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Tag Archives: Hard-boiled Detective Fiction

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

2050For a film noir, Murder, My Sweet is a very upbeat, entertaining film. Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is never serious, often making flippant or whimsical remarks about situations in a wry tone.

I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.

Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe wasn’t this whimsical in The Big Sleep. Most people posit Bogart as the definitive Marlowe, but though I like The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart (actually, I like the original ’45 version rather than the generally viewed ’46 version), I found Powell’s Marlowe more distinctive. Bogart’s Marlowe is still Sam Spade, just with more principles.

Farewell, My Lovely (the title was changed to Murder, My Sweet for the movie) was written in 1940, the second Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler. When Chandler first wrote his Marlowe novels he did so by combining short stories into something that resembled a cohesive whole. Like The Big Sleep, the story is not all that clear; it feels like there are at least two or three plots that have been intertwined.

Philip Marlowe meets Moose Malloy, just out from prison, while returning from an investigation and accidentally becomes entangled in Malloy’s search for Velma Valento. But Malloy shoots a man – a black man, so people don’t seem to mind as much – and goes on the run and Marlowe is asked by the police to help them find him. Meanwhile, Marlowe also becomes entangled in another murder that seems to be tangential to Malloy. He is hired by Lindsay Marriott to protect him when he tries to buy back a stolen jade necklace from a gang. But Marriott is murdered and next Marlowe finds himself entangled in the affairs of the owner of the jade necklace, the lovely Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle. Marlowe is also assisted somewhat in his investigations by a reporter, Anne Riordan, who has an awful crush on Marlowe.

Marlowe is apparently irresistible to women because in all his books women are constantly flirting, kissing, or trying to get into bed with him, which seems like wish fulfillment by the author. But Marlowe remains coolly above such things, practically a god. Anne even makes a slightly embarrassing speech at the end about how wonderful he is. No matter what happens, he just keeps going until he resolves the case. He’s a superman rising amidst the squalor and corruption of the city.

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor from Murder, My Sweet

The entire time that I was reading the book, I could hear Dick Powell voice narrating the story – it is written in first person and bears Marlowe’s distinctively whimsical, cynical tone. His analogies are often unexpected and quite humorous. When he is chauffeured in a fancy car he remarks that,

Sitting there alone I felt like a high-class corpse laid out by an undertaker with a lot of good taste.

Exhausted one night, he drives recklessly home and “takes the red lights as they come.” It always makes me laugh. He’s also is quite adept at sensory description. When he writes that “I ran my hand up and down the door frame. It felt slimy. Just touching it made me want to take a bath,” I wanted to wipe my hand off on something. His surroundings are dirty, venal, and corrupt, but he refuses to get dragged down into it. Raymond Chandler liked to think of Marlowe as a kind of knight sallying forth to right wrongs – relatively speaking. He’s a cynical knight who can only do so much, but gets by through sheer tenacity. It’s not clear that he’s an especially brilliant detective. He seems to get beat up a lot. But you can tell that underneath, he still retains a streak of sentimentality and romanticism.

He takes time to rescue a pink bug and manages to feel compassion for a variety of people, some of whom are actually killers. And by the end – after he’s been beaten up, drugged, several murders are committed, encountered corrupt cops – he still puts a romantic spin on events and the characters practically rise to Shakespearean heights of love and sacrifice despite all the brutality, selfishness and murder. Even killers and crooks and depressed old men can love sincerely and deeply, even if the object of their love is a murderess. But Marlowe even finds poignancy in the murderess’ final act in life. Marlowe says to police detective Randall,

I”m not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice girl. Not ever…But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would have that trial hurt most?…An old man who had loved not wisely, but too well.”

Randall said sharply: “That’s just sentimental.”

“Sure. It sounded like that when I said it. Probably all a mistake anyway. So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?”

Considering that she shot a cop in order to enact her great sacrifice, there is some irony in Marlowe’s sentimentality…but it’s still sentimental. He wants to think that these people occasionally have a noble impulse.

downloadChandler even manages to make fun of the more polished detective stories, like Philo Vance or The Thin Man. After he solves the case, Ann Riordan tells him humorously that he “ought to have given a dinner party,” in black suit and white tie and invite all the suspects to listen to him unmask the villain. Instead, we get a lovesick gangster, Marlowe in his pajamas and a femme fatale in her white fox evening cloak and emerald earrings, all in Marlowe’s cheap apartment.

The book is astonishingly racist, with derogatory epitaphs spread generously throughout the book regarding African Americans, Italians, Native Americans, that took me aback. Marlowe even meets an “Indian” who’s English is so bad that I kept expecting it to turn out that he wasn’t a real Indian at all, but someone pretending to be one and talking like people expected Indians to talk in the movies. Though the presence of so much racism does add to the sense of moral squalor throughout the book.

I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely more than The Big Sleep; it was funnier and more poignant. I even enjoyed it more than The Maltese Falcon, but that partially is because the movie The Maltese Falcon is so close to the book that reading the book felt like reading a screenplay, though an enjoyable one. Murder, My Sweet is a streamlined version of the book and so reading the book remains fresh and original.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Fiction

 

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The Maltese Falcon (1929) – Dashiell Hammett, book review and comparison with the 1941 movie

Maltese_Falcon_film_prop_created_by_Fred_Sexton_for_John_HustonThis book was made to be a movie. It’s so close it’s like watching the movie in slow motion in my head. There are occasional flashes of something new, a new scene, a new twist or interpretation, but for the most part it reads like a screenplay. Sam Spade does this, he says that, his eyes burn yellow (they do that a lot), he grinds his teeth, some description about a room, what Brigid O’Shaughnessy is wearing, how Joel Cairo walks, the tone of Gutman’s voice – stage direction.

The book opens with Miss Wonderly (really Brigid O’Shaughnessy) coming into the office of Spade and Archer, two detectives in business together. She spins them a story about needing to find her sister and hires them to tail a man named Floyd Thursby. Miles Archer tails him, is murdered, and the story is off. Like the movie, it begins right off the bat with no other preamble other than a paragraph describing what Spade looks like. He sets out to uncover what is going on and meets the memorable Joel Cairo, Caspar Gutman and Gutman’s gunman, young Wilmer.

The book is noted for its colorful cast of characters even more than its story, and deservedly so. It’s the same with the movie. And they did such a fantastic job casting – or else I’ve seen the movie way too many times – that when I read I literally hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice saying the lines that I’m reading. I can see Mary Astor move her hands as described, or pause exactly where the pause is written in the book, I can hear Sydney Greenstreet laugh, see Peter Lorre walk and hold his hat with both hands, in front of his stomach. It’s very distracting, at times.

The opening description of Sam Spade, I absolutely could not see. He is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan,” but all I could see was Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t until the second half of the book began to have more scenes and dialogue that I didn’t recognize that my imagination was able to kick in and Hammett’s description of Spade began to compete with the insistent image of Bogart.

Sam Spade in the book is actually a bit different from Spade in the movie. He is far less appealing than Bogart makes him. In the movie, Bogart is the moral center, which is not to be confused with being a moral person, but he does have a certain code he lives by, unlike any of the other people in the story. In the book, his moral code is far murkier.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

And he’s a bit like a spoiled child – always “beefing” about the police’s treatment of him, grinding his teeth when frustrated, needling Wilmer, treating his secretary like a bit of a plaything, is ridiculously arrogant and self-assured and, amazingly enough, he gets away with it. Bogart presents a slightly more mature Spade. He keeps his cool better, has no tantrums and doesn’t seem quite so childishly pleased with himself.

If it comes to that, Mary Astor is also a more mature Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In the book, she is quite young – early twenties – and comes off even more helplessly than in the movie, even though she is anything but helpless. There’s lots of hand wringing and buckets of tears and large, frightened eyes. I would argue, however, that Astor’s Brigid is a slightly more complicated Brigid. She shifts character more than Brigid in the book and comes off as more intelligent. Brigid in the book is a liar, but Brigid in the movie is a mega-liar.

It’s not a particularly subtle book. People just come out and say stuff: “he’s queer” (about Joel Cairo) or “can I buy you with my body?” (Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Sam Spade). It’s stuff the movie had to skirt around to pass censorship. It makes the movie far more coy, though still explicit, about what is going on.

Like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett seems to be very interested in the process of detection. Details, even if they are not important, are described. For example, Spade is sent off on a red-herring. The house he is sent to is not important, merely being a place chosen at random, but we still get a description of his interview with the owner and of his search of the place. The important details are contained within other, non-important details. But there are no descriptions of people’s thoughts, their emotions; it’s the ultimate example of show, don’t tell. Spade speaks, his jaw clenches and we are left to infer what he is feeling.

Reading The Maltese Falcon reminded me of when I tried to read a book by Rex Stout called Over My Dead Body, about the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The book was so exactly like the TV series episode, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, that there was literally nothing new to glean from reading the book. It’s an odd occurrence, because most movies don’t even begin to do justice to the books they are based on. The Maltese Falcon isn’t quite that bad, there really are some new things to learn and it is definitely worth a read – it’s just not as many new aspects as I thought.

Dashiell Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, which was turned into the 1934 movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy. However, unlike The Maltese Falcon, the book is quite different and I couldn’t even begin to see William Powell or Myrna Loy as I was reading. It is rare for me to ever see the actors from a movie while I am reading the book, no matter how good the movie.. Even movies that I adore, that I consider to be fairly faithful to the book they are based on (1995 Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) cannot begin to capture the essence of the book I see in my mind. I still don’t see Colin Firth when I read about Mr. Darcy or hear Jennifer Ehle speak the lines…even though many are quite similar. The book is simply to much for a movie. Not so with The Maltese Falcon. It’s hard to imagine a movie doing it better. If it was any better, then the book would be obsolete…which is not something I would ever wish for a book.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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“Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon – parody of film noirs and detective stories

The_Band_Wagon_posterOne of my favorite movie musicals is The Band Wagon from 1953, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. It is one of those marvelous backstage dramas where the cast must overcome a variety of difficulties to put on their musical.

It shows you how narcissistic Hollywood is that their two greatest musicals are about entertainment: Singing In the Rain is about the transition from silent films to talkies and The Band Wagon is about the travails of putting on a musical play, as well as being a bit of a satire about entertainment folks. I suppose there’s nothing like doing what you know best and musicals are particularly suited to plots about entertainment, anyway.

The songs in the movie are a collection of songs written in the 1920s and ’30s by the songwriting team Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, who also wrote the songs for the 1931 revue “The Band Wagon” that starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Some of the songs in the revue were recycled for the movie, though the movie has nothing to do with the original revue.

bandwagon22

Fred Astaire did so many excellent movies, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but this is definitely one of them. It’s a little different – he does less actual tap dancing in this one then he does in his earlier films, especially those done at RKO with Ginger Rogers during the 30s. There is more ballet in The Band Wagon and Astaire said he was uncomfortable with ballet, but he is still nothing short of elegant, a supreme dancer unlike anyone else. There is one beautiful scene, in the middle of the movie, where he and Cyd Charisse dance in the moonlight. The characters are trying to find out if the two of them can work together and dance together (her character was a ballerina and his was a hoofer, which sounds like art imitating life), blending her style with his. The song is called “Dancing in the Dark” and is one of the most lovely, romantic, elegant dances seen in the movies.

“Dancing in the Dark” is an easily accessible dance – there’s nothing to do but watch and enjoy. The last dance in the movie is a little different, because it’s actually a parody as well as a dance and I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I wasn’t well aware of the source material they were parodying.

The dance is called “Girl Hunt Ballet.” It is around 12 minutes long and is a mini-mystery dance. Fred Astaire plays Rod Reilly, a private detective and he is narrating his story, which is unfolding in the dance, with Cyd Charisse playing both the innocent blonde and the brunette siren.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953When I went back, however, and watched movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and read some hard-boiled detective fiction, suddenly it clicked and I got it. From then on, it’s been my favorite part in the movie. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. It’s hilarious and I love it – a highly stylish parody.

I could now see all the little clichés of the genre that the dance was playing on. For example, the plot. “Girl Hunt Ballet” makes no sense; things happen in the most random way, but that’s no problem because books and movies like The Big Sleep are known for making no sense. It’s about atmosphere, something Girl Hunt Ballet has in abundance. I do not, to this day, understand what is going on. There’s something about a trumpet, an emerald, some random clues like a bone, and various women dancing about, trying to get the emerald.

Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale, slinking around trying to seduce the hero. Actually, she is two femme fatales, managing to cover both variations that are found in detective stories: the innocent who is not really innocent but plays on the hero’s desire to protect her and the siren who merely plays to lower desires. Fred Astaire is the cool, cynical, hard-bitten detective who saunters around, getting into punch fights, following his instincts and looking cool and in control no matter what.

The voice-over that he provides is likewise hilarious. He gets to say stuff like “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic highway. She was bad, she was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard, but I wasn’t buying.” It’s exactly the kind of stuff they say in those movies – the kind of picturesque dialogue that film noirs are known for; the kind of dialogue that always sounds so good but unlike anything real people say.

PhotoCharisseAstaireBandWagonGirlHuntI just about expire with laughter during the moment when he is having his romantic dance with the innocent femme fatale Charisse while gunman are fighting each other in the background, their guns going off, and falling down dead while Astaire and Charisse share a kiss.

Apparently it was meant to be a spoof of Mickey Spillane, a popular and slightly pulpy detective writer. There seems to be some confusion about who actually wrote the story for the ballet. Vincente Minnelli, the director, took credit, but so also did Alan Jay Lerner (of eventual My Fair Lady fame), without credit, as a favor. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for the whole movie, are given some credit.

Whoever it was, it’s absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great dance, but it is very funny. I’ve known some people who didn’t care for it because it seemed just a little odd, but it has to be approached with tongue definitely in cheek.

I cannot show “Girl Hunt Ballet” on this site, but click here to see the entire dance on youtube. Below is the trailer for the entire movie.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Movies

 

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