Raymond Chandler: No Honor in Hollywood

Nov. 7, 2013
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As Tom Williams writes in his new biography, A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler (Chicago Review Press), Chandler never courted Hollywood. But for the movie industry, he was exactly the sort of writer they sought: a bestseller working in a familiar genre.

The more creative directors of the nascent film noir saw potential for sneaking forbidden ideas past the censors in the form of murder thrillers set on the dark side of the street. When Billy Wilder began work on his adaptation of James Cain’s Double Indemnity, he solicited Chandler’s services as screenwriter. Wilder and Chandler were both exiles in California,Williams writes, although in truth, Hollywood was crowded with outsiders. Chandler and Wilder had much in common but their working relations were strained from the onset. Chandler wrote his detective stories as a gentleman-artisan, but Hollywood operated as an assembly line and Wilder was happy to be the cynical foreman. Filmmaking is collaborative, but Chandler was always the lone artist.

And then there were problems associated with Chandler’s character. He always found sex threatening, hence the femmes fatale of his fiction, and Wilder was always chasing skirts to the author’s great annoyance. Chandler had long wrestled with alcoholism, and by 1943 on the set of Double Indemnity, he was losing. Despite their problems, Chandler and Wilder continued working. They produced a classic.

Williams neatly summarizes the events and paradoxes of Chandler’s life. Born in the U.S., he grew up in British public schools and returned to America as a man without a country. In fashioning fiction from the corruption endemic to Los Angeles, the ability to see the nation as an outsider served him well.

With the success of Double Indemnity, Chandler became a hot property in Hollywood. Some of his projects were soon forgotten, but the hard-boiled detective writer excelled in film noir. He pounded out Blue Dahlia under deadline, and rewrote his own novel, The Lady in the Lake, for the screen. He was brought in to work on the virtually incomprehensible adaptation of his novel The Big Sleep.

Chandler found Hollywood’s ways frustrating, but believed film could be an art “capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived.” He came to regard the moguls of Hollywood the way he conceived the villains of his stores—as men without honor.


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