Raymond Chandler’s L.A. (Greil Marcus & Michael Goodwin)
“A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor. An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under that gray trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. I went past him softly, the clandestine air of the building prompting me, found the fire door and pulled it open.
“The fire stairs hadn’t been swept in a month. Bums had slept on them, eaten on them, left crusts and fragments of greasy newspaper, matches, a gutted imitation-leather pocketbook. In a shadowy angle against the scribbled wall a pouched ring of pale rubber had fallen and had not been disturbed. A very nice building.”
— The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, 1939
We turned off Highland into Franklin Place, and parked near the end of the street just short of the stop sign. The sign was wrong. It stood on a black-and-white-striped wooden post; the stop sign itself was too small; it had a stripe on it; below STOP, in small letters, it read: CITY OF LOS ANGELES.
We got out of the car and walked back to the decaying five-story building in the middle of the block. De Sotos and Packards lined the curb; some had running boards, hood ornaments. We entered the building and stepped into the elevator.
The elevator was like nothing we had ever seen before. It was perverse: approximately three feet by three feet, six feet high, with a peaked ceiling. The paint had long since forgotten exactly what color yellow was. It had settled for grey. We liked the elevator.
The hallway of the fifth floor was only slightly wider than the elevator. A red light marked the fire escape; otherwise the hall was dark. As we approached the far landing a door opened and an old woman stepped out. There was liquor in the dull tones of her face, liquor in her eyes—gin, or vodka. Her hair matched the elevator paint job. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
A few steps down the hall we stepped into an opening to the right that led to a corner room. The door was open, and the man we were looking for was inside.
Phillip Marlowe, a private detective working out of downtown Hollywood, stood about six-foot-two. He was perhaps 55, dressed in a loose double-breasted navy pinstripe, grey hat, black shoes, dirty white shirt. He held a drink in one hand and killed a cigarette with the other. He stared through the pink curtains of his two-dollar room as if something was written between the lines of the neon sign that glowed outside his window: HOTEL—CASA MARINA. He looked for a long time, finished his drink, and then picked up the phone.
He said: “Give me the police.” He waited. “Nulty?” He waited again. “I’m at the Casa Marina. Room 702. Come alone.” There was another pause. “I said come alone!” He replaced the receiver, picked up a bottle with an unfamiliar I.W. Harper label, poured more whiskey into his glass, lit another cigarette, glanced at the white chenille bedspread with the faded green buttons, and resumed his meditation on the hotel sign.
The old woman stuck her head out of her doorway again, and waved us back.
“Tell me,” she demanded. “Is that really Robert Mitchum in there?”
Raymond Chandler, born in Chicago in 1888, dead in La Jolla in 1959, wrote his first mysteries for Black Mask in 1933. Six years later Alfred A. Knopf brought out The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first, and perhaps most famous book. In 1940, Chandler published Farewell, My Lovely; it was, he would always say, his best.
Farewell, My Lovely is a complex and complicated tale of false identity, blackmail, seduction, dope doctors, psychic con-men, and murder upon murder, each more brutal than the last. “Brains on the face,” says a cop. “That seems to be the theme song of this case.”
Cutting across every level of Southern California society, the story begins in a black dice joint, moves to a quiet neighborhood filled with rotting frame houses, to the mob town of Bay City; finally, it reaches the well-kept mansions of the men who know (to use a phrase Chandler once considered as a title for his book) that the law is where you buy it. All Marlowe can do, in the end, is up the price.
Farewell, My Lovely was shot twice in ’40s—first as The Falcon Takes Over and as Murder, My Sweet. Now, it has been filmed again, with—after George Sanders, Humphrey Bogart, George Montgomery, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, and Elliott Gould—Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe.
It’s an inspired piece of casting if ever there was one; the role of Marlowe has been waiting 30 years for Mitchum to show up and claim it. Phillip Marlowe is very much a ’40s hero. He is a man with a code virtually all others have forgotten, a man who has adopted the cynicism of his time, but as a defense, as a bluff against his enemies and against his own sentimentalism. Marlowe’s cynicism hides his commitment to his ethics, and his bitterness hides his romanticism. He was old-fashioned even in his own time, an anachronism, yet he was in tune with his time, fully part of it even if he was never at home in it.
Just as vital as the right cast (which includes Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Gayle, Sylvia Miles as Jessie Florian, and ex-prize fighter Jack O’Halloran as Moose Malloy) is the backdrop of the story—Chandler’s Los Angeles itself.
Chandler saw a new world taking shape in The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, 1940—a world, he once wrote, with “the smell of fear.” It was a world then stirring in every big American city, but perhaps more terrifying in Los Angeles, where the smooth, sunny surface of the place hid its underside so well. The horror was always a shock; things were never as they seemed. It was “a world in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels.”
These facts may not have changed, but the mood of the times has. L.A., 1940, was a very different place than it is now. It was a city without roots; a city barely formed, still up for grabs between the people who were fighting over it—revivalists like Aimee Semple McPherson, downtown hoods like Bugsy Siegel, emerging kingmakers like Murray Chotiner, the studio moguls, the money men, the politicians. It was a city feeling its way to power, on the verge of the wartime boom that would turn it into the colossus of California.
It was a world where values had disintegrated; a dangerous place, but interesting. It was, wrote Chandler, “a world where gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities.” It was a world perfectly suited to murder and a private dick—a place without certainty.
Which is to say that nothing matters more to a movie of Farewell, My Lovely than context. Unlike Robert Altman (who, in The Long Goodbye, made Marlowe into an absurd remnant of the ’40s somehow dropped into the ’70s, a fool whose only refuge is cynicism and murder), director Dick Richards has set Farewell, My Lovely in its own time and place. To get the context he needed, Richards brought in Dean Tavoularis, who won an Oscar for designing Godfather II.
Tavoularis’ work on Farewell, My Lovely is extraordinary. Through detail and nuance—an archaeology of feeling—through atmosphere that is not merely accurate, but which provides the dominant emotional coloring of scene after scene, Tavoularis has caught the spirit of Chandler’s world, and brought it to life.
“Los Angeles,” Chandler once had Marlowe say, is a “hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.” That said, Chandler set out to make sense of the place, to create a personality for Los Angeles through Marlowe’s eyes. What Chandler meant, perhaps, was that L.A. was a place where no one took their eye off the main chance long enough to see where they were going, or where they had been. Yet Marlowe, the private eye, was alert to the kind of detail and ambience Tavoularis would later re-invent.
In the voice of the Marlowe mysteries, always first-person, rooms have personalities—they have histories that their details imply. Marlowe saw more in furnished rooms than the people who lived in them; he saw more in faces than the people who owned them. What Marlowe saw, almost inevitably, was decay, lust, terror and, more than anything else, corruption. His eye stripped off the bright surface of the city until he could perceive that surface only as an inverted symbol of what lay beneath it.
“Twenty-four hours a day,” wrote Chandler, “somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”
So it is not that one ever gets the feeling that Los Angeles is more corrupt than any other place (the spot that horrifies Marlowe beyond all others is Manhattan, Kansas); only that the corruption of Los Angeles was something Chandler felt in his bones, something that appealed to him as a writer, something he knew he could make real to others. Marlowe was a character who had devoted his life to recognizing corruption and evading it, to surviving the corruption, and learning to recognize others who had lived, or tried to live, in the same way he did.
He was a detective, after all. His job was to gather details, make them fit, yet not be trapped by them. For every detail, as seen through Marlowe’s eyes, implied not only a history, but a choice between accepting the city as it was or, in a personal way, resisting it. Chandler rendered the physical details of the city (architecture, hair styles, clothes, streets) with the same care, disgust, and affection he gave to the mysteries he set there. He made Los Angeles into a city in which it was difficult to remain unaware of the moral choice implicit in every fact of daily life—facts that, without his novels, could be seen as “random,” which is to say, meaningless.
Chandler’s Los Angeles was a parabolic reflection of the morality plays he and Marlowe made out of the simple art of murder. Even today, when much of the city has changed beyond recognition, one is very much aware of Chandler’s Los Angeles. He invested the city with fascination, and turned it into a threat. A fan of Dashiell Hammett can walk the streets of San Francisco and never think of Sam Spade, but Marlowe’s ghost remains a vital presence in Los Angeles.
Marlowe’s office (615 Cahuenga Building, on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar) is gone, if it was ever really there—or anywhere—to begin with. But Chandler’s sense of the city, for one who has read his books, is unavoidable. Chandler colored the city. In terms of the details he made stand for the smell of fear, Chandler invented Los Angeles as surely as he described it. In that sense, the city he invented has outlived the city he described.
“It was an hour and a half later. The body had been taken away, the ground gone over, and I had told my story three or four times. We sat in the day captain’s room at the West Los Angeles station. The building was quiet, except for a drunk in a cell who kept giving the Australian bush call while he waited to go downtown for sunrise court…
“Randall leaned forward and stared at me carefully. ‘If you’re holding anything back with the idea of working on this case yourself to make yourself a little publicity, I’d forget it, Marlowe. I don’t like all the points in your story and I’m going to give you the night to think it over… In the meantime let me give you a tip. This is a murder and a police job and we wouldn’t want your help, even if it was good. All we want from you is facts. Got me?'”
— Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler, 1940