The High Window by Raymond Chandler – A Review

The High Window
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

Chandler’s The High Window is shorter and less robust than his other novels, but it is one of the few that I have not seen in a movie version (one exists from 1944 but it isn’t considered a particularly good film). In theory that should make for a better reading experience. It has the usual collection of reprobates and self destructive lowlifes. Still, it feels a bit sanitized, as if the real dark side of LA had been overlooked. Sure there are the murders and the mysterious young woman who is kept as a virtual slave in the house of his Marlowe’s client, but there isn’t any tension to them. They just happen 1,2,3 and each time Marlowe goes back to his client, a port drinking shut-in, only to have her refuse to answer his questions. After all that back and forth, Marlowe explains what happened. It is not a particularly interesting way of doing things. Any work of mystery that has to have a lengthy explanation at the end of it to explain what happened is usually a failure. Chandler usually managed to avoid those failures. On the plus side, his depiction of the drunks on Bunker Hill has his typically dark clarity, as do all his depictions of alcoholics. And the young private eye that follows him around only to get killed is funny, if nothing else. As a work of Chandler, though, The High Window is a disappointment. In part because his client, stays in the shadows, both figuratively and literally and does not animate the novel the way Farewell, My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Without that interaction in the plot, something is missing. The High Window is, at best, an intermezzo between his better works, and one any person new to Chandler should not read first.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – A Review

Farewell My Lovely
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

The problem with Chandler is that every time I read him I hear voices: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and even Gerald Mohr (thankfully, not Elliot Gould). Because I’ve listened to dozens of Richard Diamond radio shows Dick Powell is the foremost of the voices, but they’re all there and as I read the novel itself seems strange, foreign, as if it were the fake and all the films and radio versions were the real thing. That cultural ever-presence distracts one from the source and obfuscates through layers of sanitizing changes the real Chandler and his clear observations. As I read him, scraping away layers of Hollywood, I’m always surprised at the society Chandler describes: its as petty and real as the one I know. There is no tabu that he is unwilling to acknowledge and it is that willingness to show every nasty detail that makes returning to his books so rewarding.

When thinking about Chandler, if you can separate yourself from the film and radio versions, the way he constructs the narrative voice is refreshingly clean, edited down to an almost editorially free mode of observation. That the observations are commentaries in of themselves goes without saying, but he always remains professionally detached. Perhaps not to the level of a Johnny Dollar, but its there. Of course, that detachment is suspect with women characters. Still even his romantic interests have the sense of the reportage about them. This might not seem so important, but when compared to his contemporaries, even some non crime writing, the clarity of his work, uncluttered by repeating the obvious via internal monologues.  While I hate the “show don’t tell” prescription to writers, Chandler is one writer who knew how to follow it and it makes his work still stand.

Farewell, My Lovely opens with a clear eyed description of the changing racial make up of LA. Marlowe goes to a bar in central LA that had changed from white to black clientele. Like most things in these Chandler novels, Marlowe is in the area on a case and sees a tough enter the bar and decides to follow him in. It’s there that Chandler sketches the racial tensions of the changing city as the tough, Moose Malloy, cannot understand how the bar could change. That aggravation, first shown verbally through racial slurs, is ultimately expressed in a violence that leads to murder. When Marlowe is interviewed by the police, Chandler again shows the complete indifference of white society to the minorities. The cop in charge wants some glory from the case, but knows he’ll get nothing from it because no one cares. In those opening pages he sets up a great critique of LA, dark as it can be, and Marlowe is restrained in using racist language (he sticks with the then common negro).

Where his work breaks down, is the silly Indian character who seems like some stereotype right out of the movies. At one point in the book he is captured by a crime boss. One of his henchmen is an Indian who has a sideline as an Indian in western movies. Problem is, he talks as if he were on the plains of the old west circa 1880. Perhaps it was supposed to be a joke, but the only thing it is silly. Where he captured the corruption and racial tensions of LA in the bar scene, here he just imports mid century stereotypes for a little buffoonery that is not funny at all.

Still, it is the I don’t give a damn about you attitude that permeates the characters that makes the book so fresh. Nor is is a cartoonish look. Here I’m specifically thinking of the drunk woman he visits repeatedly. This isn’t a Hollywood drunk of so many noir films that has some semblance of control, but a total wastrel whose only goal in life is the next bottle. The busybody across the street from the woman is interesting, too, a nice depiction of the non criminal, but still having the Chandler eye for details.

Plenty of people have commented on the logic of his plots so I won’t bother here, and really I don’t care. They are good enough for me. It is the world he creates that interests me. But one thing that will strike anyone is that Marlowe is lucky and that several moments of the book hinge on fortunate accidents, especially when he is in a dark canyon and hit over the head and a young woman comes to his rescue. And the chances he takes, such as sneaking on to the gambling ship anchored off Bay City to confront the a crime boss. Occasionally, it is a little too much and were it not for the writing, perhaps it would be. (I can’t help but imagine Marlowe years latter suffering dementia for all the certain concussions he’s received.) Yet despite all that Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent piece of noir that rises above so much of the pulp material of the era (I’ve been reading some of it and have been quite disappointed. Just compare the first paragraph of Chandler’s Red Wind to anything else and you’ll see what I mean). One I could easily read again and hopefully, finally, get those voices out of my head.

The Watchmen – A Review

The Watchmen is, perhaps, the best comic book movie ever made. It is a large qualification and one that does the movie a disservice, but despite the reworking of the typical comic book themes and an ending that avoids the superhero defeats super villain formula, some elements still cannot escape the genre and make the film a little awkward at times.

Based on the 1986 graphic novel, The Watchmen tells the story of a group of super heroes that were anything but the clean cut exemplars of American culture that Superman represents. Instead, in an excellent title sequence you learn how some were killed in scandalous ways, one ended up in a mental hospital, and others resorted to drink. It is a foretelling of the scandals, immoral behavior and the self righteous crusading. One of the great strengths of the film is to see superheroes as something other than heroic. When The Comedian shoots and murders his pregnant lover in Vietnam because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, it is a moment that undoes the whole facade of the heroic and makes the comic fantasies that have come before seem silly. What is worse is the all powerful Dr. Manhattan doesn’t do anything. Superman with his perfect sense of right and wrong has been replaced by a hero who is too unconcerned with the problems of everyday people.

The movie, too, avoids the usual convention where the super villain fights the super hero in a battle that goes on for five to ten minutes and millions of dollars of special effects. For the all the complexity that the super heroes might exhibit, the film in the end comes down to the grand battle, which is really a let down because it seldom has anything to do with the characters the heroes have. The Watchmen, on the other hand, avoids the problem because the conclusion of the film is based in a moral ambiguity: can one kill millions to save billions. Sure there is a fight between the heroes but it comes to nothing and only proves they dislike each other. It is a relief to see the lack of a grand show down, because it makes the movie about decisions, not power. If everything is about one’s powers then it doesn’t matter how complex the character is (or how mopey they are, which seems to be the case usually), it is the luck of the one’s powers, which naturally always tilts towards the good, that defines the movie and the characters.

The Watchmen is an excellent representative of a narrative imagination that was common in the 80’s where the extremes of right leads one to see concentration camps coming any day now. In The Watchmen there is a sense that the government would be completely happy to start building the camps to deal with the restless people. Both the Comedian and Rorschach are quite the right leaning vigilantes who see nothing good in the scum of the world as it has descended in to a cesspool of criminality. It is the same fear that shows up in various American punk bands of the time such as the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Suicidal Tendencies. In each there is a preoccupation with government power that turns fascistic.

The Watchmen, though, has its flaws. Its length is not necessarily one, although some may suggest 3 hours is excessive. The biggest problem is it can’t escape its comic book past. For all the cleverness in rewriting the genre it still uses conventions of the genre. So, at times the narration is weak, a cross between Raymond Chandler and a teenage kid when Rorschach is narrating, and boring when Dr. Manhattan is narrating. Moreover, Rorschach’s insights into human nature are quite tedious, as are some of the flashbacks that describe the various back stories. Silk Spectre II and Night Owl are a little light in the characterization department, and rewriting the way women are portrayed in comic books is certainly not the focus of The Watchmen, which is obvious from Silk Spectre’s costume. Having a lesbian character, Silhouette, only servers to underscore the male fantasy that is at work in the characterizations (granted, she is also the victim of a hate crime). Finally, Silk Spectre I could be quite a complex character, but loving one’s abuser is simplified so much that it suggests if you try to rape someone you may still have chance to have her fall in love with you. If one is going to embrace that theme, you really should dig deeper.

The best comic movie is probably a turn off to those who don’t care about the genre, either in film or the comic books themselves. Yet it is worth seeing if only to understand how far comics have and have not come over the years. Despite the seeming silliness of costumed heroes they are one of the great American inventions.

Historic Raymond Chandler in the LA Times

The Daily Mirror, the LA Times blog about LA and LA Times history, has been running a great series on Raymond Chandler on the  50th anniversary of his death. There are some great bits they have found.

  1. A lost kinesocope of the Long Good-Bye with Dick Powell. I’d love to see that one.
  2. An interview with Chandler and James M Cain where the reporter says Chandler doesn’t drink. I doubt that one.
  3. An article on the stars who played Marlowe.
  4. Review of Farewell My Lovely in the Times.
  5. Review of the Big Sleep.
  6. A 1987 look at the geography in his stories. Only really good if you know LA, which I do.