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The Dueling Cavalier: On (Re)-Reading Raymond Chandler for the First Time

(Photo Credit: Ralph Crane//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Ralph Crane//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Having been raised on a steady diet of film noir, postmodern noir, and crime fiction of various kinds over a variety of media, the name “Raymond Chandler” had been one with which I’d been familiar for as long as I could remember. Beyond my interests in genre writing, as someone with a general fascination with fiction, I’d been aware of him having been long canonized as one of the great twentieth-century novelists. But until recently, I’d yet to have a direct encounter with the prose of the man himself.

Well, that’s not totally true. I’d been shown Howard Hawks’ adaptation of The Big Sleep at a young age by my film loving father, and while I don’t remember much, the chemistry Bogey and Bacall made an indelible impression on me even at that point. I’d more recently seen the Billy Wilder adaptation of Double Indemnity, with its screenplay co-penned by Chandler, and I was stunned by the witty and lightning paced innuendos of his Hays Code-flouting dialogue. Many films of the period use similar suggestive devices in lieu of visual depiction of sex, but I’d never seen verbal intercourse conveyed with such unabashed eroticism. Chandler’s words were evidently deemed harmless enough to evade censorious producers and studio executives, but they still generated more heat than most modern cinematic depictions of romance I’d experienced.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Still, it wasn’t quite like reading a Chandler novel, which I hadn’t done until picking up The Big Sleep a few weeks ago. Like so many readers, I was astonished by the terse but poetic prose, vivid characterization, and remarkable sense of setting. In spite of struggling to figure out just how everyone was connected in Philip Marlowe’s convoluted universe, I found myself gripped by the compelling narrative voice and brisk plotting. It was my first time reading Chandler, and yet it didn’t feel like it: I’d devoured so many of his influences that the writing seemed familiar, even if there was nothing quite like getting it from the original source.

In the complex plotting, I couldn’t help but think, in a negative way, of the second season of True Detective. Like Marlowe following the orders of General Sternwood, Woodrugh, Velcoro, and Bezzerides start off trying to unravel one case, then discover a conspiracy vaster than they could’ve imagined. In both Nic Pizzolatto’s show and Chandler’s novel, the details of everything that happens are nearly impossible to ascertain: Chandler himself famously stated that even he didn’t who killed chauffeur Owen Taylor. But whereas Chandler supplements his convoluted plots with lucid characters and shadowy L.A. locations dripping with atmosphere, Pizzolatto’s characters fail to leap off the screen, and the constant aerial shots of California traffic don’t deliver nearly the same sense of place. As a result, whereas struggling to get a handle on the intricate universe of The Big Sleep doesn’t take away from the reading experience, failing to comprehend the complex world of True Detective Season Two leaves the viewer without much to take away.

true-detective-season-two

True Detective (S2)

By contrast, the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski has a similarly difficult-to-follow plot; but, like Chandler, the convolution doesn’t take away from enjoyment of the story. The Coens acknowledge their debt to Chandler, and the ways in which the plots are set in motion (Jeffrey Lebowski and his order for the Dude to help get Bunny back compared with General Sternwood’s request for Marlowe to help with his daughters) bear an obvious resemblance. But unlike Pizzolatto, the Coens stock their film with unforgettable characters and a distinct sense of the California setting, thereby doing a better job of getting to the heart of what made Chandler’s fiction so great in the first place. Even with the stoner-comedy vibe, The Big Lebowski channels the brilliance of Chandler’s fiction more effectively than the tough-talking but ultimately bland cops of True Detective. In reading Chandler for the first time, memories of the Dude’s adventures came immediately back, but any associations with a mustachioed Colin Farrell were much less strong.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Netflix’s Jessica Jones bears a less obvious connection to Chandler’s work, and yet the influence still feels vital. Even if the show takes place in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and features characters with super-strength and mind control, Krysten Ritter’s no-nonsense, hard-drinking private investigator comes across as a clear Marlowe analogue. But whereas Chandler’s brutal misogyny doesn’t age as well as his ability to set a scene (for example: comparing Vivian Regan to “a puppy at the fringe of a rug”), showrunner Melissa Rosenberg brings his style into the 21st century in striking fashion. The misogynistic, hyper-masculine ideal of Chandler’s milieu becomes Jessica: a woman no less tough than Marlowe, but one who uses her mental and physical strength to get revenge on the man who raped her rather than working as a gun-for-hire without much care for the women who cross his path, as much as they love him. Jessica isn’t above contract work, taking gigs snooping on adulterous spouses simply because she can, but her mission to take down Kilgrave puts her on a different ground than Marlowe. In maintaining a connection with Chandler’s work, Jessica Jones shows the eternal appeal of his style, even as the show updates it to reflect more modern ways of thinking.

Jessica Jones (2015)

Jessica Jones (2015)

It was in these somewhat distant reverberations that reading Chandler for the first time felt the most poignant: storytellers absorb the most powerful aspects of his style, then use them to do their own thing. Even if the incarnations of Chandler I’d experienced before had transformed his work to fit different visions, reading The Big Sleep felt uncannily familiar. I was encountering Chandler in a way I never had, but it was an experience mediated by the countless writers and directors who bear his influence. 

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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