness of his task, not, as Jameson suggests, because some long forgotten crime makes his restoration of the distinction between public and private, of an old order, worthless, but because the opposition itself is no longer feasible. Rather than implying, therefore, a concealed presence, the surface life of objects has become all that there is. Marlowe’s description of life in jail demonstrates this point. There, stripped of material belongings, he finds himself unable to communicate; the objects by which even he defines himself turn out to conceal only absence. Marlowe’s faith throughout the novel that Lennox might be possessed of a personality with which he can engage is misjudged and the contrast between them becomes clear. Whereas Marlowe continues to struggle to balance private with public, Lennox, as the novel progresses, makes several attempts to obscure or erase his identity and his past. Unlike Carmen Sternwood whose past, in the form of Rusty Regan, the man she has murdered, trails behind her until it is discovered-and uncovered-by Marlowe, Lennox succeeds in losing contact with his, existing, in the end, in his materiality alone. Source:

Claire Trevor plays femme fatale Helen Grayle in "Murder, My Sweet" (1944) directed by Edward Dmytryk, based on "Farewell, My Lovely" (1940) written by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler did not feel satisfied. He considered "Farewell, My Lovely" his best book, not bettered by any that followed, and his films had never achieved the level of artistry he aspired to. He had, at times, increased his drinking to dangerous levels, and he had put his marriage at risk.

The Little Sister had benefited from Chandler’s intimate knowledge of Hollywood, a world he knew far better than the Los Angeles underworld. Chandler was not Hitchcock’s first choice, or his second, or even his third. Hitchcock was determined to have a big-name writer attached to the film ("Strangers on a Train") and a treatment circulated around Hollywood for months: John Steinbeck was mentioned, but turned it down. So did Dashiell Hammett. The contract was generous, paying $2,500 per week, plus $50 for secretarial expenses. It also allowed Chandler to work from home, still something of a rarity in Hollywood. Hitchcock was even willing to accommodate his refusal to drive to the studio in Burbank: script meetings were to be held in La Jolla.

Farley Granger and Ruth Roman in "Strangers on a Train" (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook based on Patricia Highsmith's novel

The trouble was, though, that Hitchcock’s manner of dealing was to be obtuse, pointing out problems or adding small suggestions, rather than tackling the big issues directly. This left Chandler puzzled by quite what he wanted, and he described the experience as being akin to that ‘of a fighter who can’t get set because he is continually being kept off balance by short jabs.’ Chandler called Hitchcock a ‘fat bastard’. Chandler, used to the director’s confusing and contradictory behaviour, continued to write the script, unaware that Hitchcock wanted nothing more to do with him.

Hitchcock was interested in building cinematic tension and in creating a thrilling experience for his audience. Chandler, in contrast, was much more interested in character and motivation (probably closer to the spirit of Patricia Highsmith’s original novel).

Marlowe has changed: he has the total realisation that not only is he alone in the world, but that the connection he had thought he had found was a fallacy. What hope he had for companionship, or rather, true friendship, is extinguished in the last pages of The Long Goodbye. In Marlowe’s eyes, Terry Lennox seemed to share his vision of the world. Part of Marlowe does want Lennox to turn back because he is so lonely but, in the end, his moral conscience wins out. He knows that he is on his own and he recognises that his own choices have brought him here, and he is content that he has done the right thing. Chandler wanted him to feel driven to an inevitable conclusion against his own instinct; he wanted him to be betrayed and to understand why.

Marlowe was a knight with a code of honour that was unshakable, even in the most testing times. Chandler recognised that he had put him in a situation that might be hard to understand for many of his readers, if treated in the usual way, and so took on the challenge to reveal Marlowe’s own motivations and ways of thinking. The honourable martyr was, of course, also the sort of man Raymond Chandler imagined himself to be. -"A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler" (2013) by Tom Williams

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