"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” ―Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
This quote is a pretty good example of why the work of mystery novelist Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) endures, even as the world that inspired him is gone. The simile about the tarantula feels fresh, even surprising. It practically makes you laugh aloud as soon as you read it.
I was reminded of the novel in which this quote appears last night. In channel-surfing, I came across, on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Murder, My Sweet, the 1944 adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely. I came in about 15 minutes after the film started and stayed to the end. Because I missed the initial scenes, I have no idea if screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk used this line. More’s the pity if they didn’t.
I’m not sure exactly how true the film, a pioneering example of film noir, remained to the book. But it’s certainly the case that Hollywood couldn’t get enough of Chandler in the 1940s. According to TCM’s Robert Osborne, no less than four actors played hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe within a four-year period: Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake), George Montgomery (The Brasher Doubloon, an adaptation of The High Window), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep), and Powell.
It’s not hard to see why Hollywood was attracted to his work, even when the plots got so complicated they almost became preposterous. It’s that voice: thoroughly streetwise, completely wised-up about the human propensity toward sin, especially when exhibited by the powerful—and, perhaps for that reason, on the side of the underdog. It sounds less like someone from Los Angeles, Marlowe’s ostensible turf, than from the mean streets of New York in the Thirties and Forties—maybe an Irish-American detective, now freelancing.
The surname of Chandler’s now-immortal private eye would seem to contradict that idea, given the author’s Anglophilia and consequent acknowledgement here of another writer who brought drama and poetry to terrible violence, Christopher Marlowe. But Chandler’s mother was Irish, and in “Try the Girl,” a short story from which he cannibalized much of Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s hero sports a different name: Ted Carmady.
(The image accompanying this post, from Murder, My Sweet, features Powell on the right as Marlowe and, on the left, Mike Mazurki as the “inconspicuous” gangster, the appropriately named “Moose” Malone.)