With his antithetical tableau of Los Angeles as a subterrane city both gritty and sublime, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) reawakened the detective novel, taking it from the dour pulp fiction dustbin into the floodlights of celebrated and illustrious literature. Chandler began his writing career, first for pulp magazines, in his early 40s with short stories and then novels, publishing his first, The Big Sleep, in 1939.
Chandler’s fiction invariably featured private detective Philip Marlowe, a so-so successful gumshoe, he had a way with dames, a way with words, and a moral code missing in most of the denizens of the L.A. in which he toiled. Chandler’s was a world heavy with sin and shadow yet imbued in a dim light of unrelenting authenticity and menacing subterfuge.
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” wrote Chandler in The Simple Art of Murder. “The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.”
It wasn’t long before Marlowe was adapted for the screen and several stars would play him, including James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. But Chandler’s relationship with Hollywood was thorny at best, calling Tinseltown a “…degraded community whose idealism is largely fake.
The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots… the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world.”
And so Chandler wasn’t directly involved with adaptations of his work — he became a screenwriter on other projects instead. This was mostly adaptations of other novelists’ work: James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The following list doesn’t contain all of Chandler’s Hollywood output, but rather the best representations of his or other’s work that he influenced.
10. Brick (2005)
Writer/director Rian Johnson landed on the scene hard with his energetic debut, Brick. Equal parts The Big Sleep and The Breakfast Club, Johnson’s film moves the Chandleresque narrative from the sun-soaked streets of crime-addled Los Angeles to the modern Cali suburbs and, more specifically, into the high school halls.
Truthfully, it isn’t just the Chandler milieu that Johnson dips his toes into here, the whole gritty gumshoe genre gets revisited and reworked — Dashiell Hammet hounds will also have a lot to root for here — and the results are glorious.
In the Philip Marlowe mold, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “detective” Brandon Frye, a high school student snooping around after the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend.
One of Johnson’s biggest coups lays in his transferral of high school stereotypes into the hard-boiled detective world of dames, thugs, and stoolies, the end result is a shadowy, surreal visage of the suburban landscape, one eerily absent of adults, overrun with rhythmic, gutter poetry (his dialogue bristles with nuance and style in the Chandler tradition) and hard-edged aplomb.
9. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Loosely yet lovingly based on the narrative structure of Chandler’s The Big Sleep — the title is a knowing nod — this Coen brothers cult classic posits an affable unkempt stoner, dubbed “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges, brilliant), in the Marlowe role. The eccentric characters that the Dude encounters in vignette fashion across L.A. and environs pay careful homage to film noir conventions, along with the witty repartee, dangerous dealings, and unconventional, often shaggy dog designs.
While lacking the hard-boiled and upper hand elements of Chandler’s famed detective, the Dude still shares Marlowe’s wit, skewered charm, and ability to intrigue glamorous dames, run afoul both the law and inept heavies at almost every turn. And like Marlowe, the Dude runs by his own moralistic code, making him relatable and worth rooting for.
The Big Lebowski isn’t an obvious homage or a reboot, more an absurdist odyssey with bungled ransoms, bowling, kooky kidnappers, porn barons, kept women, amphibious rodents, and endless quotability. Where Marlowe is naturally driven, the Dude matter-of-factly abides.
8. Lady in the Lake (1947)
Robert Montgomery directs and plays the lead, adapting Chandler’s first-person narrative in the most literal way possible: from Marlowe’s point of view.
Certainly showing the whole film with a subjective camera is a gimmick, but using Marlowe’s POV works surprisingly well, and makes for many memorable and unusual scenes (watching a beaten Marlowe struggle to reach a dime inside a phone booth is but one unforgettable example).
The story, for better or worse, plays second fiddle to the film’s relishable technique, but it’s creative as can be and unusually effective, overall. Sure, seeing the main character only when he passes by a mirror and having the bad buys swing at the camera is occasionally silly — molls kissing towards the lens is borderline laughable, too, perhaps — but it’s a charming measure.
7. The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Utilizing an Oscar-nominated script from Chandler (his only original screenplay, though he would co-write two others), reflecting his brand of hard-boiled hubris and tabloid sensibility, The Blue Dahlia features Alan Ladd as Jimmy Moore, a WWII veteran who discovers his wife has been unfaithful during his tenure. When she winds up murdered he’s the prime suspect in a film overfull with postwar pessimism and taut, exposed nerves.
The ravishing Veronica Lake co-stars as Joyce Harwood, a mysterious dame who could be trouble, of course, in a sordid tale that eschews virtue in favor of misandry in the decadent growth of postwar L.A. Both a critical and box-office success, The Blue Dahlia was, from Chandler’s perspective, his best foray into cinema, in that it was on his own terms and involved very little compromise on his part.
6. Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Adapted by RKO from Farewell My Lovely, and directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet was the first major motion picture release of a Chandler story (there had been two prior Chandler adaptations: Time to Kill and The Falcon Takes Over, both in 1942, both loose and lamentable) and the first appearance of Marlowe on the big screen.
Dick Powell had the honors of playing the hard-boiled hero, though at the time, 1940s audiences associated him primarily as the romantic lead in numerous musical comedies, so it was a winning gamble to plant him in such a different role.
Powell was well received as Marlowe, and Murder, My Sweet was dubbed a taut, twisty thriller, and to this day is regarded as one of the best Chandler adaptations. Presented primarily in flashbacks as Marlowe recounts to the police the events that led to his blindness, his skewed run-ins with predatory femme fatale Velma (Claire Trevor), and brutish toughie Moose Malloy (former wrestler Mike Mazurki) amongst others, Murder, My Sweet is quintessential film noir, and an elegant example of the genre.