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Raymond Chandler calling

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Raymond Chandler was one of the 20th Century's most influential writers. The creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, Chandler found a prose style that came to be known as "hardboiled", a shorthand way of trying to characterize the lack of sentimentality Chandler brought to storytelling.

Chandler's detective was a kind of metaphor, a character whose job it was to look beneath the surface of things, and clean up the messes made by people with money. Los Angeles was Chandler's chosen milieu - a city living in a constant present, where the surfaces of things dominated attention.

Chandler primarily wrote novels and short stories, but he also tried his hand at screenplays, most notably Double Indemnity, his 1944 adaptation of a novella by another hardboiled practitioner, James M. Cain. Many film fans consider Double Indemnity to be a film noir touchstone. I do.

So I was looking forward to seeing a production of another of Chandler's screenplays, The Blue Dahlia, when it made the rounds on Turner Classic Movies not long ago.

I won't bore you with too many details because The Blue Dahlia turned out to be a disappointment. The story seemed promising at first. A Navy war hero returns home with a couple of buddies after World War II to discover that his wife's a drunk who is inadvertently responsible for the death of their son and is now having a fling with a shady nightclub owner. But the acting was mostly high schoolish, the direction was flat-footed and, apart from a couple of nifty lines, Chandler's writing wasn't that hot, either.

It turns out this wasn't entirely Chandler's fault, though, and therein lies the point of my bringing Chandler up in the first place.

In Chandler's original script, the Navy hero's wife is murdered in the first act. The rest of the story is a whodunit: the jilted hero? The nightclub owner? Or, most interesting of all, one of the hero's buddies, a guy who was wounded in action and has a steel plate in his skull. Played by William Bendix, the wounded buddy goes nuts when anybody plays jazz too loud. He has a hair-trigger temper and can go from being sweet to violent without warning. Anything can set him off. In today's parlance, he's suffering from a devastating case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Of course they didn't know what to call PTSD back in 1946, when The Blue Dahlia was made. The Bendix character is just another returning vet who's had a lousy break.

Chandler does an interesting job of evoking the immediate postwar atmosphere. People drink and party too much. It's hard to rent a room for the night. There are thugs on the street who prey on vets in need of a place to crash. Most people seem to be in limbo, out of the service, but with no particular place to go. The parades are done. Now it rains most of the time.

The way Chandler set things up, the Navy hero's buddy meets the drunken wife by chance in a bar. She takes him back to her apartment, and when someone next door starts playing the jazz too loud, the buddy goes into a blind rage and kills the wife without knowing what he's done.

Given this ending, the story turns out to be a series of red herrings as we go through all the other possibilities, eliminating suspects who might have had a motive but, for one reason or another, never get round to actually doing the wife in.

The culminating scene, where the truth seems about to be revealed, is pitiful. The buddy finds himself awakening to the likelihood that he has committed murder. And we in the audience are about to taste, however melodramatically, how bitter victory's flavor can be. Violence, Chandler seems to be saying, no matter how justified or virtuous, has consequences. No one escapes. Everybody is a victim.

But something happened on the way to The Blue Dahlia's final cut. Studio bosses test-screened the film, just as they do today, and when they got to the downbeat ending, they blanched. The idea that a returning vet might be so shocked by his experience in a war zone that he might lose control and kill a woman was unthinkable. This was not something the bosses wanted to see and, since they prided themselves on their instinctive ability to know what America wanted (whether America knew this or not), they concluded nobody else would want to see it, either.

Chandler and director George Marshall were told to redo the ending. The murder was ultimately pinned on a hapless house detective. You can practically feel the sweat popping on the brow of whoever had the thankless job of splicing together the final scene's original footage with the cobbled nonsense that was tacked on for the sake of perpetuating the notion of a good war.

No self-respecting filmmaker would pull a punch like this today. You could say the movies have finally caught up with Raymond Chandler. What happens to so many of our heroes is what hasn't changed.

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