Thursday, 2 June 2011

Film noir, Marlowe and Chandler

I like detective fiction and I like reading Raymond Chandler. It's easy to admire his cynical hard-bitten private detective, Philip Marlowe. Sometimes I think Marlowe, the protagonist of Chandler's novels, speaks with Chandler's authentic voice and is a fictionalized version of Chandler's real-life personality too. The majority of detectives in modern fiction: in film, television and books, are influenced by the figures of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade in American 20th century fiction (along with Agatha Christie's 'Poirot' and Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' of course) Chandler partly invented the noir/film noir genre and this cool, hard-nosed, cynical but somehow heroic private detective who is a staple of such fiction. He has also spawned a legion of imitators, not to mention parodies and caricatures of the genre. Chandler himself was heavily influenced by the work of Dashiel Hammett and Hammett's own detective creation, Sam Spade. Chandler however writes genuinely literary prose, and is a master of his craft.

 I also think Chandler creates femme fatales in noir fiction like no other writer. This is one of my favourite passages (it amuses me and I think it is brilliant writing) from Chandler's The Long Goodbye: it is where Philip Marlowe sees Eileen Wade for the first time in a bar and begins to reflect on the nature of blonde women and their various 'types', as he sees it:

I stared. She caught me staring. She lifted her glance half an inch and I wasn’t there any more. But wherever I was I was holding my breath.

There are blondes and there are blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blonde as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial.

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pale and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the Editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindeminth she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.

And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap d’Antibes, an Alfa Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.

The dream across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its colour.

Raymond Chandler  (from The Long Goodbye)

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