This is one of my favourite Raymond Chandler novels but I’m probably in a minority on this. In fact, even the author professed to dislike it! I loved this book when I first read it as a kid but wondered how it might seem some three decades hence. Is my affection only due to my exposure to it as an impressionable teen? After all, it seems that the critical consensus is not with me … So, a contender as the greatest novel in the Philip Marlowe pantheon? Or should we set childish things aside? Time to tell …
“The only book of mine that I have actively disliked. It was written in a bad mood and I think that comes through.” – Raymond Chandler in a letter to James Sandoe
OK, this one is a bit hard to follow but trying to untangle it is, I think, ultimately rewarding. So here is a longish synopsis, spoiler free as ever. Although partly set in Hollywood, this is not a story about the glamour and glitz of the American movie capital – rather, it takes the idea of manufactured surfaces and the masks people wear (in crime and without) and marries it to a fairly jaundiced presentation of the power exerted by the film industry. Private investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by the prim and proper Kentucky resident Orfamay Quest (what a great name) to find her brother, Orrin. Marlowe tracks him down to a seedy hotel, but he recently checked out. After talking to the toupee-wearing new occupant of the room, Marlowe finds the hotel manager dead, with an ice pick neatly planted in his back. Later the man in Orrin’s room calls Marlowe and they agree to meet at another hotel – but by the time Marlowe gets there, this man is also dead, again with an ice pick in his back. This time though another person is there – a woman holding a
gun who slugs the PI and flees. She is a rising movie starlet, Mavis Weld, and she was there to pay the man off as he had incriminating photos of her and Steelgrave, allegedly a former Cleveland gangster who may also have been involved in the recent death of a former rival. Marlowe senses that Weld is vulnerable and wants to help, though she rebuffs him at every turn and even gets Steelgrave to beat him up. He none the less gets himself hired by her agent and gets involved in a complex plot in which it appears that Orrin was part of the blackmail scheme together with a Dr Lagardie, also from Cleveland. But as the bodies start to build up, who is the real puppet master behind the curtain?
There is just so much that is quotable here – just to give you a flavour, as a for instance:
On Los Angeles: “… a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup ” (chapter 26)
On cops: “What makes you Bay City cops so tough?” he asked. “You pickle your nuts in salt water or something?” (chapter 24)
On the moment of death: “Something happened to his face and behind his face, the indefinable thing that happens in that always baffling and inscrutable moment, the smoothing out, the going back over the years to the age of innocence.” (chapter 22)
On the medical profession: “I wondered how Dr Lagardie liked looking out of his front windows at a funeral parlour. Maybe it made him careful.” (chapter 16)
The Critical Consensus
Well … William Ahearn pretty much hated it; Clive James had some very interesting things to say, collected over at www.clivejames.com; Julian Symons said that the plot was as ‘as smoothly dovetailed as a piece of Chippendale’ in Bloody Murder; Anthony Boucher disliked it, damning it for what he felt was, “its scathing hatred of the human race.” Val McDermid in her introduction to the recent Penguin reprint marvelled at how, “… sixty years have not dimmed the excitement and freshness of his takes on those streets.” Ellie Gold celebrated the novel’s quite remarkable introspection; Al Clark called it, “the definitive Los Angeles novel.”
So how does it feel, critically confronting this work so many decades after my first encounter? It seems to me that the charge of misanthropy is unfair. Yes, it is present, no question, but it is one of the major themes of the novel, which is about Marlowe’s attempts not to give in to the impulse, expressed most poetically in chapter 13 in which the detective vents his frustration and anger at the darkness that surrounds him, and repeatedly reminds himself to not give in, admonishing himself, “You’re not human to-night, Marlowe.” It is that struggle that makes this story so compelling and romantic. It’s not about money, it’s not about sex – Marlowe rejects both, though never out of hand, because for him it is about priorities – it’s about finding your humanity and hanging on it as tightly as you can. This is something that is cleverly underlined by the ending, in which a surprise villain is exposed as an Ellery Queen style master manipulator from behind the scenes – the motive proves to be all about love, as it is for nemesis when it comes through its own violent and tortured agent. Although the plot is a bit oblique, and there are many digressions, I still found this a powerful and at times even moving novel.
The Chandler Canon
So where does it fall exactly? Chandler spent years working on The Little Sister, interrupted by Hollywood several times (which probably explains his nasty comments about the town) and I think it still stands up, though I may now agree that The Long Good-bye is a finer achievement. Chandler was at his freshest with his first two novels and at his most confident as a novelist with The Little Sister and The Long Good-bye. Playback is easily the least of them while The Lady in the Lake, in terms of plotting, is probably the finest of the three novels (the others are Sleep and Farewell) derived from his short fiction. Here is a full list of the Marlowe novels (and one short story):
- The Big Sleep (1939) – review here
- Farewell, My Lovely (1940) – review here
- The High Window (1942)
- The Lady in the Lake (1943)
- The Little Sister (1949)
- The Long Good-bye (1953)
- Playback (1958) – review here
- Poodle Springs (completed by Robert B. Parker in 1989) – review here
- ‘The Pencil’ – 1959 short story – reviewed here. There are other stories where the Marlowe name was belatedly appended for reprints, but this is the only genuine piece of Marlowe short fiction, and was the final story about the character Chandler would live to complete (though it was published posthumously).
After a 22-year break (the last had been The Brasher Doubloon in 1947), Philip Marlowe returned to the big screen in the shape of James Garner with Marlowe (1969), an updated adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s brilliant but highly pessimistic The LIttle Sister. Did it survive the transition to the swinging sixties? The screenplay was assigned to Stirling Silliphant, then riding high from his TV successes with The Naked City and Route 66 and his Oscar for writing In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the film was ultimately released as Marlowe right at the end of the 1960s and at the end of the glory days of the Hollywood studio system.
Marlowe opens with a kaleidoscopic set of coloured images over the insistent refrain of Peter Matz title song – but then it’s definitely the late 60s, so what did you expect? There are also hippies and inevitably references to pot abound (but they were in the book too) – Marlowe even has a British hairdresser in leather pants for a neighbour! We also get the latest craze – martial arts! To replace the inevitable scene in which goons show up to give Marlowe a hard time, instead we get an early role for Bruce Lee, who is terrific in a couple of short but highly memorable scenes of well-choreographed mayhem. Also, the movie industry background has been replaced with TV (Mavis is now the star of a squeaky clean sitcom), but then this makes sense because the director, Paul Bogart, was known mainly for his work on the small screen and this does, with its brightly lit look, reliance on back projection and exteriors shot in the studio together with a general avoidance of bloodshed, for the most part feels like something that might be better suited for that medium.
Garner is neat, tanned and tough and in deference to the original is even seen to smoke a pipe on occasion (apart from George Montgomery, the only Marlowe seen to do that on-screen thus far). On the other hand, he is much more conventional and, well, just plain nice than the character in the book (oh, and he also gets a regular girlfriend too). Sharon Farrell is terrific casting as Orfamay and really nails a rather slippery but truly central character. Gayle Hunnicutt does OK as Mavis, only having to play a more straightforward rendering of the character (she is certainly much harder to decipher in the original). Rita Moreno is somewhat typecast as the Mavis’ best friend, sexy latina Dolores, but is very good in the role – and certainly her final sequence in the strip club is one of the few that one knows would not have been made that way for television. Silliphant’s screenplay keeps a fair amount of the dialogue and does a fair job of compressing and streamlining the plot and also adds a few new elements to make the villain even harder to spot.
Garner is probably a bit too laid back in the title role (he would be much better as the wry lead in the classic The Rockford Files a few years later) but Farrell and Moreno are terrific, as is Paul Stevens as Dr Lagardie, who to my mind is absolutely perfect in a small but crucial role as the tortured medico. An entertaining if much lighter take on a long and difficult book that deserves credit for making a somewhat impenetrable plot much easier to follow without really altering it – an impressive achievement actually, though apparently Silliphant was unhappy about the final result as much of the more hardboiled material in his script was eliminated by Bogart and the studio.
DVD Availability: Available in the US as part of the Warner Archive ‘made on demand’ series, the DVD offers an excellent transfer with strong colours and very good sharpness. No extras.
Director: Paul Bogart
Producer: Gabriel Katzka, Sidney Beckerman
Screenplay: Sterling Silliphant
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Addison Hehr
Music: Peter Matz
Cast: James Garner, Rita Moreno, Bruce Lee, Gayle Hunnicutt, Jackie Coogan, Carrol O’Connor, Sharon Farrell, Kenneth Tobey, William Daniels
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘quantity in the title’ category: