Friday, January 10, 2014

The Answer from Chandler

In an article on film violence he wrote for Vogue in the mid-1940s, John Houseman made a disparaging reference to the popular private eye heroes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, created respectively by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — “a drab, melancholy man of limited intelligence and mediocre aspiration; a zombie who is satisfied to work for ten bucks a day and who, between drinks, gets beaten up regularly and laid occasionally.”
That article, which Houseman said cast the only shadow that ever fell across his long friendship with Chandler, prompted a reply.
“Your article in Vogue was much admired here,” Chandler wrote. “I think it was beautifully written and had a lot of style. For me personally it had the effect (after-taste is a better word) of depression and it roused my antagonism. It is artistically patronizing, intellectually dishonest and logically unsound. It is the last whimper of the Little Theatre mind in you.
“However, I’m all for your demand that pictures, even tough pictures, and especially tough pictures, have a moral content. (Because ‘The Big Sleep’ picture had none I feel a little annoyed with you for not realizing that the book had a high moral content).
“Time this week calls Philip Marlowe ‘amoral.’ This is pure nonsense. Assuming that his intelligence is as high as mine (it could hardly be higher), assuming his chances in life to promote his own interests are as numerous as they must be, why does he work for such pittance? For the answer to that is the whole story, the story that is always being written by indirection and yet never is written completely or even clearly.
Humphrey Bogart played both Spade and Marlowe
“It is the struggle of all fundamentally honest men to make a decent living in a corrupt society. It is an impossible struggle; he can’t win. He can be poor and bitter and take it out in wisecracks and casual amours, or he can be corrupt and amiable and rude like a Hollywood producer. Because the bitter fact is that outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation, there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket.
“The stories I wrote were ostensibly mysteries. I did not write the stories behind those stories, because I was not a good enough writer. That does not alter the fact that Marlowe is a more honorable man than you or I. I don’t mean Bogart playing Marlowe and I don’t mean because I created him. I didn’t create him at all; I’ve seen dozens like him in all essentials except the few colorful qualities he needed to be in a book. (A few even had those.) They were all poor; they will always be poor. How could they be anything else?
“When you have answered that question, you can call him a zombie.
“Love, Ray”

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