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Raymond Chandler was a pivotal figure in film noir, and many of his best stories are available.

July 23, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He put the hard in hard-boiled. He played a key role in the films noir of the '40s and '50s and influenced the neo-noir films of the '90s. He created one of the most beloved characters in fiction--detective Philip Marlowe. Not only was Raymond Chandler a best-selling author of such mysteries as "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely," he also received two Oscar nominations for his screenplays.

Today would have been Chandler's 110th birthday. Born in Chicago, Chandler spent his early years in England and began his career there as a journalist. After World War I, he returned to America and began selling short stories in the '30s. He died in 1959.

Numerous Chandler stories and novels have been turned into films, and several of those--along with the films he wrote--are available on video. This Saturday on HBO, James Caan dons Marlowe's well-worn fedora in the mystery thriller "Poodle Springs," finished by Robert Parker after Chandler's death.

Chandler's acclaimed novel, "Farewell, My Lovely" got its first cinematic treatment as 1942's "The Falcon Takes Over" (Turner). Don't look, though, for Marlowe in this low-budget but entertaining mystery. The plot of Chandler's novel was refashioned for Michael Arlen's sleuth, the Falcon. George Sanders stars.

Chandler received his first Oscar nomination in 1944 for co-adapting (with Billy Wilder) James M. Cain's bestseller "Double Indemnity" (Universal, $15). This is a marvelously acted thriller in which a gullible insurance man (Fred MacMurray) teams with a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband for the insurance money.

Chandler's favorite version of "Farewell, My Lovely" is the crackling 1944 film noir "Murder, My Sweet" (Turner, $20). After being a lightweight leading man in musicals, Dick Powell made a real breakthrough as an actor as the tough, down-on-his luck shamus who is searching for an ex-convict's missing girlfriend.

Humphrey Bogart, though, was the best Marlowe. He played the gumshoe in Howard Hawks' 1946 version of "The Big Sleep" (MGM, $20), a confusing but highly entertaining film noir in which Marlowe is hired by a rich dying man to protect his reckless younger daughter (Martha Vickers). Lauren Bacall plays the elder daughter with whom Marlowe falls in love. It was originally filmed in 1944, but several scenes were shot later to beef up Bacall's role. The first version was recently discovered and is also available on MGM.

That same year, Chandler penned the super 1946 film noir "The Blue Dahlia" (Universal, $15), for which he received his second Oscar nomination. Alan Ladd plays a World War II vet who discovers his wife has been two-timing him with the owner of a nightclub (Howard da Silva). When his wife is discovered murdered, Ladd is the prime suspect. Veronica Lake and a scene-stealing William Bendix also star.

Robert Montgomery also jumped on the Chandler bandwagon in 1946 with his "The Lady in the Lake" (MGM, $20). Montgomery stars in and directed this mystery, which uses the subjective camera to match Marlowe's first-person narrative. The only time viewers can see Montgomery's face is when he passes a mirror. Offbeat but not entirely successful.

Chandler provided a lot of the delicious dialogue as co-writer of Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 classic "Strangers on a Train" (Warner, $20). Robert Walker, in his finest performance, and Farley Granger star in this story of two strangers who meet on a train and decide to "trade" murders.

James Garner is a satisfactory Marlowe in "Marlowe" (MGM, $20), a so-so film noir based on Chandler's "The Little Sister." In this 1969 outing, Marlowe is hired by a mysterious blond woman to find her brother. Bruce Lee also stars.

Robert Altman offers his take on Chandler in his well-received, irreverent 1973 thriller "The Long Goodbye" (MGM, $20). Elliott Gould plays the rumpled gumshoe in this mystery set in Hollywood. Look for Arnold Schwarzenegger as--what else?--a muscleman.

Robert Mitchum is a tad too long in the tooth as Marlowe in 1975's "Farewell, My Lovely" (AVD, $13), an atmospheric adaptation of the Chandler classic. Sylvester Stallone has a small part.

Mitchum returns as Marlowe in the 1978 remake of "The Big Sleep" (AVD, $13). Mitchum sleepwalks through the part. A real snooze.

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