Chandler (1971)

That’s Chandler, C-H-A-N-D-L-E-R, as in Raymond,” Warren Oates snaps in the title role, as if to make sure less detective-fiction-savvy viewers don’t miss the literary connection. Since MGM released CHANDLER in 1971 when youth-oriented films were raking in big bucks at the box office, I guess they wanted to make sure the kids could dig it. 🙂

However, the ever-capable Oates isn’t playing hard-boiled mystery writer Raymond Chandler in this brooding neo-noir. This Chandler’s the laconic type, likely to reply with a terse “Sure” or, in a tender moment, “You’ll do.” When we meet him, he’s a department store security guard with a surly puss and another guard dressing him down a la ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (which featured CHANDLER’S Mitchell Ryan among the cast, BTW). You don’t have to be Philip Marlowe to figure out our protagonist can’t be square-pegged into a rent-a-cop gig. I cheered when he walked out in the middle of his dreary shift and drove away in his 1940s landboat.

At first, CHANDLER shows promise with our back-in-business hero hobnobbing with fine character actors and stars from the golden age of film noir. Gravel-voiced Charles McGraw, so memorable in tough-guy roles in THE NARROW MARGIN and others, has an assignment for Chandler (with my fave bit of CHANDLER dialogue: “Chandler! You’re alive! I got a job for ya.”). As the main villain, Alex Dreier does a creditable Sydney Greenstreet update. Leslie Caron, still gorgeous at 40 (and why shouldn’t she be?), plays Katherine Creighton, the wary, mysterious witness Chandler’s been assigned to protect. (During a car chase, Caron shows off her fabulous legs as she launches herself out of a bad guy’s speeding cab.) In an early scene, Gloria Grahame, still gorgeous at 48 (and why shouldn’t she be?), only has maybe five minutes of screen time but, to borrow a line from Spencer Tracy, what’s there is “cherce.”

Directed by first-timer Paul Magwood and written by Magwood and John Sacret Young, CHANDLER was clearly conceived with its world-weary heart in the right place. Between the movie’s dull bits, it shows glimmers of neo-noir promise as Chandler refuses to let Katherine become a victim or himself become the villains’ fall guy, struggling against a world that’s passing him by. There are several nice scenes and brushstrokes along the way where the filmmakers’ true gritty yet noble ambitions shine through. The juxtaposition of then-modern surroundings and 1940s cars gives CHANDLER — both the film and the character — an intriguing unstuck-in-time feel and a bittersweet air. L.A.’s more retro-looking locations set the tone well, especially coastal Monterey, Olvera Street, and Union Station, including a train with an observation car so lovely it made my mouth water.

I loved one scene near the end in which Chandler and Katherine find themselves lost at night in the fog after ditching the bad guys. They allow themselves to enjoy this quiet moment, and it almost gives Katherine the air of a storybook heroine, with Chandler as her devoted hero. As a screen couple, Oates and Caron may not make viewers forget Bogart and Bacall, but as CHANDLER goes along, they develop a poignant kind of chemistry, as if they’ve realized — maybe too late — that for all their differences, somehow they’re kindred spirits.

The film has the occasional bit of wry humor, like when the case brings Chandler face to face with a prim administrative assistant (Marianne McAndrew). “What can I do for you, angel?” Chandler says, like any good classic private eye. She looks surprised. “How did you know my name is Angel? Angel Carter.” I also liked the bit where a jittery Katherine pulls a gun on Chandler, thinking he’s the assassin after her. Unfazed, he responds, “Oh. Guns,” faking a big yawn and getting a laugh out of Katherine in spite of herself.

Unfortunately, you may find yourself yawning for real as the film’s pace drags. Its weaknesses all too often overpower its strengths, not unlike Chandler himself. The actors’ attempts to sound hard-boiled sometimes make them sound simply cranky or weary (and I don’t mean world-weary). In some scenes, the dialogue is nearly drowned out by background noise. The plot makes increasingly less sense as the flick goes along. I couldn’t even tell for sure whether or not Chandler had survived the climactic beach showdown! Perhaps because of sloppy post-production editing, CHANDLER stops making sense as the continuity goes nuts, like in a forest scene where our hero and heroine find themselves in a rainstorm that stops as mysteriously as it started; in fact, at one point it actually seems to be raining on one side of the screen but not the other!

I kept getting the feeling the movie had been tampered with, and I was right; MGM senior executive James Aubrey, Jr. sensed trouble and had the film recut, leaving scenes with Royal Dano and James Sikking on the cutting room floor (their names still appear in the credits, though). The film’s score was going to have a 1940s sound, but was changed at the last minute to a score by George Romanis that wouldn’t have been out of place in a TV crime drama. (As if to make up for it, every so often the recurring theme sounds pleasantly bluesy.) For more details, check out the CHANDLER article on the TCM Web site. Fun Fact: According to the IMDb, Caron had been married at various times to Magwood and to the film’s producer Michael S. Laughlin — such a vixen! 🙂 Also, a pre-STAR WARS Gary Kurtz is credited as the film’s associate producer. Anyway, if you’re interested in checking out CHANDLER for yourself and deciding whether or not it’s really an underrated gem, it’ll be on TCM again on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 9:30 P.M. during their month-long tribute to Leslie Caron. I’d say it’s worth at least one look for neo-noir completists.