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TV REVIEW : Clues to Chandler's Troubled Life

November 16, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Dashiell Hammett in "The Maltese Falcon" gave the world Sam Spade and the private detective as a literary sub-genre. Then a curious and troubled figure named Raymond Chandler, in a short but blazing series of novels, extended the form and became the principal poet of all the knights in frayed trench coats walking alone down mean streets.

The Chandler centenary was widely celebrated in 1988 and one of the events was a profile done for Melvyn Bragg's "The South Bank Show" on London Weekend Television. Produced and directed by David Thomas, edited and hosted by Bragg, "Raymond Chandler" gets its first U.S. showings tonight on Bravo cable at 5 and 10. It will be shown again at the same hours on Nov. 24 and Nov. 29.

There is evidently no footage on Chandler and only a handful of stills and family album pictures. To compensate, Thomas uses actor Robert Stephens to play Chandler and to read from his letters and essays. With his horn-rim glasses and center-parted hair, Stephens bears a close resemblance.

Although born in Chicago, Chandler did most of his growing up in England after his father deserted the family and his mother returned to live with relatives in South London. He attended Dulwich College, to which Bragg's camera pays a charming visit. One of the dorms is called Marlowe and it seems inevitable that that's where Philip Marlowe got his name.

Ironically, Chandler always felt more a displaced Englishman than a native American, although his command of the American vernacular was superb. In his early days in London, he wrote standard poetry and sharp-tongued reviews but could not make a living at either and ended up as a quite successful oil executive in Los Angeles until drinking cost him his job.

Adrift in middle age, he started writing for Black Mask and other pulp magazines and found what he should have been doing all along.

Interviews with his principal biographer Frank McShane, literary historian Matthew Broccoli, producer John Houseman, Robert Mitchum (who twice played Marlowe) and San Diego columnist Neil Morgan, an acquaintance during Chandler's last days in La Jolla, confirm what a troubled life he led.

His wife, 17 years older than he, was an invalid for years. He never conquered his problems with alcohol and, after little more than a dozen years of brilliant productivity, Chandler seemed a burnt-out case. His last novel, "Playback," was not successful, and an uncompleted manuscript, "The Poodle Springs Story," lately completed as an homage by Robert B. Parker, had few traces of Chandler's earlier energy and bite.

Yet "The Big Sleep," "Farewell My Lovely," "The High Window," "The Lady in the Lake" and "The Long Goodbye" may well be the most influential (e.g., imitated) body of work in American crime fiction. An impressive list of actors--Humphrey Bogart, Mitchum, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, Elliott Gould--have played Marlowe. And the books as well as the films have introduced generations to Los Angeles of the '30s and '40s.

Even now there are streets in Hollywood where the ghost of Marlowe seems to reside, although you look in vain for the drive-ins Marlowe used to pass on Ventura Boulevard, "offering food that would poison a toad."

It is a melancholy documentary but inescapable for anyone who cares about crime fiction and its ongoing debt to Chandler.

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