Posts Tagged ‘Raymond Chandler’

I’ve only recently become aware that Elliott Kastner, who produced my favorite film, Where Eagles Dare (1968), died of cancer at 80 on June 30; it’s a strange coincidence that he and the film’s co-star, Clint Eastwood, were born the same year.  By another curious coincidence, I recently covered his three Philip Marlowe movies (see “Everybody Loves Raymond, Part II”):  The Long Goodbye (1973), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and The Big Sleep (1978).  Born in New York City, Kastner worked primarily in England, where he died in London, and was the stepfather of actor Cary Elwes, who appeared in his films Yesterday’s Hero (1979), Oxford Blues (1984), and Never on Tuesday (1988).

During and shortly after my tenure as a publicist at Viking Penguin, I had the honor of working with Jeffery Deaver on several novels, two of which, A Maiden’s Grave and The Bone Collector, were subsequently filmed (the former as Dead Silence).  Jeff was then working with Kastner on one or more projects that sadly never panned out, and being as good a friend as he was a writer—although I’m sorry to say we’ve lost contact—he very kindly arranged a luncheon.  Kastner disappointed me by saying he never did interviews, which would have been an even bigger thrill, but entertained us with stories of how he had recruited Alistair MacLean on Richard Burton’s behalf to write Where Eagles Dare.

It’s a common but understandable misconception that Eagles was based on MacLean’s 1967 bestseller, when in fact the story was first conceived as a screenplay and only then turned into a novel, which was published before the film was released.  It turned out to be Kastner’s first of four MacLean outings, followed by the now-elusive When Eight Bells Toll (1971); Fear Is the Key (1972), which marked Ben Kingsley’s film debut; and the Charles Bronson vehicle Breakheart Pass (1975).  All but Fear Is the Key were adapted by the author himself, and along with the non-Kastner Puppet on a Chain (1971) marked the only entries in the MacLean filmography on which he received screenwriting credit.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Kastner’s career, especially his later work, but he had a number of noteworthy films in his oeuvre, including his first, Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), a drama penned by esteemed playwright William Inge.  Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) followed, with Paul Newman as the renamed private eye from Ross Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, although Kastner was not involved with Stuart Rosenberg’s belated sequel, The Drowning Pool (1975).  Following Smight’s crime caper Kaleidoscope (1966), he made a Peter Sellers comedy, The Bobo (1967), and his first film with Eagles director Brian G. Hutton, the drug thriller Sol Madrid (1968).

Clearly fond of continuity as well as literary properties, Kastner hired Hutton to direct X, Y and Zee (1972) and, after Roman Polanski was forced to flee the country, the Lawrence Sanders adaptation The First Deadly Sin (1980), featuring Frank Sinatra.  He also made multiple films with Marlon Brando, who starred in the kidnapping thriller The Night of the Following Day (1968); Michael Winner’s The Nightcomers (1971), a bizarre prequel to Henry James’s oft-filmed “The Turn of the Screw”; and opposite Jack Nicholson in Arthur Penn’s offbeat Western The Missouri Breaks (1976).  Winner also directed The Big Sleep and Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy A Chorus of Disapproval (1988) for Kastner.

Kastner produced screen adaptations of works by Vladimir Nabokov (Tony Richardson’s Laughter in the Dark, 1969), Iris Murdoch (A Severed Head, 1970), Donald E. Westlake (Cops and Robbers, 1973), Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, 1977), Peter Shaffer (Sidney Lumet’s Equus, 1977, with Burton), Erich Segal (Man, Woman and Child, 1983), and Harper scenarist William Goldman (Heat, 1986), many of them scripted by their original authors.  He also made the occasional genre film, e.g., Roddy McDowall’s sole directorial effort, The Devil’s Widow (1970); Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987); and the 1988 remake of The Blob (1958).  But Where Eagles Dare was probably his biggest box-office success.

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Concluding our overview of Raymond Chandler’s screen career and that of his best-known creation, private eye Philip Marlowe.

The less said about Marlowe’s next appearance, Lady in the Lake (1947), the better, and even “appearance” is a bit of a misnomer for a film in which he is visible only when he walks in front of a mirror, since director-star Robert Montgomery decided to shoot the whole thing with a subjective camera. That’s a great idea in one respect, allowing us to spend less time looking at Montgomery, but as a directorial choice, it stinks, making for a pretentious mess that wasted one of my favorite Chandler novels (from whose title it also excised the initial article). Similarly, The Brasher Doubloon (1947) was an otherwise good adaptation of The High Window, hampered yet again by an abysmal Marlowe, in this case George “No Relation” Montgomery.

Per the IMDb, Chandler’s work was adapted into episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse (“The Little Sister”), Robert Montgomery Presents (“The Big Sleep”), Nash Airflyte Theatre (“Pearls Are a Nuisance”), Studio One (“The King in Yellow”), Climax! (“The White Carnation,” “The Long Goodbye”), Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (“Tower Room 14-A”), and Storyboard (“I’ll Be Waiting”). Meanwhile, he labored fruitlessly on Strangers on a Train, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and partly filmed at the railroad station in my former home of Danbury. Shortly after Chandler’s death, ABC ran a single-season Philip Marlowe series involving Richard Matheson, but my research was unable to document his specific contribution.

James Garner had yet to play Jim Rockford when he appeared in Marlowe (1969), but in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the star of The Rockford Files was an apt choice for the role, not surprisingly focusing on his charmingly smart-aleck side. Despite such modern-day interpolations as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser and a martial artist (Bruce Lee) who trashes Marlowe’s office, the film is a fairly faithful adaptation by Stirling Silliphant of The Little Sister. Silliphant’s work ranged from the heights of Village of the Damned (1960), his Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Charly (1968) to the dregs of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) and the Irwin Allen bombs The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out… (1980).

If Robert Altman indeed intended to subvert the private-eye genre with The Long Goodbye (1973), then his (mis)casting of one of my least favorite actors, his M*A*S*H (1970) star Elliott Gould, as a nebbishy Marlowe was surely a step in the right direction. One wonders if Big Sleep vet Leigh Brackett was in on the joke, since the film ostensibly derived from her script includes an inexplicable sequence in which Marlowe is struck by a car and winds up in a body cast. Among its other oddities are an omnipresent title song, which recurs in a variety of versions at hilariously regular intervals, and a typically eclectic cast featuring the great Sterling Hayden, soporific director Mark Rydell, Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson, and baseball player Jim Bouton.

The character was restored to an atmospheric period setting in Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with noir mainstay Robert Mitchum as an aging and world-weary Marlowe, a respectful script by David Zelag Goodman, an excellent main-title theme by David Shire, and the young Sylvester Stallone in a small role as a thug. With The Big Sleep (1978), Mitchum became the only actor to play the role in two features (produced, as was The Long Goodbye, by Elliott Kastner), although his wisdom in doing so is open to question, especially at the hands of aptly named writer-director Michael Winner. The story was reset not just in the present but in London, effecting a 180 that not even James Stewart, slumming as General Sternwood, could overcome.

Perhaps as a result, Marlowe has since been absent from the big screen, if not from cable television, where Chandler’s short stories—many of which were cannibalized in his novels—became the basis for the series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, starring Powers Boothe, and episodes of Fallen Angels (“Red Wind,” “I’ll Be Waiting”). Another of my least favorites, James Caan, played Marlowe in HBO’s Poodle Springs (1998), directed by Bob Rafelson and adapted by prestigious playwright Tom Stoppard from a novel with an interesting history. Chandler’s unfinished manuscript had been completed by Robert B. Parker (often seen as his successor), who also authored Perchance to Dream, a sequel to The Big Sleep, and died at 77 on January 18, 2010.

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I’m savoring the prospect of introducing my daughter to The Blue Dahlia (1946), which I recently taped from TCM, and which I understand indirectly gave the 1947 Black Dahlia murder its name. Not because I’m under any illusion that it’s a masterpiece, but it does star the stellar screen team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (in whom, as noted, I perceive a resemblance to the youthful Madame B.), introduced in 1942 with back-to-back adaptations of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. It also features an excellent supporting cast headed by William Bendix and Howard Da Silva and, most important, an Oscar-nominated screenwriting credit for one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler.

Chandler (1888-1959) is, of course, better known as the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, and one of his best films as a scenarist, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), was largely rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with whom he shared screen credit. As is often the case, I came to Chandler’s work through the movies, specifically Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of his first novel, The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe was played by Humphrey Bogart. Since Bogart is my favorite actor, it’s no surprise that the same is true of Hammett, via John Huston’s 1941 version of his p.i. classic The Maltese Falcon, but as a lad I was too enraptured with Bogie to notice the nuances distinguishing Marlowe from Hammett’s Sam Spade.

In the novel, Spade is compared with Satan, a fact made explicit when Warren William essayed the role (albeit as “Ted Shane”) in Satan Met a Lady (1936); Ricardo Cortez was the first Spade in the 1931 version, which retained Hammett’s title and character names. Bogart’s famous line, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” neatly conveys Spade’s lack of hypocrisy over the fact that, first, said partner was a skirt-chasing louse and, second, he was banging said partner’s wife. Marlowe, on the other hand, is a kind of displaced knight in tarnished armor, at once cynical and idealistic, and various interpretations have emphasized various elements of his complex character, with varying degrees of success.

Interestingly, “Marlowe” first appeared incognito in two 1942 films that are most notable for hijacking Chandler novels as vehicles for other literary and cinematic sleuths. The Falcon Takes Over shoehorned Michael Arlen’s eponymous character (played by George Sanders) into the plot of Farewell, My Lovely, while Time to Kill was a de facto adaptation of The High Window with Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne. In collaboration with director Billy Wilder, Chandler notched his first screenwriting credit on Double Indemnity (1944) the same year Marlowe made his official debut in Murder, My Sweet, which—with RKO Radio apparently counting on the public’s short memory—was also based on Farewell, My Lovely.

Despite Chandler’s notoriously poor relationship with Wilder (not much improved upon with Hitchcock), it must be acknowledged that Double Indemnity is a film noir milestone, and that he was an inspired choice to adapt fellow hard-boiled writer James M. Cain. In such cinema-friendly novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, Cain excelled at depicting morally questionable characters who come to grief when they give in to criminal temptations, and nowhere is this milieu better captured than in the tale of adulterous murderers Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The film’s seven Oscar nominations included the script, Stanwyck, Miklós Rózsa’s score, Wilder’s direction, and Best Picture.

Sandwiched in between Chandler’s next two screenwriting gigs, And Now Tomorrow (1944) and The Unseen (1945)—neither of which I’ve seen—Murder, My Sweet marked Dick Powell’s bid to establish himself as something more than a song-and-dance man. This he did admirably as one of the screen’s better Marlowes, backed up by the villainous likes of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki as Chandler’s immortal Moose Malloy, under the direction of HUAC name-dropper Edward Dmytryk. Chandler approved of the film (ditto The Big Sleep), but RKO quickly had to retitle it after previews to draw audiences who initially stayed home in droves, assuming Farewell, My Lovely to be yet another Powell musical.

Plenty of lore surrounds The Blue Dahlia, e.g., that Chandler was forced to change the ending (for reasons I can’t disclose sans spoilers) and, in order to accommodate Ladd’s imminent military service, finished the script at his home in a weeklong drunken marathon. Speaking of alcoholic authors in Hollywood, Big Bill Faulkner was credited alongside Hawks, Bogart, leading lady Lauren Bacall, and fellow scenarist Jules Furthman on both The Big Sleep (co-scripted by Leigh Brackett) and the Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not (1944). For me, Bogie was the definitive Marlowe, although the romantic side was played up to reflect his growing on- and offscreen chemistry with fourth and final wife Bacall.

To be concluded.

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