Film versions of Chandler’s novels

The novels of Raymond Chandler have, not surprisingly, been frequently adapted for the big screen. In some ways, these stylish thrillers seem made for cinema: but in some other ways, they prove surprisingly resistant to screen adaptations. For one thing a film of reasonable length cannot handle is the extreme complexity of Chandler’s plotting: almost inevitably, the plot of the novel is thinned out. Of course, the plot is hardly of primary importance in a Chandler novel: famously, Chandler himself didn’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and it doesn’t really matter. I doubt anyone can keep track of all the elements of the plot in a Chandler novel: I certainly can’t, and it has never interfered with my enjoyment. But the extreme complexity of plot does create a certain narrative texture, for want of a better word: it conveys an impression of a world that Marlowe has to face that is so intricate and complex that its mysteries can never be entirely untangled. None of the seven Philip Marlowe novels (excluding perhaps the last, Playback, which is nowhere near the standard of the previous ones) ends with everything neatly tied up: at the end of each, Marlowe is aware of an evil world out there that cannot be redeemed, or purified. The best he can do is to cling on to his own integrity. 

The best adaptations are those that convey this sense of dogged integrity despite the odds. The essence of Chandler novels is, it seems to me, that of a world-weary cynicism. But this cynicism relates not to one’s personal values, but, rather, to the values of the world: the former can be controlled, albeit with difficulty; the latter, however, are beyond any form of control at all. Marlowe’s cynicism is the cynicism of a Romantic who can clearly see reality for what it is, but who, for all that, insists on clinging on to Romantic values. He knows full well that the cost of clinging on to Romantic values in a realistic world is immense, but it is a cost he is prepared to pay. He is possibly the nearest modern literature has to Don Quixote. 

Very few adaptations of Chandler’s novels convey this sense of world-weary integrity in the face of the world’s corruptions. The actor who managed it best was probably Robert Mitchum, in a rather flatly directed remake of Farewell My Lovely in the 1960s, and, much later, when he was far too old for the role anyway, in a very badly directed remake of The Big Sleep. While the quality of Mitchum’s performance is in no doubt, Chandler’s stylish writing does ideally require a commensurate sense of style in direction. 

There’s certainly no shortage of style in Howard Hawks’ earlier version of The Big Sleep, but the result, though undoubtedly entertaining, does not quite seem Chandleresque to me. Of course, the sleaze of the milieu that Chandler explores (Geiger’s bookshop, for instance, is a front for a pornography racket) could not be depicted directly in a film of the early 40s; but it could have been indicated indirectly. Howard Hawks was a skilful enough director to have done that had he wanted to, but he presumably did not want to: instead, he glamorised the story. In the novel, Marlowe is motivated primarily by his hatred of Eddie Mars, and for all that Eddie Mars stands for; in the film, Eddie Mars barely registers as a presence at all, and Marlowe’s main motivation appears to be his love for the Lauren Bacall character (Mrs Routledge, as she is called in the film). In Chandler’s novel, this character is yet another aspect of the corruption that finds its way into everyone’s lives; in the film, in order to make her a suitable love interest, she is cleansed of any hint of such corruption. The consequence of this cleansing act is that the film, for all its merits, is a very sanitised version of Chandler’s world. And once you sanitise Chandler’s world, the result can hardly be described as Chandleresque.  Instead of the sleaze of the novel, Hawks gives us glamour: even the ladies who have walk-on parts (the bookseller across the road, the attendants at Eddie Mars’ gambling joint, even the female taxi-driver) are extremely glamorous. It’s a far cry from the nasty, corrupt world that Chandler presents.

(Of course, this film does benefit from the charismatic presence of Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, but, in keeping with the general tone of the film, Bogart’s Marlowe seems to be enjoying himself far too much. There are no more than occasional hints of the sense of disgust that was so salient a feature of Marlowe in the novel.)

Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely (renamed Murder My Sweet because the studio executives thought that a film called Farewell My Lovely and starring song-and-dance man Dick Powell could be mistaken for a musical) fares somewhat better in its depiction of a nasty and corrupt world, and of Marlowe’s sense of disgust. True, Marlowe is once again saddled with a love interest, but it doesn’t unduly affect the tone of the film, which seems closer to the world of Chandler’s novels than did The Big Sleep. In addition, Claire Trevor proves a superb femme fatale, and Dick Powell is surprisingly effective as Marlowe. All in all, this is possibly the finest screen adaptation of a Chandler novel.

 The other adaptations – the ones I’ve seen, at least – are hardly in this class. There’s an interesting adaptation of The Lady in the Lake in which the camera takes the place of Marlowe, and everything we see is seen through, as it were, Marlowe’s eyes (the only time we see Marlowe – played by Robert Montgomery – is when he looks into the mirror). The experiment is interesting, though not, perhaps, entirely convincing. Then, there was a 60s adaptation of The Little Sister that was titled simply Marlowe. One imagines that with a better script and a director less flat-footed, this may have been quite good, as James Garner seems fits the part just about perfectly. Sadly, the whole thing is a bore. And then there is Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, with Elliot Gould. Perhaps Altman knew what he was doing in this one, but I certainly didn’t. He changes the plot, so that which had been subtle in Chandler’s novel becomes here merely crude and ham-fisted; and, worse, he manages to purge from the story any sense of tension or of suspense. 

So all in all, Chandler’s novels have not been as successful on the screen as perhaps they might have been. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks’ version) is enjoyable as long as one doesn’t expect anything resembling Chandler’s novel; Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely is excellent; and the remake is worth watching because of Robert Mitchum. And that’s about it, I’m afraid.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting reading, H. Shamefully I think the only one I’ve seen is Hawks’ Big Sleep (which I love, even if it doesn’t always make sense and isn’t true to the book. I love the cinematography and the sparkling dialogue – not to mention the Bogey/Bacall chemistry).

    To be fair, Hollywood’s tendency to glamorise and sanitise is hardly confined to Chandler adaptations!


    • I may have been a bit unfair to the film version of The Big Sleep. I agree it’s cracking entertainment, but I suppose I’m a bit prejudiced against it because it is so often seen as archetypal Chandler.

      Personally, though, I do prefer Bogart’s other private eye film – The Maltese falcon, directed by John Huston. This film adaptation keeps close both to the letter and in spirit to Dashiel Hammett’s novel, is at least as witty as The Big Sleep, and seems to me more substantial as drama: it is more dramatically interesting, I think, when there is conflict within a character as well as between characters. But this is not to undervalue the superb entertainment value of The Big Sleep. I remember watching this as a student in the Glasgow Film Theatre many years ago when, at the end of the screening, the audience burst out into spontaneous applause.

      One of the scriptwriters on The Big Sleep was William Faulkner, although I don’t know how much input he had into the script. The main scriptwriter was Leigh Brackett, whom Hawks was keen to have on board because he had been impressed by the very tough hard-boiled thrillers written by Brackett. He was very taken aback when Brackett turned out to be – gasp! – a woman!


  2. Just out of curiosity…are you a fan of Jim Thompson? I couldn’t help but wonder what you might think of the film adaptations of some of his works.


  3. I haven’t actually read anything by Jim Thompson. I am not really very well read in this genre: I’ve read all the Chandler novels, all the Dashiel Hammett novels (except “The Thin Man” – I must get round to that), and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity” by James M Cain. In addition, I’ve read “Sanctuary” by William Faulkner (which I think belongs to the genre of American crime-writing), and a handful of novels by James Ellroy. But that’s about it, I’m afraid. But I’ve greatly enjoyed what I’ve read so far: are there any particular novel by Jim thompson you’d recommend?


  4. I recommend you start with “The Killer Inside Me”

    It’s an engaging and relatively quick read.

    I’m also a fan of Patricia Highsmith, the author of “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

    I’m not particularly well read in the genre either but as an avid reader in general, I have found these authors’ works immensely engrossing.


  5. Great film, that sweet one:

    The Big Sleep never grabbed me. I was not impressed by the dialog between Bogart and Bacall that is so often cited. Of course, it makes little sense, and the really sexy woman is Vickers. Still, it has its moments.

    For noir novels, Tilting Planet has pointed me to some good ones, among them, The Hot Spot, also a good neo-noir. I also liked The Big Clock, which was far superior to the film adaptation. And, of course, Miss Blandish, who gets no orchids. The favorite of WWII Brit soldiers, I’ve read, and the subject of a ripping essay by Orwell. Search my blog for links.


    • I’ve been looking through your blog, & reading the reviews of the noir films – most of which, I admit, I haven’t seen. But I’m glad you like Murder My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely): it’s a real cracker, isn’t it?

      I’ve read Orwell’s essay on No Orchids, but haven’t actually read the book. But I did love Faulkner’s Sanctuary, which has a similar plot.


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