Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"A solemn thriller is really rather a bore": Raymond Chandler speaks; Ian Fleming listens

The more than generous Paul Davis replied to last week's Around the world with Raymond Chandler post and sent a link to this 1958 BBC interview with Chandler. The interviewer was Ian Fleming and, though Fleming was a bit diffident and Chandler apparently a bit tired or ill or drunk, it was a thrill to hear the voices of these two men who so greatly influenced 20th-century popular culture.

Their mutual admiration is obvious, and Chandler in particular says much of interest. A few highlights:

"I don't think I ever in my own mind think anybody is a villain."

"A solemn thriller is really rather a bore."

"The private investigator is that catalyst, the man who resolved the situation. He doesn't exist in real life."

"It's almost impossible to imagine an absolutely bad man who is not a psychopath."
That last was a reply to Fleming's astute question about the difficulty of creating an evil villain for whom the reader will not feel sorry because that villain is sick. One could write books (or at least blog posts) on each of several aspects of that exchange. For me, it reinfused Chandler with the harsh edge that time and nostalgia had stripped away. It also reminded me how thoroughly the notion of the mental had replaced that of the moral by the 1950s.

One caveat: The broadcaster who introduces the interview gets the date of Chandler's death wrong. It's March 26, 1959, not March 23.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul Davis, who alerted me to the Chandler-Fleming interview, adds the following via e-mail:


I thought you find the radio interview interesting.

If you do post on the interview, may I suggest that you spark a conversation by asking your readers which film actor they prefer as the iconic characters Philip Marlowe and James Bond.

As I wrote in my online column Crime Beat six years ago - www.orchardpressmysteries.com/private_detective.html - I preferred James Garner as Marlowe. I liked the 1969 film "Marlowe," and had it been set in the 1940s rather than modern times (at the time), it would have been a great film. Garner went from Marlowe to TV's Jim Rockford. I still receive emails from people who Google Marlowe or Chandler, read the column, and then comment.

For Bond, Sean Connery is still my favorite actor.

I've read Tom Hiney's bio of Chandler and John Pearson and Andrew Lycett's bios of Fleming, and all of them cover the sad, last years of Chandler, his friendship with Fleming, and the radio interview.


Thanks again, Paul. I can well imagine biographers writing about the interview. I can also easily imagine some playwright building a two-man show around it.

So folks, how about Paul's question? And let's take this beyond what he may have intended: In addition to the actors who have played the roles, who would make a good Marlowe or a good Bond among actors who have not yet had the chance?

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

My nod for a future actor to portray Philip Marlowe would go to Clive Owens, who is in fact set to play Chandler's detective in an upcoming film.

I've read that Owens is a big Chandler fan.

I'd also like to see Bruce Willis play Marlowe, but I would hope that he would play him seriously.

Willis is a very good actor when he wants to be, but he has also walked through some of his action and comedy roles.

As for Bond, I'd give the nod to Clive Owens (yes, Owens again).

Although I was pleased to see the Bond film producers return to making Bond thrillers, rather than the cartoon Bond films of late, I was not initially happy with Daniel Craig.

He does not look at all like Fleming's Bond, but I must admit that he gave us a very good performance in "Casino Royale."

But having said that, I believe Owens, who does look Fleming's Bond, would have given us a better portrayal.

Sean Connery, in my mind, will always own the role, but Owens might have come in second.

Paul Davis

August 05, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I won't score high points for originality.
"James Bond" brings me the image of Sean Connery,and "Philip Marlowe" does the same with Humphrey Bogart.
Pretty much a knee-jerk reaction.

James Garner though...I did not know he had played Marlowe.
I have always pictured him in my mind as the perfect Spenser,even if he's a bit short for the role.


August 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The one Owen role I remember was in Children of Men. He was very good, but with nothing that would lead one to expect Marlowe-like wisecracking. Maybe that just means he's a good actor who knows how to provide what each role demands.

I lack the Bond background that some of you have, but I liked Daniel Craig in Casino Royale because he didn't look like Bond nor did he especially act like him in some respects. This made me sit up and take notice.

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marlowe was based on Chandler's novel Little Sister, and it did a fair job of updating its setting to the 1960s, even though seeing a Philip Marlowe in a contemporary setting is an odd experience at first.

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Clive Owens was a sort of crude Marlowe in "Sin City."

I didn't much care for the film, but having read that he wanted to play Marlowe, I watched Owens and I saw how he would portray Philip Marlowe. I think he will do a good job.

As for Garner being too short, I believe he is about 6'4.

Bogart was very good in "The Big Sleep," but he looks nothing like Chandler's Marlowe. (He also looks nothing like Hammett's Sam Spade - a blonde Satan).

In "Marlowe" I saw Chandler's detective with Garner. He nailed it for me. He was the right size, look, he smoked a pipe, and he threw out the wisecracks with a natural air. The film also has an added attraction with Bruce Lee destroying Marlowe's desk, coat rack and office. Their verbal exchange, which is not from the novel, was very good.

Chandler wanted Cary Grant to portray Marlowe. Think of Grant in "Mr. Lucky," and you can see it).

Cary Grant was also asked to portray Bond. Grant said he would play Bond once, but had no interest in a series of films.

Although Craig handled the fight scenes well, I think his success in "Casino Royale" was mostly based on fans being thrilled that the film was a thriller rather than a cartoon, which the Bond film producers were making previously.

As I suggested earier, read "From Russia With love," which gives the best physical description of Bond (from his Soviet SMERSH file, no less). You will see a character that is very close to Connery, not Daniel Craig or Roger Moore.

But I'm looking forward to seeing Craig in the next Bond film and I'm looking forward to seeing Owens as Marlowe.

I think I'm also going to watch "Marlowe" again tonight. I recently re-read "The Little Sister," for about the 5th time.

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary Grant would have been an obvious choice for capturing the smooth side of Bond. Chandler's opinion counts for something. I'll to think about him as Marlowe, or find what Chandler had to say on the subject.

Your point about Craig's success is probably accurate. For me, his unsmooth look and the lack of wisecracks distanced the movie even further from the Bond cliché.

Hammett's description of Sam Spade ought to give us pause about the business of choosing an actor based on how he looks. A good actor should be able to play any role well, shouldn't he?

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Paul Davis said...


No one was smoother than Cary Grant, but he could also play a tough guy, as he did in "Gunga Din," "Mr. Lucky," and "Notorious."

Hitchcock, who directed Grant in 1946's "Notorious," would have made an interesting Bond film. Claude Rains even plays a Fleming-style bad guy in the film.

Fleming wanted Hitchcock, and there was talk of a deal, but it fell through. Hitchcock directing Grant as Bond, that would have been interesting.

As for an actor resempling the character from the book, it can be important, as the readers generaly have an image of the character based on the author's description.

Bogart played both Marlowe and Spade as Bogart. Can you truly tell the difference between the two characters in the films?

As good as Bogart was playing Bogart, I'd still prefer an actor who fits the novels' characters.

Paul Davis

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

FYI, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal mentions the Chandler recording in conjunction with the release of part of the BBC archives here

August 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that link, Loren. I became a Terry Teachout fan instantly when I saw that the article decried critics' god-awful use of voice instead of style. I may make a post about that horrible habit, speculating about political and social reasons for its unfortunate penetration to the lower levels of popular discourse, such as that practiced at my newspaper.

August 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, don't forget that Cary Grant could also do a good job with an adventure role, as in "Only Angels Have Wings." Perhaps that versatility is something like what I meant when I discussed a good actor's ability to play any role.

Hitchcock directing Grant as Bond would likely have been a classic. I also suspect that it would have influenced our idea of Bond perhaps more than Bogart does our ideas of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Hitchcock took the greatest liberties when adapting popular novels for the screen, my favorite of which is is elimination of the thirty-nine steps from "The Thirty-Nine Steps." He might have done things with Ian Fleming that we can't imagine.

With respect to your Bogartian heresy, there may be something to what you say. The difference that springs immediately to mind between his portrayals of Spade and Marlowe is attributable to Chandler, to the wisecracks that the screenwriters of "The Big Sleep" lifted straight from Chandler's novel.

August 06, 2008  

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