Audio review: PLAYBACK by Raymond Chandler

I first published this review over at my Audio Aficionado blog but I think it belongs more properly here with my other Fedora tips.

Playback (1958) is generally agreed to be the least of Chandler’s novels, with its slender plot and small cast of characters; but on the other hand this works to its advantage in the broadcast medium. In fact the novel, which I previously reviewed here, had its roots in an original screenplay of the same name written between 1947 and 1948 for Universal Studios but never produced. Those interested to compare the now three iterations of this material can read the complete script online.

The Plot: PI Philip Marlowe is mixing a little business with pleasure – he’s getting paid to follow a mysterious and lovely redhead called Eleanor King. And wherever Miss King goes, trouble seems to follow. But she’s easy on the eye and Marlowe’s happy to do as he’s told, all in the name of chivalry, of course. But one dead body later and what started out to be a lazy day’s snooping soon becomes a deadly cocktail of blackmail, lies, mistaken identity – and murder …

Production: The Classic Chandler series, which I briefly blogged about earlier this year, stars Toby Stephens as Philip Marlowe. Son of those revered thespians Dame Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens (who incidentally once played Chandler for an episode of The South Bank Show), he is certainly an unusual and even surprising choice – he is probably best known for playing villainous or rakish roles in such films as the James Bond movie Die Another Day (2002) and the particularly good, if sombre, Poirot adaptation, ‘Five Little Pigs’ (2003) on TV.

Toby Stephens, and cigar (BBC)

Stephens’ American accent has been a little generic in earlier installments so far and the promotional image used by the BBC is certainly not very encouraging either in terms of authenticity: our hardboiled hero in fact looks more like a member of the SS than a California PI with his black leather trench coat, black fedora and fat cigar. Chandler would definitely have complained given how precise he was in his descriptions of what his characters would wear. Although it began with The Big Sleep, Chandler’s debut novel, the BBC series is otherwise not presenting the Marlowe stories in publication order, which originally was: The Big Sleep (1939); Farewell, My Lovely (1940); The High Window (1942); The Lady in the Lake (1943); The Little Sister (1949); The Long Good-Bye (1953) and Playback (1958). In a nice touch the BBC will also dramatise Poodle Springs (1989), a fragment of a new Marlowe novel that Chandler was working on at his death in 1959 and which 30 years later Robert B. Parker expanded with commendable fidelity. I previously reviewed the book here. That play, and the remaining three others (The High Window, The Little Sister and The Long Good-Bye ), are scheduled to be broadcast on Radio 4 later in the autumn.

Raymond Chandler (and his pipe) in the 1940s.

Oddly enough this radio version of Playback proves to be one of the most enjoyable of the whole Classic Chandler series even though its boils down the novel quite considerably, even to the extent of reducing the standard running time of the episodes from 90 to 60 minutes. The decision behind this is a little unclear though - Stephen Wyatt’s script  follows the plot and dialogue closely but then starts chopping huge sections out of it, especially towards the end, to make it fit the slot. It is almost as if it started as a 90-minute script but then had to be pared back. In many ways Wyatt’s script plays like a simple condensation of the novel, though the bookending of the drama with Marlowe’s repeated phrase “My dreams are my own business” is an interesting addition. It is a shame that the adaptation was reduced to 60 minutes though (well, just under 57 to be exact) because a number of character and scenes are either truncated or removed in their entirety and it make one realise how important such elements are in a work that was very brief to begin with.

I particularly missed the cranky and asthmatic old-timer Fred Pop, sexy, Dior-sheated and wondrously named secretary Miss Helen Vermilyea and the surprisingly sympathetic cop in Captain Alessandro. The best part of the book is probably the extended exchange with another old man, the courtly Clarendon, which sadly has also been considerably shortened here. But the main deletion comes from the removal in its entirety of the romantic subplot featuring Linda Loring – on the one hand this completely alters the tone of the story at its conclusion, but one has to assume that this is only a delay and that the material will instead make its way into the adaptation of Poodle Springs which follows on directly. Well, one hopes so anyway.

The most successful aspect of this drama though is Stephens, who is absolutely superb as the older and slightly world-weary Marlowe, with an unwavering accent that convinces throughout (well, at least to these Anglo-Italian ears). The evocative music for strings (the composer goes uncredited) is also a real bonus - it’s in the style of David Shire’s fine, melancholy score for the 1975 movie version of Farewell My Lovely and it is certainly an improvement on the clichéd use of generic bebop jazz used in the initial installments of the series which were set in the late 30s but had music that sounded like it belonged to a decade or more later. It certainly suits that intimate and sad little story of Playback.

Availability: CD from the BBC Shop and other retailers

***** (5 fedora tips out of 8)

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4 Responses to Audio review: PLAYBACK by Raymond Chandler

  1. Ela says:

    Just found your review here and had to comment. ‘Playback’ isn’t one of Chandler’s novels that I’ve read, so must get round to it! Toby Stephens is always watchable, and I like his voice, so will look out for this. Have you listened to the other adaptations yet?

    • Hi Ela – I was going to do a post with mini reviews of the whole Complete Chandler audioseries but never quite got round to it. Thanks for the reminder! Some of the changes that were made to this one were undertaken to facilitate the version of Poodle Springs that followed it but I think the series on the whole was very respectful but also varied enough to make for always intriguing listening. I’ll see about revisiting these though.

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