Burning Witches

Michael Rogin

  • Raymond Chandler: A Biography by Tom Hiney
    Chatto, 310 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6310 0
  • Raymond Chandler Speaking edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker
    California, 288 pp, £10.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 520 20835 8

In 1955, the Daily Express conducted a poll to discover the most popular celebrities according to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow tastes. Raymond Chandler and Marilyn Monroe were, as Chandler put it. ‘the only ones that made all three brows’. Chandler shattered cultural barriers with Philip Marlowe, private investigator, immortalised on the screen by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, mortalised by Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery during Chandler’s lifetime, and afterwards by Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and James Garner. He was the hero of the most listened to radio detective serial in history, and, by the time Chandler died in 1959, had sold over five million books.

The private eye was the wilderness hero moved to the urban frontier, alone and unattached, living honestly outside the law, doomed upholder of vanishing virtues; ‘hard, isolate, stoic and a killer’ in D.H. Lawrence’s description of the original of the breed, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking. ‘In a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated’ was how Chandler himself imagined Marlowe’s future. The frontiersman and the private eye find their archetypal expression in the five Leather-stocking and seven Marlowe novels, the first a series written by an often-expatriate American living in England and France and dreaming of the frontier, the second by a self-described ‘man without a country’, an American brought up in England and Ireland who, writing in Los Angeles, longed for the country from which he had exiled himself.

We are undergoing a Chandler revival. The Library of America has published his complete works in two volumes; a 1962 edition of selected Chandler letters, essays, and fiction, Raymond Chandler Speaking, has been re-issued. We now have a restored print of The Big Sleep, half an hour longer than the original; and, most recently, Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler, billed as the first ‘authorised’ biography in twenty years. Chandler would be amused by his power to authorise a biography from beyond the grave, but probably not so amused by the promise of ‘new material’ about the private life of the author of the private eye. ‘Do you suppose,’ Chandler once admonished an aspiring author, ‘I became one of the most successful mystery writers of any age by thinking about me?’

Chandler invented a hero without a history: Marlowe, as he describes himself in The Long Goodbye, had ‘both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime ... nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’ But in immortalising a figure in whom he pretends no one will be interested, Chandler only attracted curiosity about himself. Hiney, who had access to papers held by the Chandler estate, has written a lively, serviceable biography, but Chandler’s personal torments were made public in Frank McShane’s posthumously ‘authorised’ biography of 1975, and Hiney offers fundamentally the same account.

The only child of an American father and an Anglo-Irish mother, Raymond Chandler was raised in England after his father abandoned the family. He attended Dulwich College, worked briefly in London, ended up in Los Angeles on the eve of World War One, was wounded in trench warfare serving in the Canadian Army, and returned to manage several oil company independents during the Los Angeles oil boom of the Twenties. But Chandler’s version of the immigrant success story was coloured by his three deepest entanglements: with his mother and wife, with the bottle and with writing.

When he returned from the war, he fell in love with the stepmother of the friend with whom he had gone off to enlist. Although he may never have known her real age, the already twice married Cissy Pascal was, at 49, 18 years older than Chandler and barely younger than his mother, another fading beauty who never revealed her birth date. Herself a member of the Pascal household, Florence Chandler opposed the marriage. For four years Chandler lived with his mother, supporting the two women in two separate houses; he married Cissy two weeks after Florence Chandler’s death. Although briefly unfaithful during two periods of heavy drinking, Chandler adored his wife. ‘For 30 years, ten months, and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at.’

A few years into his marriage, however, at the height of his business success, Chandler ruined himself with drink. Threatening suicide during his alcohol binges and ever more rarely in the office, he was fired in 1932, in the middle of the Depression. He determined to give up the bottle, dedicate himself again to Cissy and support himself by writing pulp fiction. Living reclusively in furnished rooms, the Chandlers moved annually around urban Los Angeles as the writer learned his craft. He published his first story in 1933, in The Block Mask, the magazine which invented the hardboiled detective. Drink was finishing off Dashiell Hammett as the pre-eminent Block Mask author – Hammett wrote his last book, The Thin Man, the same year – and Chandler took his place. Since he wrote slowly and deliberately he barely made a living from his fiction. It was only six years later, with The Big Sleep, his first novel and the first appearance of Marlowe, that he and Cissy could afford to move to the house where they lived for the rest of their lives, in idyllic La Jolla just north of San Diego. Marlowe remained in LA. The author who once said he ‘lived on the edge of nothing’ gave that existence to his protagonist, in whom were combined the drinker of Chandler’s successful, social Twenties and the itinerant, lonely, anonymous man of the Depression decade; eliminating Cissy from Marlowe’s life, Chandler replaced her with the deadly woman. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Hammett and James M. Cain, writing pulp fiction for a respectable mass audience. But neither The Big Sleep nor his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely, sold well enough. Chandler seemed to be reaching the end of the line. What saved him, elevated him to mass culture’s commanding heights, and finished him off, was Hollywood.

In 1943 Paramount hired Chandler to work with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. The film, directed by Wilder, was a critical and popular smash hit, garnering Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Spurred by this success, RKO produced the first Marlowe picture, Farewell, My Lovely (retitled Murder, My Sweet), in a big-budget, A-movie format. Meanwhile Knopf had reissued the first two Marlowe novels in massmarket paperbacks that together sold a million and a half copies. By 1946, with the appearance of the Chandler-scripted Blue Dahlia and two more Marlowe films – Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, and the Hawks/Faulkner/Bogart/Bacall Big Sleep – Chandler was rich and famous. Under the pressure of Hollywood social life and the Wilder collaboration (which Hiney calls Chandler’s first close human contact with anyone other than Cissy in a decade), he was also drinking again. And with one exception, The Long Goodbye, his memorable writing was behind him.

As Chandler’s reputation rose, his ability to work declined. Critical recognition did not make the writing easier. Worse yet, Cissy was suffering from a degenerative lung disease. Chandler cooked and kept house, taking care of his declining wife and sobering up to produce his penultimate novel. Cissy died in 1954, the year after The Long Goodbye was published. ‘Of course I had said goodbye to her long ago,’ mourned Chandler. He slept outside her door in the final stages of her illness; after her death, in horror of the empty space, he slept in her room among her things. Not long afterwards, he made a drunken effort to shoot himself – the description of this failed suicide in Raymond Chandler Speaking is an ironic tour de force.

Travelling between England and the US in his last years, alternately charming, desperate and incapacitated by drink, he sought out younger women who took care of him in the guise of his protecting them. After creating an awkward triangle (first time as romance comedy, second time as painful farce) with his friends Stephen and Natasha Spender, he proposed marriage almost simultaneously to three different women. Women fought over his remains, his private secretary unsuccessfully contesting the will he had changed so often. The title of his final novel, Playback, could be said to describe the repetition trauma Chandler was suffering in life, for his rise and drunken fall in mass culture uncannily echoed his oil business career. Chandler’s life prosaically mimicked the poetic form for which he, as much as any other person, was responsible. Film noir is the meeting of German Expressionism and American hard-boiled crime melodrama. One originator, the refugee film director Fritz Lang, made his first films in the United States, Fury and They Only Live Once, in 1936-7: both are very un American portrayals of a menacing society that turns those icons of American innocence, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, into hunted, vengeance-seeking, prison escapees. Tracy, nearly lynched, flees a burning jail. Fonda plays a three-time loser framed for a killing that will send him to the chair. As he is trying to cross the border carrying his dead wife in his arms, a policeman fixes him in the cross-hairs of his telescopic sights; the audience watches through the gun lens as, in the last shot of the film, Fonda is hit in the back.

With the introduction of the private detective film four years later, the other noir founders, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, shifted audience identification from hunted to hunter. Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon made Bogart a star, although the refugee Peter Lorre provides the film’s only moment of genuine fright Wilder, the German refugee screenwriter, and Chandler, the Hammett heir, brought the two figures, investigated and investigator, together in Double Indemnity. Taking the point of view of Fred MacMurray, who plots the murder of her husband with Barbara Stanwyck, the film concentrates on ‘their effort to escape, the net closing’ – Wilder’s words – after the murder. In The Blue Dahlia, the net closes in on the returning veteran, Alan Ladd, suspected of killing the wife who betrayed him while he was at war. The murderer in Chandler’s script was the William Bendix character, Ladd’s war buddy, an amnesiac killer suffering from blackouts: playing Smerdyakov to Alan Ladd’s Ivan Karamazov, Bendix, as Chandler puts it, ‘executed his pal’s wife’. Although the studio invented another murderer ex machina at the last moment so as not to offend veterans, the happy ending does not change the force of the film, which lies in the growing suspicion that Ladd is only innocent of the crime of which he is accused because Bendix has acted out his forbidden desire.

Although Chandler also shared a credit (his last) on Strangers on a Train, he repudiated the film, finding ‘ludicrous in its essence’ the chance encounter that leads the deranged Robert Walker, in a skin-crawling, over-the-top performance, to imagine he has made a pact to exchange murders, to kill Farley Granger’s estranged, pregnant wife and then to haunt Granger to get him to return the favour and kill his father. Chandler’s discomfort with Strangers led him to argue for the superiority of writing over motion pictures: films anaesthetise the imagination, he claimed: the price they ‘pay for trying to make a dream look as if it really happened’. Making a distinction of form, Chandler avoided the disturbing content of the dream – the murderer’s wish, which ties an innocent man to a demented killer.

The pathos of the man for whom ‘the actual writing is what you live for’ is that the greatest films he touched – Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, The Big Sleep and Strangers on a Train, – surpass the Marlowe books. Often bewildered and under suspicion himself, continually drinking, and periodically subject to extreme physical abuse, the Marlowe of the novels, unlike Edward G. Robinson’s insurance investigator in Double Indemnity, is trapped in the dark underside of American life and never acquires the insurance man’s protective armour, his forceful, single-minded menace. But whereas in Woman in the Window Lang directed Robinson all the way across the line, into the M role – Peter Lorre again – of the little persecuted man as killer, Marlowe enters the Los Angeles heart of diffused darkness without ever succumbing. Menaced by the city and by women, Marlowe moves safely through the one because Chandler had demonised the other. ‘Marlowe. With an “e” or not?’ asks a character in The Long Goodbye. Chandler gave Marlowe a Santa Rosa birthplace, identifying it as the setting for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. But he did not want to see Marlowe for what he was, a secret sharer (the title of a Marlow tale) with Hitchcock’s Robert Walker.

‘I love words,’ wrote Raymond Chandler, but his stories no less than his films were produced for a mass market, and he knew he was tempted by fame. When Newsweek reneged on a promised cover story, he responded: ‘What hurts here is the sense of guilt unrewarded, like the pickpocket who gets an empty wallet.’ Chandler was not the first writer to hate the mass culture in which he flourished. Indeed, he wrote pulp fiction out of a horror of ‘the primeval ooze’ of mass society, ‘the Coca Cola age ... the age of the Book of the Month and the Hearst Press’, of the ‘mass production of shoddy merchandise people’. Politically-driven message novels were mass-produced fiction, Chandler believed; he wanted to substitute style: ‘thinking in terms of ideas destroys the ability to think in terms of emotions and sensations.’ Pulp readers thought they just wanted action: Chandler would show them that what they really cared about ‘was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description. The thing they remembered, that haunted them, was not, for example, that a man got killed, but that at the moment of his death he was trying to pick up a paper clip on the polished surface of his desk.’ As evidence of his own achievement of this, Chandler could have cited the murder of the small-time grifter, Harry Jones, in The Big Sleep, as unforgettable on the page as in Elisha Cook Jr’s performance in the movie.

As this example suggests, however, noir content is inseparable from noir form. Noir is menace, despair, darkness, violence and death, the dystopian escape from mass pieties into the urban underworld. Noir soils the world in which Bing Crosby’s priest movie, Going My Way, could win the Academy Award for which Double Indemnity was nominated, and – Chandler’s example – A Place in the Sun be preferred to A Streetcar Named Desire. Positioned squarely against the smiling progressive optimism of official America, noir incarnates the ‘hum of destruction’ Lawrence heard whirring beneath the national ‘love and produce cackle’. Chandler, who once refused an invitation to J. Edgar Hoover’s table when the two men found themselves in the same restaurant, repudiated politics tout court. (Perhaps it is in homage to his plague-on-both-houses response to the Hollywood Red scare that Hiney’s otherwise reliable biography gets every fact about it wrong, replacing the House UnAmerican Activities Committee with Joe McCarthy, having the Hollywood Ten stand on the Fifth instead of the First Amendment, and making Dashiell Hammett a member of the group.) But Chandler’s equation of business organisations with the Communist state – ‘individuals’ in both ‘simply don’t count’ – contains a political vision in spite of itself, of the little man, the private citizen under siege.

Menacing, powerful forces penetrate the Marlowe novels, which expose police violence, political corruption and robber baron power beneath the Protestant moralism of Southern California. ‘That’s the difference between crime and business. For business you gotta have capital,’ explains a private detective in The long Goodbye. (Although Murder, My Sweet was produced and directed by Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk, future members of the Hollywood Ten, it shuns politics in the same way as the other Marlowe movies; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is, as Hiney says, the film heir of Chandler’s LA.) like business crime and political corruption, the violence in the Marlowe books and films has a realistic base. It speaks for a country which had 10,000 handgun deaths in one recent year, compared to four in Great Britain. But realism hardly seems the word with which to describe Marlowe’s American romance of the gun. No viewer of The Big Sleep (except in Toronto, where the scenes were censored) can forget the close-ups of Marlowe unstrapping his two guns, first one and later the other, from beneath the glove compartment of his car. The first one fails to do the job; the second is lethal.

It’s the same with alcohol. The cover of Raymond Chandler shows the author with his beloved cat and pipe: Raymond Chandler Speaking replaces the cat with a gun. There ought to be a bottle as well. Drinking dominates the Marlowe books as it does the series of Thin Man detective films. Both glamorise heavy drinking – William Powell and Myrna Loy make liquor a source of wit, Marlowe makes it a sign of toughness. Until The Long Goodbye, the only deteriorated, physically repulsive drunkard in the Chandler corpus is a woman – Mrs Florian in Farewell, My Lovely.

That returns us to the heart of the matter. The plots of what are agreed to be Chandler’s three best novels have the same structure: Marlowe discovers at the climax that femmes fatales connected to impotent older men are the source of evil. Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep turns out to want to kill the men who refuse to sleep with her. Succeeding with her sister’s husband, Shawn Regan, she fails with Marlowe (who ‘tore the bed to pieces savagely’ after finding her in it, and fumigated his room). The nymphet Carmen and her sophisticated older sister, Vivian, combine into the Velma of Farewell, My Lovely, who kills to protect the secret of her criminal past. Ellen Wade in The Long Goodbye, the object of Chandler’s most idealising prose, has murdered her alcoholic author husband and the woman with whom he had an affair. In the first novels the impotent older men could be wish-fulfilment versions of Chandler’s father or Cissy’s pre-Chandler husband. The triumphalist structure has broken down in The Long Goodbye, where the old man splits in two: one half becomes the alcoholic writer, a version of Chandler himself, the other half (as in The Big Sleep, the father of the two sisters) acquires menacing power. But in all versions the sexual woman pays the price that saves Marlowe from contamination. ‘You’re all alone in the dark,’ a drunken Roger Wade says to Marlowe, referring to the indifferent woman hiding within his beautiful wife. ‘Baby wants to go bye-bye.’ Only Marlowe’s detachment saves him from Wade’s fate. The fire that Cissy warmed her hands at was burning witches.

Women are the ur-killers in Chandler. In every single Marlowe novel but the final, failed Playback (where Marlowe proves the heroine innocent of the murder of her alcoholic husband), the detective exposes the female origin of the crime. Fatal female attraction organises much of film noir, but powerful actresses (like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) supply a force Chandler’s women lack. There was also another way out, the path taken by the greatest film with which Chandler was associated, The Big Sleep. Originating as a noir, The Big Sleep was taken over by the romance between Bogart and Bacall. Bogart was coming off a drunken and abusive marriage, and his alcoholism almost aborted the making of the film. Bogart, said Edward G. Robinson, was imposing on himself the facade of the character with whom he had become identified. The great Bogart/Nicholas Ray/Gloria Grahame noir, In a Lonely Place, metamorphosed that character back into film, for the movie knows, as the Marlowe novels do not, that the problem is the hero’s violence against women.

The Big Sleep went the other way. Twinned with Chandler by the private eye and the bottle, Bogart was now, in counterpoint to the author, falling in love with a woman half his age. Chandler had written repartee between Marlowe and the older Sternwood sister, dialogue which found its way into the screenplay when the film was first shot. After Bogart and Bacall were married, Hawks, Faulkner, Bogart, Bacall and the young female scriptwriter Leigh Brackett wrote and improvised more. The result was to separate Vivian from her evil sister and create the happy marriage of Thirties screwball comedy and Forties hardboiled noir. ‘When you see the film of The Big Sleep,’ Chandler wrote to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, ‘you will realise what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor ... Like Edward G. Robinson, all he has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.’ Although Chandler wavered at the end of his life, he knew Marlowe could never marry, for the price of the romantic turn taken in The Big Sleep was to transform despair into comedy. Chandler realised that he was a man without a country when living in Paris. It was there, decades later, that The Little Sister was published alongside Hammett and Georges Simenon in the Série Noire that gave film noir its name. French homages to noir – the Jean-Luc Godard/Jean-Paul Belmondo Breathless, made the year Chandler died, and the François Truffaut/Charles Aznavour Shoot the Pianist – fulfilled the form as tragedy and initiated the New Wave.