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“What a World”: Recreating Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles for “Farewell, My Lovely”

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To date, there have been eight attempts at bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe to the big screen, and only two of them have been keepers, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with Robert Mitchum in the role. The Big Sleep has been available on home video for decades, but it wasn’t until last month, more than 40 years after its theatrical release, that Farewell, My Lovely was finally given an authorized DVD release (by Shout! Factory). Just in time, too. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the film noir fanatic on your holiday gift list.

That’s because Farewell, My Lovely was Richards’ affectionate Valentine to the film noirs of the 1940s. A serious, faithful Valentine, not a spoof (like those unfunny 70s “comedies” The Black Bird and Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective) nor a post-modern deconstruction of the genre (like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves). As he explained it to me, Richards was determined to recreate the feel of the original film noirs from the first decade of the genre. (Albeit with Technicolor prints and relaxed censorship.) Richards was kind enough to allow me to interview him in connection with this article, which was fortunate because my on-line research yielded precious little information about the making of this film. (And what few factoids I found turned out to be false. More about those later.)

If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes provided the DNA that all subsequent fictional British detectives were descended from, Chandler’s Marlowe was its American equivalent. By his own admission, Chandler wasn’t the first writer to create believable detective fiction for pulp magazines that owed nothing to the British drawing room mysteries popularized by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; Dashiell Hammett got there first.[1] As Chandler memorably put it in his celebrated essay The Simple Art of Murder: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

Although Philip Marlowe is basically an idealization of what a heroic private detective should be, with his honesty, integrity, and well-defined code of honor (one that Chandler gladly admitted was a fantasy of his own imagination), it doesn’t change the fact that Marlowe is the mold that all subsequent fictional American detectives have been set from. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee were particularly influenced by Marlowe, even down to the first-person narration peppered with wisecracks and wry observations about modern society.

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Robert Mitchum

It is the character of Marlowe that creates the biggest challenge for filmmakers trying to do justice to Chandler’s stories on the screen. While some of the other actors who attempted the role, such as Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, and Elliott Gould, had considerable acting chops, they still fell short of the standard set by Bogart and Mitchum. It’s not enough for an actor to be able to be convincing as a tough guy with a flair for flippancy to play Marlowe; most importantly, the actor has to exude an unmistakable sense of melancholy as Marlowe, one based on a longing for a better world without greed, fear, or corruption, a world where the rich and powerful aren’t free to ruin the lives of others who are defenseless against them. More than any of the other would-be Marlowes, Bogart and Mitchum embodied that tarnished idealism. Richards put it this way: “I’ve always said that Chandler had somebody like Mitchum in mind when he wrote Farewell. Tough guys at that time in film noir weren’t defined by muscles. They had ways of being tough and muscles wasn’t one of them… There was a certain melancholy they endured that gave them a reason for being a tough guy.”

The other main difficulty in adapting Chandler’s books for the screen is the incredible complexity of his plots. His convoluted plotting owed no little thanks to the fact that his first four novels were mash-ups of elements from the short stories he wrote at the start of his pulp career. (The reason that Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep is so notorious for its confusing storyline is due mainly to a combination of plot elements changed or eliminated in accordance with the censorship code, Hawks’ own disregard for story exposition, and one infamous mistake on Chandler’s part.[2]) Once again, by his own admission, Chandler simply didn’t care about story construction or who did what to whom. As he expressed it, “I don’t care whether the mystery is fairly obvious but I do care about the people, about this strange, corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.”[3]

But whatever shortcomings Chandler may have had in constructing his plots, he more than made up for them with his genius for writing dialogue. As an American with a classical education from Dulwich College in London, Chandler was a frustrated would-be poet who was drawn to pulp mystery fiction by the creative uses of slang he found in them. In a 1949 letter to Canadian journalist Alex Barris, Chandler explained his fascination with the language of the pulps: “[W]hen I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk, or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself.” [4]

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Robert Mitchum

Even filmmaker Billy Wilder, who was certainly no slouch when it came to writing dialogue himself, credited Chandler with coming up with the best lines in their screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Example: After the film’s protagonist takes a sip of iced tea, he mutters, “I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet.” Or in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, when Marlowe interrogates a quack doctor who runs a sleazy sanitarium, he says, “Remarks want you to make them. They have their tongues hanging out waiting to be said.” [5]

Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which followed Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep (1939), is arguably Chandler’s best work,[6] because it has his most straightforward plot, in which Marlowe is hired by a hulking ex-con to find his long-lost girlfriend. Although Marlowe’s investigation leads to the usual detours and false leads, the entire mystery revolves around a single question: Where is Velma Valento? Once the answer is provided at the end of the story, all of the other pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place. (Or as Mitchum’s Marlowe puts it at the end of the film, “Now it all makes sense, everything.”)

Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely was the third time Chandler’s novel had been filmed. The first version, made in 1942, titled The Falcon Takes Over, dropped the character of Marlowe altogether. It was the third entry in RKO’s low-budget series of programmers based on Michael Arlen’s debonair sleuth The Falcon, with George Sanders’ Falcon filling in for Marlowe, and the setting changed from Los Angeles to New York City.

Since they already owned the film rights to Chandler’s novel, RKO agreed to remake the story two years later at the urging of actor Dick Powell, who was desperate to shed his baby-faced male ingénue image and thought that Marlowe was the perfect role to achieve that goal.[7] (Powell had tried to escape his typecasting earlier that year when he campaigned for the lead in Double Indemnity, but Wilder had an even more unlikely male ingénue in mind, Fred MacMurray.) Since Powell was so associated with musicals and light comedies, the RKO suits decided to rename the film Murder, My Sweet for the US market. (In the UK, where, thanks to the Brits’ devotion to the mystery genre, Chandler’s name was a bigger draw than Powell’s, the film retained the original title Farewell, My Lovely.)

The wheels were set into motion for Richards’ version when Hollywood producer Elliott Kastner obtained the film rights to three of Chandler’s novels from his estate in the early 1970s.[8] The first one Kastner produced was Robert Altman’s 1973 film version of The Long Goodbye. This was set in modern Los Angeles rather than the novel’s original setting 20 years earlier, mainly because it was cheaper than shelling out for period costumes, props, and sets. In fact, Altman decided to turn a possible liability into an asset by building the entire film around the concept of Marlowe being an anachronism in 70s LA.

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Robert Mitchum

Kastner decided to make Farewell, My Lovely his second Chandler adaptation, and that’s where Richards, a former photographer turned filmmaker, came in. “A version of Farewell was presented to me by Elliot Kastner with a contemporary script,” Richards told me. “I turned it down, giving Kastner the option of my doing it if he would let me make it a film noir movie and keep it in that period.” Kastner gave in to that provision and Richards agreed to direct the film mainly because, as he put it, “the motivation really was working with Robert Mitchum.” (By the way, many sources claim that Richard Burton was the first choice to play Marlowe, including the usual suspects Wikipedia and the IMDB, but Richards shot that down. “I have never heard about Richard Burton being thought of, but that may have happened during the period of the contemporary script that I turned down. When presented, Mitchum was a yes by everybody, even though some commented that he wasn’t box office anymore.”)

Richards’ next step was bringing in David Zelag Goodman to write the screenplay. Goodman’s previous credits had included Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and he would go on to script two of Richards’ subsequent films, March or Die (1977) and Man, Woman and Child (1983). They set their version of Farewell, My Lovely in 1941, so that they could reinforce the period setting by making Marlowe a baseball fan following Joe DiMaggio’s famous hitting streak of that year. “David Goodman and I had worked on various scripts and I had felt that I wanted to have this version of Farewell stamped with a time-mark,” Richards said. “Goodman, not me, came up with the Joe DiMaggio hitting streak. By the way, he was a crazy New York Yankees fan and could recite the complete Yankee rosters from 1927 on.” 

The early 40s setting required a top-rate team of designers to recreate the look of the period and Richards’ commissioned two of the best in the business, production designer Dean Tavoularis (who’d already worked on Chinatown, another period detective mystery set in LA) and art director Angelo Graham. “Tavoularis and Graham were my heroes. They understood the period and they found every location, and since we never went into a studio, that was a great asset… [They] had a team of Los Angelinos help find the locations. We even went as far as Long Beach to shoot, and we were lucky enough at the time to find enough areas that were still in the style of the period. Both Tavoularis and Graham were born and raised, I believe, in Los Angeles and they knew the areas to send the scouts to.”

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Robert Mitchum

For a cinematographer to capture his vision of the story, Richards brought in another alumnus from Polanski’s Chinatown, John Alonzo. One of the distinctions of the picture’s cinematography was its use of a film stock known as Fujifilm to give the picture’s neon-soaked hues a faded, stylized look, kind of like a color equivalent of black and white photography. “Having been a photographer before a director, I experimented with different films, trying to find a film that would offer a bit of grain that I felt would achieve the period look. I believe Farewell was the first feature film ever shot with Fujifilm in America. At that time, Fujifilm had been used to make prints to send to theaters. The film stock helped, but the tones were really brought out by Dean Tavoularis, who chose the colors to imitate the feel of black and white.” The combined efforts of Tavoularis, Graham, and Alonzo more than succeeded in establishing the period look. More than any other film adaptation of Chandler’s work, even more than Hawks’ The Big Sleep (which was filmed entirely on studio sets even though the actual locations were just outside the Warner Brothers lot), Richards’ picture looks just like the Los Angeles invoked by its author.

Another invaluable member of the creative team was composer David Shire, whose haunting and evocative jazz score was one of the film’s greatest assets. Like Bernard Herrmann, Shire’s best work was done in the thriller and fantasy genres. Shire’s two most notable credits before Farewell, My Lovely were both thrillers, his minimalist solo piano jazz score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and his throbbing, pulse-pounding jazz/rock fusion score for Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also 1974). Shire’s masterpiece would come a decade after Farewell, his gorgeous symphonic score for Walter Murch’s underrated fantasy Return to Oz (1985).

Shire’s music perfectly enhanced Tavoularis and Graham’s period recreation. Shire also got into the spirit of the mystery genre by providing a major clue to the solution of the puzzle in his score. (And, no, I won’t spoil the mystery by pointing out that clue. You’ll have the see—and hear—the movie for yourself.) In addition, Shire complimented Richards’ homage to the classic film noirs by providing his own homage to their composers. “Mrs. Grayle’s Theme,” a sultry romantic melody for strings and horns, was Shire’s tribute to David Raksin’s iconic theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). The music accompanying the climatic sequence where Marlowe and his client take a nocturnal speedboat ride to an off-limits gambling yacht (cheekily titled “Take Me to Your Lido” on the soundtrack LP), with its emphasis of aggressive, militaristic percussion and blaring horns, was Shire’s homage to Miklos Rozsa, whose scores graced many of the classic film noirs, such as Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947). And best of all was Shire’s “Marlowe’s Theme,” a sad, melancholy blues lament utilizing a background for strings with solos for Dick Nash’s trombone and Ronny Lang’s saxophone, the perfect accompaniment for Robert Mitchum’s Marlowe.

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Robert Mitchum

Mitchum was born to play Philip Marlowe. The suits might’ve been skeptical about Mitchum’s box office appeal at the time, but 1973-75 had been banner years for him. Farewell, My Lovely was the third of three superlative crime thrillers he’d made during that period, following Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Sydney Pollock’s The Yakuza (1974). (Talk about a winning streak….) As riveting as the young feral Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s had been, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 1970s was even more fascinating. He rivaled another iconic Hollywood star, Spencer Tracy, when it came to the art of underacting. Mitchum’s casual, laidback approach also extended to his attitude on the set as well. In a 1971 interview with film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky for his book Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974), justly celebrated filmmaker Siegel described his experience of working with Mitchum on their 1949 collaboration, a RKO low-budget semi-comic crime thriller called The Big Steal. “I discovered that [Mitchum] was a personality actor. He gave out very little in his performance so that when people acted with him, they seemed to be overdoing it. He also put on an act, like Peter Lorre, pretending that he never studied his lines. He’d mumble that he never saw the scene before, stumble through it once, and then do it perfectly… I think he’s much more serious about his work than he lets on. It’s an affectation on his part that he just doesn’t care.”

When I told Richards about Siegel’s description of Mitchum, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s Mitchum exactly.” He then added his own recollections of working with Mitchum. “Mitchum was well-read with a sensational sense of humor. He would pick up on any little peccadillo and make fun of it. Sometimes it was difficult to take, but when you thought carefully about it, it became funny. One day we were running two hours late, and I asked Mitchum to help out and stay late because we had a large group of extras and it would be really expensive to bring them back. He asked me to get one of the ‘Magnificent Seven,’ which is what he called the producers since so many were given credit on the film, to find out if it was okay with the crew to work late. This one producer, not Jerry Bruckheimer, came back five minutes later and said that it would be no problem with the crew. When Mitchum came on the set, he told the crew, ‘Haven’t you guys got homes? Working late? Is that the way you get to stay away from your old lady?’ Everyone in the crew laughed, but one of the grips said, ‘We never said we wanted to work late.’ Mitchum then went up to the producer and said, ‘Get some coffee for me. Make it a little milk, two sugars.’ It was his way of reducing the producer to a messenger in front of the crew.”

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Robert Mitchum

The overall tone of Farewell, My Lovely is set immediately with Shire’s main theme accompanying the opening credits, which are superimposed over actual footage of 1940s Los Angeles tinted in soft jukebox colors. The atmosphere evoked continues with the film’s opening shot: Marlowe looking regretfully through the window of a seedy hotel with a drink in his hand and the hotel’s neon sign reflected in the window pane. (The same image was adapted for the publicity artwork.) The script’s first lines are the beginning of Marlowe’s voiceover narration.

“This past spring was the first that I’d felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had, mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I’d found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old. The only real pleasure I’d had at all was following Joe DiMaggio, belting the apple at an incredible clip for the New York Yankees. Well, it’s the middle of July now and things are worse than they were in the spring. In the spring, I wasn’t stuck in a dingy hotel ducking the police.”

Marlowe decides the time is right to call in some law, specifically his old friend Lieutenant Detective Nulty of the LA Homicide Squad, played by another familiar film noir actor, John Ireland. (Richards: “A real veteran. I never had to say much to Ireland. He completely understood what I was going for.”) As instructed, Nulty comes to the hotel room alone to listen to Marlowe’s story, signaling the start of the extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the film’s 95-minute running time.

“I was working on a twenty-five dollar-a-day breeze trying to locate a fifteen-year-old runaway from Carmel. An honor student, majoring in men. She had all ‘A’s, but none of them on her report card. She had only one other interest, dancing.”

The film fades to a dime-a-dance joint where the customers crowd the floor accompanied by a band and singer performing Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn’s 40s hit “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” Marlowe finds the bratty teenager (Noelle North) there and threatens to take her out of there, “Look, would you like to dance your way out, you wanna walk out, or would you rather be carried out? It makes no difference to me.” She opts for exiting the place without putting up a fuss.

As he takes her to the limo where her wealthy parents await her after missing “a marvelous dinner party” to come get her, they are followed out of the dance hall by Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), the enormous hulk of a man who will soon be Marlowe’s next client. (According to Richards, O’Halloran was “a natural to play Moose. An ex-boxer and defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Being 6 foot 7 and weighing 250 pounds, Moose was a good name for him. He was a natural actor. This was his first movie and Mitchum helped me give him the confidence he needed.” Richards also told me that the rumors that O’Halloran’s lines had been dubbed by another actor were unfounded.)

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Jack O’Halloran & Robert Mitchum

The Moose starts to introduce himself to Marlowe, but a car rides past and a punk in a cowboy hat (Burton Gilliam) inside takes pot shots at them while they duck down behind a bus stop bench. The car speeds away, but the Moose isn’t the least bit fazed. As Marlowe’s narration puts it, “He didn’t bat an eye. Fear wasn’t built into his giant frame.” Moose tells Marlowe that he wants to hire him. He just got out of the stir after a seven-year stretch for armed robbery. (“The Great Bend Bank robbery. Eighty grand. I did it solo. Ain’t that something?”) His first priority is finding his old girlfriend Velma Valento. “I ain’t seen her in seven years, She ain’t wrote in six,” Moose explains. Marlowe decides to play along and accompanies the Moose to the last place Moose knew where Velma worked, a seedy dive called Florian’s on Central Avenue.

Marlowe: “Hey, this is a colored neighborhood, man. It’s been that way for a long time.”[9]

Moose: “Let’s you and me go on up and maybe nibble a couple. They might know something about my Velma.”

Marlowe: “Now how the hell would they know anything? It’s a colored joint.”

Moose: (grabbing Marlowe by the arm, insisting) “Let’s you and me go on up, huh?”

Marlowe: “Okay, but leave off carrying me, will you? I can walk by myself. I’m all grown up now. I go to the bathroom by myself and everything.”

The two of men head into Florian’s to the stares of the exclusively black patrons there. (The wonderfully dingy barroom is one of Tavoularis and Graham’s best touches.) The bar’s bouncer (Dino Washington) tries to chase them out of there (“No white boys here, fellas. Just for the coloreds.”), but when he plants a right cross on the Moose’s chin, it doesn’t register, and the Moose picks him up and flings him across the room onto a table top, completely incapacitating him. The bartender (Harry Caesar) tells the Moose that the bar’s owner Mr. Montgomery, who’s over at the pool table, would be the one to question about his girl. As the Moose saunters over to back section of the bar, Marlowe asks the bartender if he’s armed.

Bartender: “Got me a sawed-off.”

Marlowe: (sarcastic tone) “That’s illegal. Besides, I don’t think that would stop him anyway—“

A shot rings out. Marlowe runs to the back section to find the Moose with his hands wrapped around the neck of the late Mr. Montgomery, kicking away the gun Montgomery had tried to shoot him with. Seeing as it’s a clear case of self-defense, Marlowe advises the Moose to take a powder. Before taking off, the Moose gives Marlowe a retainer fee.

“The fifty bucks felt snug against my ribs. The joint had emptied out, so I called you, Nulty, and had a few drinks. Mr. Montgomery didn’t seem to mind.”

This entire sequence in Florian’s was taken almost verbatim from the opening two chapters of Chandler’s book. The scene had been seriously botched in the previous two film versions. In The Falcon Takes Over, the seedy bar became a swanky nightclub, and in Murder, My Sweet, the seedy bar was still a seedy bar, but, in both cases, the clientele was exclusively white, making the scene a lot less memorable.

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Sylvia Miles & Robert Mitchum

The next step of Marlowe’s investigation is to locate the former owner of Florian’s. At the fleabag across the street from the bar, Marlowe finds Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), a white jazz musician, with a black wife and child, who’d played at Florian’s before his marriage had gotten him driven out of his profession. Ray gives Marlowe the address to the decrepit old house where Florian’s widow, Jessie (Sylvia Miles), lives. (Richards: “Everybody agreed on Sylvia Miles without question.” Miles was the recipient of the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Jesse Florian is an over-the-hill ex-showgirl who usually spends her dreary days listening to the obviously new and expensive radio in her living room, but she gladly accepts the pint of whisky Marlowe brought with him and tries to flirt with him over drinks while he tries to pump her for information.

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Robert Mitchum, John Ireland & Harry Dean Stanton

From there, the trail Marlowe follows in search of Velma leads him to several other people who have connections, either close or marginal, to his quest. Among them are Detective Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), Nulty’s corrupt weasel of an assistant (Richards: “Stanton is by far one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced. He got along great with Mitchum, even though they were adversaries in the film.”); Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary), a fey gigolo who hires Marlowe to help him ransom a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend, and winds up battered to death with a sap after Marlowe is knocked out by the assailants; Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe), a smooth gangster who has lots of political muscle due to the cops and city officials on his payroll (Richards: “A deservedly well thought of actor who didn’t need me to say very much. He too understood what I was going for.”); Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), the tough lesbian madam of one of LA’s most frequented whorehouses[10] (Richards: “She was a person I had once interviewed for a commercial I was shooting and I never forgot her. Kate was a real trooper. I never really thought she was happy to have played a madam, but at the end of the shoot she came up to me and thanked me.”); Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (played by famous pulp novelist and screenwriter Jim Thompson), a wealthy ex-jurist who’s also one of LA’s major players and is noted for his priceless jade collection (Richards: “Thompson was, of course, one of the fathers of film noir, and he was gracious enough to become Judge Grayle for me. Of course I was honored.”); and, most importantly, Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), the Judge’s promiscuous young wife (Richards: “Rampling was Elliot Kastner’s great idea.”).[11]

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Charlotte Rampling

When it was first released, it seemed as though Farewell, My Lovely was going to be a box office disappointment. “It was opened in mid-August,” Richards told me, “possibly one of the worst times to bring out a film. Then it opened in New York to great reviews and business.” “It is, indeed, the most evocative of all the private detective movies we have had in the last few years,” Roger Ebert raved. “Farewell, My Lovely is a great entertainment and a celebration of Robert Mitchum’s absolute originality.” Richards is still particularly proud of Rex Reed’s review, where he said, “Farewell, My Lovely is the kind of movie Bogart would stand in line to see.”[12]

In the end, Farewell, My Lovely did good enough overall business to allow Richards to get approval to make March or Die, an excellent attempt to revive the Foreign Legion adventure genre that failed to repeat Farewell, My Lovely’s success at the box office. After three more pictures, the last being Heat (1986), a disastrous collaboration between Richards and star Burt Reynolds that left both men regretting the experience, and an equally disastrous encounter with Dustin Hoffman over a script Richards hoped to direct, Richards decided to retire from the film industry and moved to New York. [13] 

Another result of Farewell, My Lovely being a surprise hit was Elliott Kastner’s decision to make a third Chandler film with Mitchum repeating his role as Marlowe, the first and only time that an actor has played Marlowe twice for the big screen. This next film would also be a remake, a second filming of The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, Kastner failed to learn the lesson of Richards’ approach and opted once again to give the story a contemporary setting. To add injury to insult, Kastner also decided to save even more money by moving the story from Los Angeles to London and assigned notorious hack Michael Winner to write and direct the picture. Not surprisingly, Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978) opened to universally negative reviews and sank without a trace. To say this turkey came nowhere near the quality of Hawks’ original or Richards’ take on Chandler would be, to quote Joss Whedon’s script for the pilot of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, “an understatement of epic proportions.”

The long-awaited DVD of Farewell, My Lovely, produced by Timeless Media Group and released by Shout! Factory, features a pristine widescreen transfer. The only extras, however, are two original theatrical trailers.

When I first began work on this article, I reached out to my friends in the film historian community for any info they could provide me with. (Special thanks to Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, for pointing me to Dick Richards’ personal website.) I’m happy to report that Richards has been extremely gratified to hear about how many people are still interested in his work and his best film. 

 

[1] I suppose it can be argued that Jonathan Latimer “got there first” with his cynical detective character Bill Crane, but, as entertaining as it is, Latimer’s writing is crude with virtually none of Hammett or Chandler’s nuance and artistry and, therefore, wasn’t even close to matching their influence on future writers.

[2] In tying up The Big Sleep’s loose ends, Chandler had forgotten to provide the solution to one of the murders. He wasn’t aware of his mistake until Hawks sent him a telegram asking who’d committed the murder. Chandler admitted that he didn’t know. A hack filmmaker probably would’ve “corrected” the mistake, but it’s a testament to Hawks’ genius that he decided that, if the murder wasn’t solved in the book, it wouldn’t be solved in his film version.

[3]Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

[4] Also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking.

[5] Unfortunately, this wonderful line is missing from Richards’ film version. In the movie, the sanitarium became a brothel, and, frankly, the equivalent line was pretty lame: “What’s the matter? Cat house got your tongue?”

[6] Although The Long Goodbye (1953) is widely considered to be Chandler’s masterpiece (it’s certainly his most ambitious work), for many others it falls short of Farewell, My Lovely’s succinctness and stronger story. 

[7] While Chandler liked Powell’s Marlowe and thought he looked pretty much as he imagined the character, he never said that he thought that Powell was the screen’s best Marlowe, despite Pauline Kael’s false assertions. Chandler’s personal favorite among the films based on his work in his lifetime was Hawks’ The Big Sleep. As he said in a 1946 letter to his publisher Hamish Hamilton (also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking), “When and if you see the film of The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humour [note the British spelling] that contains that grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter, and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

[8] As a producer, Kastner was a notoriously ruthless bully who alienated many of the people he worked with. The story goes that a British film director was talking to a friend and said, “You’ll never believe who I just saw walking down the street. I saw—pardon my language—Elliott Kastner.”

[9] Modern adherents of political correctness might object to the terms used in the film for blacks and gays, but the language is faithful to the period. Terms more acceptable these days would’ve been incongruous in that 40s setting.

[10] One of Amthor’s henchmen was played by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Richards cast him because “I needed a tough guy and Stallone had the looks and ability.”

[11] The scene introducing Rampling in the film (Helen Grayle descending a circular staircase as she shoots a seductive look at Marlowe) was recreated as a shot-for-shot parody in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), the first entry in the cop genre satires by the team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrams, and David Zucker.

[12] There were some pans, of course. But Jay Cocks’ negative review for Time Magazine is particularly notable for its sheer pettiness. One of Cocks’ complaints was that the Grayle mansion, which Chandler described as “rather gray for California”, was red brick in the movie. He also objected to Marlowe’s line “What a world,” asserting that Chandler would have never used “such a hackneyed phrase.” However, the line “What a world” was in the novel, only it isn’t spoken by Marlowe, but by Marlowe’s semi-girlfriend Anne Riordan, a character who was cut from the movie.

[13] Please pardon the extraordinary length of this endnote, but in answer to my questions about his withdrawal from the Hollywood scene, Richards explained the circumstances to me in detail: “I found a script titled Would I Lie to You? It was optioned, and brought to my attention by Bob Kauffman, a comedy writer; one of his films was Love at First Bite. He felt I should develop the script, which later became Tootsie. I watched myself immerse into the project. I had heard stories from Ulu Grosbard, a director who had a major dispute with Dustin; friends from England, who told me hair-raising stories about the making of Agatha; and Phil Feldman, who was in charge of First Artists/Warner Brothers. Phil, who produced The Wild Bunch and was somebody I highly respected, had lunch with me and told me about the litigation that Dustin brought about and felt that, as a friend, he had to warn me. I told him “Thanks, but quite honestly Dustin would never let me direct Tootsie since he would probably want an Academy Award-winning director to deal with.” I stayed on and did as much as I could as producer of Tootsie. I then realized, unlike the 70s, it was getting tougher to get a film done, even though I had an original script that Bob Kauffman and I felt was going to be easy to get made. It was called Daniel of New York, about a hairdresser from Queens. At the time, we felt John Travolta was our first choice for the lead. We floundered when he didn’t commit immediately. Having four kids who were born in New York that I somehow kept out of the drug culture that invaded the high schools in Hollywood, I didn’t mind having more time with my family. I got a more than generous multi-year contract to direct Wilford Brimley in commercials for Quaker Oats. What was to be a two-year period turned out to be five. I watched my kids grow up in New York and was able to send them to Ivy League schools. I became part of a group of New York film people that included Sydney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Budd Schulberg, Sam Cohn, Peter Maas and Arthur Penn. We all had a certain feeling that didn’t include the idea of living in Hollywood. I have been living in New York and have continued to work steadily. I still enjoy being called upon to fill in for directors when needed. I have also continued to write and, at this time, I hope to bring to Broadway a play I have written about Hollywood called Turnaround.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Woman Chaser” (1999)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

The primordial ooze that the genre we now know as film noir emerged from was the pulp magazine fiction of the 1920s and 30s and the subsequent novels by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich. In fact, the creation of the film noir genre was an accidental result of then-screenwriter John Huston’s decision to do a meticulously faithful adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which had already been filmed twice before (both badly), as his directorial debut. Because it retained Hammett’s uncompromising vision of the criminal world and the people who inhabited it on both sides of the law (a reflection of Hammett’s first-hand experiences as a Pinkerton detective), Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon seemed breathtakingly new and the film’s success at the box office inspired other studios to try their hand at adapting pulp novels.

The works of the aforementioned writers were particularly popular with filmmakers because their relatively linear narratives made them easily adaptable to the film medium. The works of a later generation of pulp writers from the 40s and 50s were far more difficult to adapt to a visual medium because their first-person narratives took place mainly in the heads of their protagonists and, more often than not, these narrators were psychotics and madmen. The writers that fall into this second category include Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. As Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) proves, in the hands of a genuinely inspired filmmaker, it is possible to translate material like this into visual terms. Another filmmaker who managed to pull off this challenge was independent director Robinson Devor in his criminally little-known 1999 adaptation of Willeford’s 1960 novel The Woman Chaser.

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After premiering at the 1999 New York Film Festival, and subsequently screening at other showcase festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest, The Woman Chaser opened to mixed reviews, had a limited distribution, and also turned up on cable via The Sundance Channel and Showtime and on VHS. Then The Woman Chaser pretty much vanished off the face of the earth, not even receiving a DVD release. Just recently, however, thanks to that new-fangled thingamabob known as on-line streaming, Sundance Institute’s Artist Services has been able to make The Woman Chaser available for viewing on iTunes (as of May 20), and also on Netflix or netflix amerika, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (starting on June 15), giving this underrated little gem a well-deserved second chance.

Willeford was a World War II veteran-turned-writer whose work had been filmed twice before, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) and George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990, based on the first of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels). Both of these films have much to recommend them, but neither came as close to capturing Willeford’s style as Devor’s The Woman Chaser. As quoted in an on-line article by Jesse Sublett, Willeford’s widow Betsy concisely articulated what makes Devor’s film stand out from the other film versions of her husband’s work: “I like it best of the three adaptations. It’s uncommercial, the way the book was, and has the courage of its outrageousness.” As Huston did with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Devor wrote the screenplay himself, observing scrupulous fidelity to his source, faithfully duplicated the novel’s story structure scene-for-scene, and taking all of the dialogue almost verbatim from the book. Devor also retained the novel’s original setting and period, Los Angeles circa 1960.

Devor had only one previous film, Angelyne (1995), a documentary about actress and model Angyline Angelyne, under his belt when he decided to make his “real” filmmaking debut with an adaptation of The Woman Chaser. In an interview with Dan Lybarger for Nitrate On-Line, Devor recounted how he obtained a second-hand copy of Willeford’s novel from a couple who sold old mystery and crime books out of their home in Redondo Beach and later filmed his adaptation on weekends while retaining his day job as a vice president of a Los Angeles PR firm. Devor’s first choice for the leading role, Richard Hudson, was Jason Patric, but when Patric wasn’t available, he gladly went with Patrick Warburton because, as he put it, “I knew that we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy.”

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Richard Hudson, the main character and first-person narrator of The Woman Chaser, is, like the protagonist of Willeford’s first novel High Priest of California, a sociopathic used car dealer. A representative of a San Francisco repo tycoon known professionally as “Honest Hal,” Richard has returned to his home town of Los Angeles in order to start an Honest Hal franchise there. He selects a rundown used car lot near the Capitol Building, which towers over the background, and quickly scams the lot’s owner (Eugene Roche) into forking the business over to him. Richard then hires an ex-Army sergeant named Bill Harris (Ron Morgan) to be his manager and adds three burnouts to the staff as salesmen. One sweltering August day without any sales happening, Richard has an inspiration and takes it to Bill in the air-conditioned trailer that serves as the lot’s office.

Richard: “Lift the phone, Cool One, and call a costume company.”

Bill: “Any company in particular?”

Richard: “One that sells Santa Claus suits, complete with beards.”

Bill: “What sizes?”

Richard: The sizes worn by Evans, Cartwell, and Jody-boy, our three star salesmen.”

Bill: “You shouldn’t do it, Chief. It’s the middle of August. Those guys will melt out there.”

Richard: (angrily) “It’s the first day of August and they’ll wear the suits every damned day until I tell them to take them off!” (lowering his voice) “What is more unusual than Santa Claus selling used cars in August?”

Bill: “You’ve got me for the moment.”

Richard: “Nothing! Honest Hal is now Santa Claus in the middle of summer, bringing the good people of the City of Angels goodies in the form of repos. Your repos. Now, get the suits and get our buddy boys into them. Take a half-page in The Times and write some decent copy for a change. I don’t want those repos on the lot by Saturday!” (pause) “Oh, by the way, Cool One, you will inform our white-bearded salesmen that the Santy Claus suits are your idea.”

Richard takes advantage of relocating to LA to reconnect with his mother (Lynette Bennett), a retired ballerina who lives in a decaying mansion straight out of Sunset Boulevard with Richard’s stepfather Leo (Paul Malevich), an ex-film director, and Leo’s teenage daughter Laura (Emily Newman). At his mother’s invitation, Richard moves into the former servants’ quarters above the garage. Like most sociopaths, Richard has a heightened opinion of himself and regards his customers and just about every other member of society as “feebs” who live boringly ordinary lives. One night, Richard has a horrifying epiphany: his life is just as pointless as those of all the people he looks down upon. Sitting alone in his car and weeping to himself, he decides that he must “create something. Anything.”

An avid moviegoer, Richard believes that the one form of art that he’s capable of is filmmaking; he’ll write and direct his very own movie. Richard dreams up a story he titles The Man Who Got Away and writes a one-paragraph synopsis of it: “A truck-driver driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles runs over and kills a child. He tries to get away. He doesn’t.” Richard then takes his idea to Leo, who works out the minimum budget required to make the film. Richard is convinced that he and Leo can raise half of the amount needed. (Richard will embezzle his share from Honest Hal and Leo will hock the valuable painting that is his sole leftover from his glory days.) He begs Leo to contact “The Man” (Ernie Vincent), the head of Leo’s former studio Mammoth Pictures, and see if he’ll put up the other half. After reading Richard’s screenplay, The Man greenlights the project and offers the studio’s resources in lieu of cash to make the picture.

Working on a limited budget and schedule that doesn’t allow for any retakes, Richard completes his movie. But after watching the first cut, he becomes dissatisfied with his creation and decides to edit it down to a length he believes necessary to maintain the film’s tension. By the time Richard and Ruggerio (Max Kerstein), the editor assigned to him by the studio, finish pruning the film to the point Richard wants, they have a movie that runs only 63 minutes. That’s when Ruggerio breaks the bad news to Richard.

Ruggerio: “With the sound effects and the music dubbed in, it will be a little masterpiece and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Unfortunately, we have to put twenty-seven more minutes of film. Three minutes can be taken in titling, but the other twenty-four will have to be plain old padding.”

Richard: “Can we pad twenty-four minutes and still maintain the pace I’ve set, the mood and so on?”

Ruggerio: “Nope. But there’s no choice.”

Richard: “Why is that?”

Ruggerio: “You know that as well as I do, Mr. Hudson. A movie is ninety minutes long. Six full reels. That’s the business.”

Richard: “But unnecessary padding will ruin my movie.”

Ruggerio: “Not really. We can stretch the hell out of that chase down the highway. I’ve got stock stuff I haven’t even looked at yet, reel after reel. Scenic views, wild flowers, traffic jams, all kinds of stuff, and we can fit it in fine. I remember a western once where I stretched a desert chase out twenty-five minutes with long shots of different guys riding on horseback. Nobody knew the difference. People like chases.”

Richard: “The Man Who Got Away isn’t a western.”

Ruggerio: “Yeah, but he doesn’t really get away, either. It’s the same thing as a big chase—“

Richard: (shouting angrily) “Damn it, no! As far as I’m concerned, my movie will run as it is, twenty-seven minutes short! Period. I’m not going to ruin my movie because of some stupid ruling that it has to be ninety minutes long!” 1

Richard digs in his heels, insisting that adding unnecessary footage to his movie would be “like adding three more plates to the Last Supper or an extra wing on the Pentagon.” Unexpectedly, The Man doesn’t reject the movie outright as being too short. In fact, he and Leo have come up with an idea to salvage the film. When Richard learns what will be done with his “masterpiece” against his will, he explodes in rage, taking a perverse, self-destructive revenge on all those he believes have double-crossed him. (Re: the title, while Richard does his share of exploiting and abusing many of the female characters who are unfortunate enough to cross his path, it’s hardly the main focus of the story. Willeford’s original title for his book was The Director, but Newstand Library, the original publisher, thought that The Woman Chaser would be a more appropriately lurid title for a paperback pulp novel.)

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Devor not only got the 1960 period details (costumes, cars, props, locations) down perfectly, but, aided by Kramer Morgenthau’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography, he also was successful in recreating the look of such low-budget independent films of the period as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Also contributing to the period authenticity was Daniele Luppi’s music score, utilizing recordings by jazz artists of the time like Les Baxter, Chico O’Farrell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, and Jimmy Smith.

Typical of Willeford’s work, much of his novel The Woman Chaser is set inside Richard Hudson’s psyche, with long, rambling soliloquies from Richard detailing how he observes the rest of the world, his patronizing contempt for everyone he comes in contact with, and his philosophy based on his belief that movies mirror real life. Devor retained many of these soliloquies and filmed them in ways that provide visual metaphors for Richard’s life-as-film outlook. Some of the monologues are done as voice-overs accompanying either the action or close-ups of Richard looking straight at the camera with the glare of a movie projector backlighting him from behind and bathing him in a halo-like glow. Other monologues consist of Richard in a dark room breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with Richard’s head in the far background of the extreme left of the screen while the turning reels of a 16mm projector and its projected light frame Richard in the foreground.

Since the story is told entirely from Richard Hudson’s POV, Patrick Warburton appears in every single scene and he rises to the occasion by giving the performance of his career. (People who know Warburton mainly for his work in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement will be in for a big surprise when they see The Woman Chaser.) The power in Warburton’s performance lies in his underplaying the role rather than going for the over-the-top approach that most actors take when playing maniacs. Warburton plays Richard as a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off, a passive-aggressive type just barely suppressing his inner rage and frustration while hiding behind a facade of macho hipness. In an interview with Jeffrey M. Anderson for the website Combustible Celluloid, Warburton gave his personal take on the character: “He’s just a brutish, self-serving ass. There’s something very boyish about Hudson. He’s dangerous and he scares you, but then there are times when he’s just like a pathetic little boy. Maybe that’s why you can empathize with him a little bit, ’cause you just see what a pathetic creature he is and how lost he is.”

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For the rest of his cast, Devor went with non-experienced actors, deliberately avoiding professionals. As he explained to Lybarger: “To me, the ultimate failure in a lot of movies—and a lot of people will agree with me—is that a lot of the actors look like they’re in the 90s or 2000. They’re just too good-looking; they’re just too coifed. Their bodies are just too cut, and there are no flaws. That’s not the kind of look people had in the past, and it’s not appropriate for this project. My formula for this when I was casting—God love the actors; they’re wonderful, attractive people as contemporary human beings—but I wanted Hudson to be this kind of normal-looking guy surrounded by these grotesques. I wanted to stack the deck and to make his bullying almost more of a mismatch. I wanted to make Leo so unaggressive and so unthreatening that, when he ultimately betrays Richard, it’s very absurd. It’s difficult to find somebody. A lot of people would come in, and they’d be character actors playing [Leo] like a wacky intellectual. This non-actor [Paul Malevich] was a very down-to-earth sweet guy. He was a real person. He allowed us to film him in unflattering ways. There were very few self-conscious actors on the set, which was great.” Ironically, this paralleled the way Richard Hudson decides to cast his movie when Leo states that their marginal budget provides a pitifully low amount for the actors’ salaries. As Richard tells Leo in Willeford’s novel, “To do my movie, it has to be done with nobodies… If I can get actors nobody knows, they’ll believe in the characters as they see them on the screen.”

Although it played in a few key cities (New York, LA, Austin, San Francisco) in mid-2000, The Woman Chaser never received a general nationwide release. It didn’t help that many reviewers (including the New York Times’ Stephen Holder) dismissed it as “a film noir spoof,” which only shows how little most mainstream critics know about film noir. 2 (Despite an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout The Woman Chaser, it’s no “spoof,” it’s the real deal.) In the years since, The Woman Chaser has earned more respect and developed a cult following. In a Film Noir of the Week review, Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) praised The Woman Chaser for being “faithful to its beautifully seedy genre while feeling like an entirely unique experience” and characterized it as “an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated.”

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The jury’s still out on the merits of streaming vs. discs. (I personally share my World Cinema Paradise colleagues Stuart Galbraith IV and Stephen Bowie’s preference for the physical medium. If you own a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray, you don’t have to worry about the “streaming rights” expiring.) But steaming can atone for a multitude of sins if it brings a little-seen wonder like The Woman Chaser to a new audience. Think of it as The Film That Almost Got Away. But didn’t. (Now when the hell is this movie gonna get its long-overdue DVD and Blu-Ray release?)

[1] Actually, Willeford betrayed some unfamiliarity with the film industry here. Although they were becoming increasingly rare by the 1960s, there were still second-features being released with running times well below 90 minutes. For example, Harvey Hart’s Dark Intruder, a 59-minute long unsold pilot for a television horror series produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, was released by Universal Pictures as the bottom half of a double-bill with William Castle’s I Saw What You Did in July 1965. Also, a reel of 35mm film contained 10-minutes worth of footage, not 15-minutes, so a 90-minute film would be nine reels, not six. Nevertheless, Willeford’s fictional “90-minutes rule” was necessary for plot purposes and Devor made the right call to retain it as is. Nice in-joke: The Woman Chaser runs exactly 90-minutes.

[2] One of the reasons that it’s almost impossible to do an acceptable parody of film noir is that most great film noirs (such as The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil) contain a great deal of intentional humor and most attempts at spoofing the genre fail to be nearly as funny.