Archive for Raymond Chandler

The Sad Tale of Veronica Lake

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by telescoper

A few weeks ago I indulged myself by watching, during the same evening, a couple of class examples of Film Noir, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia The first of these is based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and the second has an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Both feature the same leading actors, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, The Glass Key being the first film featuring this pairing.

There’s a pragmatic reason why Paramount Studios chose Veronica Lake to star with Alan Ladd, namely her size. Alan Ladd was quite a small man, standing  just a shade under 5′ 5″ tall, and the casting directors consequently found it difficult to locate a leading lady who didn’t tower over him. Veronica Lake, however, was only 4′ 11″ and fitted the bill nicely:

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

It wasn’t just her diminutive stature that propelled Veronica Lake to stardom; she was also very beautiful and managed to project a screen image of cool detachment which made her a perfect choice as femme fatale, a quintessential ingredient of any Film Noir. She’s absolutely great in both the movies I watched, and in many more besides. Her looks and screen presence turned her into a true icon -a vera icon in fact- appropriately enough, because the name Veronica derives from that anagram. The cascade of blond hair, often covering one eye, became a trademark that later found its way into, for example, the character of Jessica Rabbit in the animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

However, her success as a movie star was short-lived and Veronica Lake disappeared from Hollywood entirely in the 1950s. She was rediscovered in the 1960s working as a waitress in a downmarket New York bar, and subsequently made a film called Footsteps in the Snow but it disappeared without trace and failed to revitalize her career. She died in 1973.

So why did an actress of such obvious talent experience such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Sadly, the answer is a familiar one: problems with drink and drugs, struggles with mental illness, a succession of disastrous marriages, and a reputation for being very difficult to work with. Her famous screen persona seems largely to have been a result of narcotics abuse. “I wasn’t a Sex Symbol, I was Sex Zombie”, as she wrote in her biography. She appeared to be detached, because she was stoned.

It’s a sad tale that would cast a shadow over even over the darkest Film Noir but though she paid a heavy price she still left a priceless legacy. Forty years after her death, all that remains of her is what you can see on the screen, and that includes some of the greatest movies of all time.

What, no Hammett?

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on October 20, 2013 by telescoper

I just took a break from work to have a look through the Sunday newspapers. In the Independent on Sunday I found an artincle about a new poll by the Crime Writers’ Association, which invites the public to vote on the best crime novel ever written.

I’m not going to quibble with the entire shortlist of ten books as such things are never going to generate a consensus. I will, however, admit being a bit annoyed with it for two reasons.

The first reason is the presence on the list of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Chandler was a fine novelist. This particular book, though, is very far from his best work. It is notable for being the first novel to feature his detective Philip Marlowe, but the plot has too many gaps for it to be considered a great example of the genre. Perhaps the shocking nature of the plot, which revolves around drugs, pornography and sexual exploitation, has drawn attention away from these flaws. Anyway it wouldn’t be in my top ten. Chandler’s other book on the shortlist, The Long Goodbye is another story – it’s completely marvellous and thoroughly deserves its place on the list.

The second reason is the absence from the selection of any of the great novels by Dashiell Hammett. The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, Red Harvest and of course The Maltese Falcon are all contenders, in my opinion.

I just can’t understand why the Crime Writers’ Association picked an inferior Chandler over a brilliant Hammett.

Incidentally I don’t think Raymond Chandler would have disagreed. He was well aware of the failings of The Big Sleep and of Hammett he wrote:

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

There. I’ve said my piece. At least Hammett is on the list for the best Crime Writer. And by way of protest I’m going to have a glass of wine and watch a DVD of The Glass Key starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a classic film noir adapted from Hammett’s great novel.