Friday, November 4, 2016

The Life of Raymond Chandler

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler
by Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press
9781613736784 - 384 pages
January 2012

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Was Raymond Chandler, the author who invented detective Phillip Marlowe, as interesting as his creation? This question was on my mind when I began reading A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

Born in Chicago on July 23rd, 1888 to Maurice and Florence Chandler, young Raymond had a troubled childhood. His father was an alcoholic, setting the stage for Chandler’s own struggles with alcoholism, and he abandoned the family early on. Left to their own devices, Florence and Raymond moved from Chicago and eventually settled in England where Chandler received a good education at Dulwich. Unfortunately he could not secure the funds to go to college but this did not stop him in his pursuit of a literary career. At first he made an earnest attempt at being a poet but failed miserably. After living in France, he returned to London to fetch his mother and traveled across the pond then across the continent to Los Angeles. Williams notes, “he left London as a failed British writer and arrived in America as a new man.”

Although Chandler always thought of himself as a Brit, it was his life in California that set things in motion for this new stage of his life and career. But those early days in Los Angeles were not devoted to writing. He fought in WWI by way of Canada because he could not enlist through either the US or England. When he came back from the war he devoted himself to his mother Florence. He met the woman who would be the love of his life, Cissy. Unfortunately his mother disapproved of the union and Chandler waited until Florence died before marrying Cissy. Chandler was 35 and Cissy was 53 pretending to be 43. The age difference would prove to be a thorn in Raymond’s side for the length of their marriage. His relationships with Florence, Cissy and other women in his life are explored in detail in the book. The women had the greatest influence on his ideals, the characters in his stories and his motivations in life. The author also touches upon Chandler’s possible homosexuality.

His literary career was put on the back burner in the years that followed. He began drinking and became an alcoholic in the 1920s. It was until Chandler lost his cushy job at Dabney Oil Syndicate that he picked up writing again. He took a correspondence course on fiction and started writing pulp stories for the magazine Black Mask. These proved to be popular and while Chandler didn’t see himself as a mystery writer he enjoyed the work.

Chandler's pulp stories improved as he developed and honed his skills. Author Tom Williams defines the pulp short genre as the following:
“The stories tended to revolve around a central male character who, more often than not, operated alone. Toughness was an essential virtue, as was a strict moral code that divided the world into good and bad, right and wrong. And the stories were characterized by simple, muscular, almost brutal prose.” 
 Chandler had a strict moral code “right and wrong were sharply defined in his world.” This bled into his writing and would often determine the fate of different characters in his stories. His stories explored “feelings of paranoia and disillusionment” and had a strong sense of place. This can be seen in his novels like The Big Sleep where Los Angeles and Hollywood are front and center in the narrative. Williams demonstrates themes in Chandler’s work with passages of text and plot points, character studies and how events and circumstances in Los Angeles shaped Chandler’s story.

“Along with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, [The Big Sleep] has come to represent the high peak of the hard-boiled genre.” – Tom Williams

Moving beyond short stories, Chandler began to write novels. His first was The Big Sleep, published by Knopf and establishing detective Phillip Marlowe as a noir figure. Williams says, “[Phillip Marlowe] was a step forward from the characters of the pulp stories – a fully realized man rather than a vehicle for action.” What differentiated Chandler works from his peers James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett was the focus on character and setting and less on mystery and plot. Also Chandler’s narrative was in the first person which would later prove to be a strength for noir. Williams calls these elements “the key to his success.” Chandler wrote several novels, most of them featuring detective Marlowe. The biography goes into detail about The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and others. Most of his novels were initially flops. His first publisher Knopf neglected to market them well, didn’t see Chandler’s true potential. In the end Chandler’s stories proved to have legs in Hollywood and beyond.

Raymond Chandler's cameo in the film Double Indemnity

“All writing that has any life in it is done with the solar plexus. It is hard work in the sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted.” – Raymond Chandler 

I enjoyed reading about Raymond Chandler’s work as a novelist, short story writer and screenwriter especially. Hollywood came knocking and Chandler got a gig as a screenwriter at Paramount. His first project was working with Billy Wilder on adapting Cain’s Double Indemnity for the big screen. But Chandler got a rough start in Hollywood. He couldn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone and when Double Indemnity was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar he didn’t even show up to the ceremony. Yet is work continued as he adapted The Blue Dahlia, And Now Tomorrow, The Unseen and other movies. He briefly worked on the adaptation of his own novel The Lady in the Lake. Always an admirer of Hitchcock, he was thrilled to work with him on adapting Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train but the two butted heads and Chandler was kicked off the project. Chandler might not have appreciated the modest success of his novels and film adaptations at the time because he could not forsee the fame and recognition that was to come.

Raymond Chandler portrait from LIFE magazine

The depth of research found in this book is often mind-blowing. I love that careful attention to detail. I read many biographies and can always tell when the author took the time and effort to leave no stone unturned in their quest for information. Some readers find the transparency of research in a biography to remove them from the narrative of the story. You get that sense a little bit at the beginning of the book but the narrative voice eventually finds its stride. This book is also the perfect example of how you can have a biography without footnotes. Nothing frustrates me more than a book with too many footnotes, it disrupts the flow of reading and often times isn’t necessary. Williams expertly weaves all the information into the narrative.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe
 So to answer my original question, was Chandler as interesting as Marlowe? While Chandler imbued the Marlowe character with many of his own traits, Chandler as a central figure in this biography is not as interesting as his creation. Frankly he was a fuddy duddy who had a strange viewpoint on the opposite sex and proved to be difficult in both professional and personal relationships. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to keep the allure of a mysterious Chandler or if you’re willing to take a closer look at the man behind Marlowe.

Thoroughly researched, this comprehensive biography dives deep into the life of one of the most notable storytellers of the 20th Century. It’s highly recommended to any readers interested in Raymond Chandler, the writing process and the birth of noir.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book for review!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Interview with Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective

Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective (Photo source)
I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Hopkins, the founder of The Film Detective. What is The Film Detective? It is a classic film distribution company based in my home state of Massachusetts that digitally restores classic film, mostly public domain titles, and releases them on Blu-Ray, DVD and for online streaming. In the last three years they've developed an impressive library of classics from all different genres and they keep expanding with much more to come.

Raquel: You are a long-time film industry veteran, could you tell me more about how you go into the industry?
 Philip: It goes back nearly 50 years to when I inherited my family’s 16mm library. At one point, I had exhausted the enthusiasm to screen the films and I started looking for commercial films to entice family members so I could sneak in home movies. These go back to the days when you could buy prints from collectors including Blackhawk Films of old vintage one or two reelers, catalogs, and such publications as The Big Reel. In 1999, I met a budding film director in Dallas, TX and we started Marengo Films releasing public domain films on DVD. I came into the industry via my enthusiasm for old film and also my experience co-owning and operating a record company.

R: What is the history of The Film Detective?
 P: The Film Detective started in December of 2013. It’s an extension of the years I’ve been working in classic film and film restoration and distribution. We’ve grown into a solid operation with a great team and we’re going to be launching our own digital network screening our films on such platforms as Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV and we’ll continue to release Blu-rays and DVDs, as well as supply broadcasters such as Turner Classic Movies. We also work with private collectors and archives to scour the earth looking for vintage film.

R: What is the restoration process like?
 P: It can be endless and we have to make judgement calls every day. Typically, we’re working from old release prints, some are in better condition than others. Recently, we’ve been fortunate to work with a couple of film negatives. The process begins with cleaning the film, transferring it mostly into high-def, and then post-digital restoration with dust-busting, scratch removal and audio restoration. We have an in-house QC manager and editor and we work on both coasts with final restoration. When we’re done, we make a new Linear Tape Open (LTO) digital master that goes into our archive. The film then goes back into our storage facility or is returned to whoever we obtained the print or negative from.

R: Why do you think public domain movies should be restored?
P: They’re typically the last ones to be restored as the studios don’t see much return with orphaned or public domain films. Fortunately, with the change in technology, we’ve been able to justify the cost of restoring more films and serve a specific niche for that market. They’re still great films and just because they fell into the public domain, they deserve to be restored just as much as non-public domain films.

R: You partner with The Cabot Theater in Beverly, MA to premiere restorations. Could you tell me more about this partnership?
P: I grew up going to see films at The Cabot when I was a kid, back in the 1970s. The Cabot was recently rescued by local business owners and has gone through a wonderful transformation. We were thrilled to be able to continue to promote film exhibition. It’s local and we’re able to attend each screening, introduce the films, talk about what we do and bring our restorations to the big screen, which is very satisfying. They’re a great group of people and classic film lovers as well.

R: Could you tell me more about your online streaming initiative?
P: We’re launching onto several platforms. Currently we’re already live on Amazon Fire TV and Roku. Later this year we’ll be on Apple TV as well as our own website, We’re hoping to build an audience and promote our restorations as well as deep library releases. We’ve also licensed a number of titles so there will be a mix of genres and content.

R: Where else can restorations from The Film Detective be seen?
P: Our films can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, Sony’s GetTV, on Blu-ray and DVD, and a number of other platforms including PlutoTV and Hoopla.

R: As a Massachusetts native I love that The Film Detective is based here. Why did you decide on Rockport, MA?
P: My wife and I have lived in Rockport since 1993. We’re both natives of MA. My wife, Susan, is from Quincy and I grew up in Danvers, which is just north of Boston. I moved to Rockport in the early 90s to work for a business that was based in Gloucester. When the business moved to New York, I stayed in Rockport and have had a hard time leaving ever since. It’s a beautiful, scenic, historic town and every summer I’m able to screen classic movies in my neighborhood for all the neighbors. Very satisfying!

R: What releases from The Film Detective can we look forward to?
P: Currently we’re working on several restorations. They range from classic noir to Blaxploitation. We’re very excited about several new releases including The Vampire Bat (1933), which we’re going to be working on in conjunction with UCLA Film & TV Archive, a lost Ed Wood TV pilot and a very rare Blaxploitation film, Joe Bullet, which was banned shortly after its release in South Africa. We were inspired to pursue The Vampire Bat because we’re friends with Melvyn Douglas’s son, Gregory Hesselberg.

R: What are some of your favorite classic films?
P: Far too many to list, but the first film my wife and I went to on our first date was Night of the Hunter (1955). That will always be my favorite as it set the tone for a wonderful partnership and friendship and affection for classic movies that we both have.

Thank you to Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective for taking the time out to answer my questions. You can find out more about The Film Detective and Philip's work on their website. Check out my review of their latest Blu-Ray release of Suddenly (1954).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly (1954) poster

"There's cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can't make believe they aren't there." - Pop Benson

Suddenly is a strange name for what seems like a sleepy little town. It’s a throwback from the old days when things used to happen quite suddenly there. The Gold rush, road agents, gamblers and gunfighters all became part of the town’s history. But much hasn’t happened in Suddenly for a long time. That is until now.

Directed by Lewis Allen and based on a shot story by Richard Sales, who also adapted it for screen, Suddenly (1954) is a taught crime thriller with elements of Film Noir. It’s an independent film from Libra Productions and distributed by United Artists starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason and Nancy Grace.

Sheriff Tod Shaw is beloved by the community he takes care of. He’s in love with a beautiful widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) and befriends her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen is reluctant to pursue a relationship with Tod because she’s struggling with the death of her husband in the Korean War. She shelters her son from the harsh realities of life but little does she know true danger is just around the corner.

One day the local train depot receives an important message. The president of the United States is making a pit stop in town and the Secret Service is calling upon the Sheriff to escort him safely out of town and to his final destination. Willis Bouchey plays Dan Carney, the chief of the Presidential staff, who is overseeing the security for the president's arrival. Upon chatting with the Sheriff he learns that his old Secret Service boss Pop Benson (James Gleason) lives in town. He lives with his daughter-in-law Ellen and grandson Pidge. Their home is situated by the train depot and has the perfect view of the station. Perhaps a bit too perfect.

Frank Sinatra is John Baron, the head of a trio including thugs Bart (Christopher Dark) and Benny (Paul Frees) know about that. They pretend to be FBI agents to get access to the Benson home and hold them hostage in their own home as the plot to shoot the president with a clear vantage point from inside the home. They're on assignment from a mystery employer: a half million to kill the president. The trio hold Pop, Ellen and Pidge hostage and soon Sheriff Tod and local electrician Jud (James O'Hara) join the trapped family. The situation seems hopeless. Can they get the word out to the Secret Service about the assassins in time to save the president?

"[Suddenly] marked the start of Sinatra's dramatic career on film as a leading man; there was no Lancaster or Montgomery Clift in sight now. This was the Frank Sinatra show, pure and simple, a feature film that turned into a one-man showcase the second he appeared onscreen." 
- Tom Santopietro, Sinatra in Hollywood

Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)
Suddenly (1954) was Frank Sinatra's first role after From Here to Eternity (1953), the film that put Sinatra on the map again. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan notes, "[Frank Sinatra] had been interested in Richard Sale's pulpy yet propulsive script from the moment he saw it." It’s a good role for Sinatra. We’re mesmerized by the sadistic John Baron who got a taste for killing during his stint in WWII. He’s twitchy, trigger happy and enjoys making others suffer. As we reach the climax of the story the camera focuses more and more on Baron and having watched many Sinatra films, I've never seen one showcase Sinatra's scar quite as much as this one. James Kaplen says, "Suddenly's cinematographer, Charles G. Clarke, often shot Frank [Sinatra] in tight, unnerving close-ups and amazingly frequently on his bad side -- the left side of his face, the side deformed around the ear and neck by a forceps delivery at birth and a childhood mastoid operation." It adds to the many sinister qualities of Sinatra’s character.

"You're wrong about God and the gun, Sheriff. Without the gun, you would have never have spit at me. You would never have even noticed me. But because of the gun, you will remember me as you as you will live." - John Baron

Upon first viewing audiences will be caught up in the tension of the drama. On second viewing they might notice the overarching themes of patriotism and gun control. Ellen is scared of guns because of how they relate to her husband's death at war. Pidge is fascinated with toy guns because he wants to be like a Sheriff like Tod. His mother discourages him but both the Sheriff and his grandfather Pop Benson encourage him. For Suddenly's Sheriff, guns are a necessary part of keeping the town safe. For John Baron his sophisticated sniper rifle is a political tool for terrorism. The hostages see Baron as more than just a killer; he’s worse, he’s a traitor. After serving in WWII (and perhaps being dishonorably discharged), he turns his attentions to the pleasure of killing for the sake of killing and for money. The president is just another target for him. The Secret Service is tipped off to the trio of thugs when a dying stool pigeon’s deathbed confession reveals the assassination plot. His legacy is that last moment of patriotism. We also see Ellen admonished for her negative feelings about the Korean War and the sense of pride Pop Benson feels for having served his country in WWI and as President Coolidge’s bodyguard.

The film has a strange history. According to James Kaplan, Sinatra "won critical raves for Suddenly, by no means a big film, but the picture had died at the box office." It’s rumored that Lee Harvey Oswald watched the film at one time with the suggestion that it might have influenced his actions.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Suddenly (1954) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another Sinatra film dealing with an assassination plot, were pulled from circulation.  Or so they say. It's unclear what really happened but both films were unavailable for a long time. Some sources say Sinatra, who at one point was close friends with JFK, bought the rights for the films and pulled them. Other sources say it was an agreement among several parties at United Artists. Another theory is that both films were still available but were screened on rare occasions because few people wanted to be reminded of JFK's death. Out of the two films, Suddenly (1954) fell into the public domain when the copyright was not renewed.

Lou Lumenick, formerly of The New York Post writes, "A lawyer for United Artists told me they pulled the film from circulation in 1966 because they were unable to locate the heirs of producer Robert Bassler to renew the TV rights. Suddenly appeared on the public domain market very soon after its copyright failed to be renewed in 1982."

Public domain films are often neglected with bad copies in circulation online and on DVD. Lucky for us Suddenly (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective (distributed by Allied Vaughn), restored from the original 35mm film elements, presented in the original aspect ratio and including a restored soundtrack. There are no extras but it does include closed captioning.

The Film Detective's restoration of Suddenly (1954) is beautiful and this Blu-Ray is a must for your film library. I had seen this movie on TCM when Sinatra was Star of the Month back in December and was happy for an opportunity to see it again all polished up. There are some fine performances by Hayden and Gleason and Sinatra is simply terrifying in the role of John Baron. You can pair this  with either Cry Terror! (1958) or The Manchurian Candidate (1962) for an excellent double bill.

The film was shot in Saugus, a neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California. Robby of Dear Old Hollywood has a fun post about filming locations for Suddenly

Sources and links:
Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan
The Washington Post
TCMDB article on Suddenly

Thank you to The Film Detective for sending me a copy to review.

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