Tag Archives: Philip Marlowe

Everybody loves Raymond (and Dashiell)

Heavenly hard-boiled reading now available at the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” feature: a 1923 piece by Dashiell Hammett that marked a turning point in the development of his style; and “I’ll Be Waiting,” Raymond Chandler’s finest short story. It’s relatively brief, loaded with atmosphere, and has a honey of a twist ending, but I love it most for this opening paragraph:

At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.

Great beginnings are a hallmark of noir novels. When I read the opening of Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, I immediately wanted to read everything else the man had put to paper:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Using one of the phones in the station, I called the Herald, asked for Donald Willsson, and told him I had arrived.

“Will you come out to my house at ten this evening?” He had a pleasantly crisp voice. “It’s 2101 Mountain Boulevard. Take a Broadway car, get off at Laurel Avenue, and walk two blocks west.”

I promised to do that. Then I rode up to the Great Western Hotel, dumped my bags, and went out to look at the city.

The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.

The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection–Broadway and Union Street–directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.

Red Harvest was published in 1029, the same year John Steinbeck made his considerably less promising debut with Cup of Gold, and Ernest Hemingway published his second novel, A Farewell to Arms. Hammett’s book was a downmarket detective story, but it had a lot more interesting and revealing things to say about its time than Hemingway’s opus.    

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Color it hopeless

Since John D. MacDonald used color-coded titles for his Travis McGee mystery series, I’m trying to come up with a suitable shade for my response to the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star in a film version of The Deep Blue Good-by, the 1964 curtain-raiser for the series.

“Black” seems too strong for what bodes to be merely another exercise in mediocrity and non-epic fail. Hmmmm . . . The Merely Mauve Mediocrity? The Weak White Washout? The Deep Blue Direct-to-DVD? I don’t know DeepBlueGoodbyanything about the behind-the-camera talent signed up, but I can tell you the casting of the lead is ridiculously wrong. DiCaprio is a Jimmy Cagney type, while McGee is a tall, gangly ex-football player who doesn’t seem very imposing until you try to tangle with him. DiCaprio is far more talented than the other actors who’ve tried to embody McGee, but this ain’t the role for him.

It wouldn’t be the first time a McGee movie went wrong. The first film adaptation, Darker Than Amber, brightly offered Rod Taylor as the Florida beach bum. Long out of print, the movie is chiefly remembered for its climactic fistfight, in which Taylor and the actor playing one of the villains got so angry at each other that the staged brawl became a real knockdown-dragout. It wasn’t one of the stronger McGee titles to begin with, but Rod Freaking Taylor? Just how open-minded do we have to be in this life? Sam Eliot was better than expected as McGee in a 1983 television adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea, but the Florida setting was switched to California. On the outrage meter, that’s tantamount to putting Philip Marlowe in Trenton, or stranding Sherlock Holmes in Gary, Indiana.

The Marlowe comparison stands because John D. MacDonald was the true successor to Raymond Chandler, another writer whose books resist adaptation. A great many actors have taken a run at Philip Marlowe, and while some have come closer than others — Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum each came pretty damn close to nailing it in their respective versions of The Big Sleep — but the character remains wedded to the printed page, and the inimitable voice crafted by the author.

There’s a lot of Chandler’s mix of romanticism and cynicism in Travis McGee, rodtaylorbut MacDonald went Chandler several steps better. Marlowe’s Los Angeles stalking grounds have already been despoiled by grifters and predators. McGee’s Florida home base is just starting to be overrun (the heyday of the series was in the Sixties and Seventies) by a menagerie of mobsters, developers, backwater creeps, and transplanted operators. MacDonald was usually at his best when he was pissed off about something, and the destruction of south Florida gave him plenty to get pissed off about. I’m not saying that cranky, mournful, sometimes inspired voice can’t be conveyed in a film, but I’m not going to wait around for it to happen.

And casting McGee is only half the battle. You also have to come up with a good choice for Meyer, McGee’s friend and foil. Not even the Sam Eliot film came up with an acceptable actor, so if anything the track record gives even less cause for hope.

Something tells me the odds are good that this film will never even get made. Plenty of projects never make it to the screen, and this has the earmarks of a non-starter.

In which case I have another problem: What color is limbo?

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