RARA-AVIS: Re: A Whiff of Sulphur -- Eureka!

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 12 Dec 2007


Re your question below:

"You have stated that Altman disrespected Chandler. I have assumed that you based that on a specific quote. Dick Lochte has contributed a quote to the contrary. Do you, in fact, have a specific quote or interview to back up your argument? If you do, I'd like to hear it."

First of all, apologies to all here who are heartily sick and tired of this subject. I sympathize and, in fact, am getting heartily sick of it myself. Much of what I'm about to say, you've all heard a time or two already, so you can probably just skip this. May I suggest (and this isn't aimed at Eric, whose question is framed in a courteous manner) that if there's anyone left on R/A who still wants a further explanation of my views, you contact me off-list?

Altman once said, "I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the fake winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way."

Among other places, the quote can be found in the chapter on THE LONG GOODBYE in Al Clark's RAYMOND CHANDLER IN HOLLYWOOD.

Let's take that statement piece by piece. First of all, he asserts that Chandler saw Marlowe as a loser. Clearly Chandler did NOT. He saw Marlowe as "the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world," as "a man fit for adventure," and as "the hero . . . everything." So, at the very least, Altman is misunderstanding Chandler, if not disrespecting him.

Elsewhere, it's true, Chandler DID admit that Marlowe might be, if I remember the phrase correctly,
"socially immature," but also said that the accuracy of this description was predicated on certain conditions, those conditions being that being against injustice and corruption, and accurately and bluntly describing such conditions was socially immature. Clearly, again, Chandler was being ironic, since he obviously didn't think that those traits are signs of social immaturity, but of basic integrity.

Also he said this in a letter. The way the letter is written suggests that he is answering a comment. That perhaps the person he was writing to had written first something along the lines of, "Ray, doesn't it occur to you that Marlowe is sort of, well, shall we say socially immature," and that Chandler was responding ironically.

Still elsewhere, he admits that Marlowe is a failure, because he is a healthy young man, but can't seem to make a financial success. Again, clearly, he doesn't really think Marlowe is a failure because his lack of financial success is the result of his freely choosing to live life on his own terms.

So to take these letters and, from them, extrapolate that Chandler viewed Marlowe as a loser is, at the very least, a serious case of misinterpretation, and, at worst, deliberate disrespect.

Second, Altman states that he sees Marlowe as a "REAL
[italics mine] loser, not the fake winner that Chandler made out of him."

Now we're getting closer to the nub. According to Altman, who obviously thinks he understands both Chandler and his character better than Chandler did himself, Chandler may not have presented his character as a loser in his fiction, but he always KNEW, in his heart, that he was a loser, and, conseqently, his depiction of Marlowe as a winner was somehow false and phony.

Describing someone as a phony, and this is the inescapable inference of Altman's comment, is certainly showing disrespect.

Finally, as to Dick's recollections of Altman's comments some years after the release of the film:

He said that he didn't like thrillers and had no interest in "whodunit." In other words, it wasn't just Chandler he didn't like, or even hard-boiled crime fiction in general, but the whole mystery genre.

Yet, he could do a competent, straightforward crime film when it suited him. Again, see the TV-movie NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO. Or see the more recent Agatha Christie-style "British stately home" whodunit, GOSFORD PARK, in which he certainly worked in some more complex characterization and character dynamics than are usually seen in the cozy sub-genre, but still held true to the basic structure and ambience of that kind of story. Oddly, he was kinder to Christie, without actually adapting anything from Christie directly, than he was to Chandler who he WAS supposed to be directly adapting.

But then, with TLG, his purpose was clearly to ruthlessly "expose" the whole concept of the hard-boiled private eye figure in all its "phoniness."

Indeed, in another TV interview, first recorded closer to the time the film was first released, in which he appeared with Gould, he said that he really thought he'd finally put an end to the Marlowe character, and that he believed that Marlowe would never come back as a film character. I took that to mean that he felt that Marlowe SHOULDN'T return as a film character.

Gould, FWIW, disagreed. "He's a good guy," Gould said. "Good guys always come back." Less than two years later, Gould was proved right when Robert Mitchum, though 10 or 15 years too old for the part, played Marlowe in the infinitely superior, and far more successful, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.

This, in turn, was followed by the sub-standard, London-set remake of THE BIG SLEEP, by the HBO TV series with Powers Boothe, by a TV-movie version of Chandler's unfinished final novel POODLE SPRINGS, and by a TV-movie version of "Red Wind" with Danny Glover as an African-American Marlowe. Not all of these are necessarily good, but they do prove that Marlowe was a far more durable character than Altman thought (or, as I inferred, hoped).

Second, according to Dick, he admitted that he didn't even really use Chandler's novel as his template, but rather a collection of letters by Chandler. These letters, fascinating and well-written as they are, reveal a man who was often bitter, depressed, scared that he really had betrayed his talent, often back-biting, occasionally back-stabbing. Moreover, they were never meant for publication.

So, instead of making a movie based on the novel he was ostensibly adapting, he makes a movie based on the private thoughts of an old man at his most vulnerable, and uses those private, vulnerable thoughts to turn the man's actual published work on its head.

Excuse me if that doesn't strike me as a mark of signal respect.

Yeah, I know this runs a little long, Eric, but you DID ask.



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