The Big Sleep

BigSleepPenguinI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.

Robin of Sherwood

What a magnificent piece of TV Robin of Sherwood was/is. Rewatching its first two series recently, I was struck by how much it creates its own special atmosphere, its own world. I know this has to be true of every successful TV series, and by being set in a specific historical period, complete with Medieval costumes and crumbling Norman-conquest era castles, Robin of Sherwood certainly has a shortcut to establishing a visual signature that programmes set in modern times don’t have, but the series works its magic in other ways, too. At times, it’s as much mood-piece as it is drama, set in a timeless realm of myth and imagination as much as it is in recognisable English history. And quite appropriately, too, for the retelling of an oft re-told tale, and one which takes the resilience of myth and memory over mortality, and the old ways over the new — its credo is “Nothing is forgotten” — as one of its tenets of belief.

A big chunk of its atmosphere, of course, comes from Clannad’s enchanting soundtrack, which mixes the ancient (folky & medieval-sounding instruments) with the modern (the occasional bit of soft synth). The fact that it reuses a stock set of pieces, rather than (as was the practice with, say, Doctor Who) having a completely original score for each episode, just goes to emphasise this timelessness, as each piece — “Battles” for action sequences, “Strange Land” for mounting tension, “Lady Marian” for romantic bits, and so on — both adds to your anticipation of the particular atmosphere of each scene, and gives the feeling that this is a replaying of an ancient set of mythical, archetypal events. Sometimes a single sound effect does all the work, as with the weird, echoey wolf cry (usually accompanied by a sudden camera zoom) that announces moments of supernatural surprise; and that blurring of the distinction between soundtrack and ambient sound adds to the feeling that this is a magical land we’re in, one as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” as the island in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Plus, the music is just a damned good listen on its own.

The show mostly takes place in a quite limited set of characteristic locations, each one with its own distinct feel. There’s the lush leafy greens of the outlaws’ hideouts (it’s never winter in Sherwood, only timeless summer), the heavy stone walls and murky interiors of the Sheriff’s castle, and the muddy peasant messiness of forest-clearing villages. These three settings must make up about 90% of the locations used in Robin of Sherwood, as if this were a three-tiered world, like the various myths (Norse and Christian, for instance) which have three levels or sub-worlds — the Good Place (Heaven), the Bad Place (Hell), and the battleground (Earth) — which their heroes move between, fighting their endless fights.

So much of the dialogue of this series has stuck with me (admittedly, through many viewings over the years). Robin’s counter-curse to the bullying Templar knight: “Evil to him who thinks evil”. His first line to Maid Marian: “You’re like a May morning.” That mad old man in the dungeons: “Feet first — it’s the only way.” And the wonderful comedy of the Sheriff and his sidekick Gisburne (Gisburne: “The halfwit, my lord!” Sherrif: “Which one?”), occasionally joined by the self-satisfied (but cannily fearful of paganism’s powers) Abbot Hugo (“Leviticus? Leviticus!”). You can’t help but love the Sheriff. He’s the ultimate pantomime villain, and Nickolas Grace revels in wringing vitriolic sarcasm from every line (“It’s not a celebration, it’s a wedding!”). (My favourite Sheriff line has to be when he’s driven to mad hallucinations in “The Children of Israel”: “Leeches! See the leeches!” I see them, Nickolas, I see them!)

Most of all I love the way the series took on the supernatural, becoming a sword & sorcery version of the Robin Hood myth, with distinct Hammer Horror flavourings (particularly in the Baron de Belleme and “Seven Swords of Wayland” episodes). Robin of Sherwood takes place in a world where both paganism and Satanism have a real, magical power. (Oddly, Christianity doesn’t. Perhaps, being the established religion, it has enough worldly power not to need it. In the series, it’s seen as the religion of the conquerors, not the peasants and outlaws, a religion of silver crucifixes, gold chalices, heavily be-ringed bishops and gothic churches, not the woods and fields.)

It all comes together to create a timeless world in which the series tells its stories — a world that is part historical, but a good thick slice of myth & fantasy, too. “Nothing is forgotten”, is both the outlaws’ credo and their ultimate defence against the overwhelming might of their oppressors; but it could just as easily refer to the show itself, or the myth it’s retelling — for us, it’s the stories of Robin Hood that will never be forgotten.

Moving Zen by C W Nicol

Writing about Robert K Elder’s The Film That Changed My Life recently made me think about books that have changed mine (in that wordlessly changing way I wrote about), and the one that came most immediately to mind was Moving Zen by C W Nicol. Because I’ve never had much in the way of storage space, my personal library has seen a lot of books come and go, but Moving Zen (given to me as a Christmas present by my brother Garen back in about 1985) is one of the few that have stayed with me. Of course, I first read it because I was heavily into Karate at the time, but it’s the one Karate book I’ve kept, in part because it tells a story that isn’t just about Karate, but something far more universal.

First published in 1975, Moving Zen is C W Nicol’s memoir of the time he went to Japan (in the early sixties) to learn Karate. “I wanted it to be the simple story of a journey from white to black belt”, he says (in an excellent two-part interview which can be found online here (part 1, part 2), and which makes a wonderful afterword to reading Moving Zen), but really it’s about a young man finding a place (both inwardly and outwardly) where he truly feels at home.

The start of his first Karate lesson at the Japan Karate Association’s dojo in Yotsuya is the perfect illustration of this. A Westerner with only a smattering of Japanese, he at first finds the very atmosphere makes an outsider of him:

“Silence. I tried to draw myself into it, but it excluded me, and I held my breath lest I should make a noise, and hovered, uncertain, on the edge of it, for I did not know, and would not know for some time, exactly what we were doing.” — p. 9

And outside the dojo:

“Crowded Tokyo magnified my loneliness. In language and life-style, I lived apart from the people. I had not yet truly found a place to belong. Coming off an Arctic expedition, with its close and isolated companionship, did not equip me emotionally for dealing with huge, alien crowds, or for the many people I had to know, greet, and be friendly with.” — p. 18

As well as learning a martial art, and coming to understand a new culture, Moving Zen‘s subtitle, “Karate as a Way to Gentleness”, points to another conflict Nicol faces, this time with something alien inside himself, a raging temper he was prey to, which had led to him being involved in street-fights as a youngster, and he deals with the paradox of using a martial art as a means of learning to control these urges to violence, eloquently.

In fact, one of the joys of this book is just how well-written it is. Always clear and simple in style, it evokes the Japan that Nicol comes to know in a very Japanese way, using brief, accurate but expressive strokes to describe small incidents, sights and experiences:

“Outside, in the yard of a nearby farmhouse, a little grey-haired old lady bent over a broom, busily sweeping the fallen leaves of a gnarled and ancient persimmon tree. Dark clouds scudded by, over the curves of the eaves. And then came a gust of wind, and a thousand leaves clung to the wet roof, and tears came to my eyes, and my scalp tightened, and the wet leaves and the roof suddenly brought an understanding to me of something that was pure Zen, and therefore wordless, and Sonako and I went home for supper.” — p. 90

It’s these passages that provide some of the most moving episodes in the book, particularly in the final chapters where Nicol looks back on the many experiences he’s had in this once-alien country and realises how far he’s come, not just in terms of learning Karate (and earning his black belt), but in terms of ridding himself of his “foreign-bachelor isolation” and finding a way to truly belong:

“I was part of a family now… Each day was an object lesson in living, and I had so much to learn.” — p. 68

“It was as if the surface were calmer now, and I could begin to see beneath it, coming face to face with the warrior philosophies of Japan… I knew now that I had not come to Japan on a wild goose chase. It was all here.” — p. 100

Is a knowledge of Karate necessary to enjoy the book? I don’t think so, as Nicol was writing at a time when few Westerners would have known much about the subject, and he takes time to introduce the various concepts as he comes across them — mostly those relating to the spirit of Karate, the paradoxical heart of Bushido that turns a fighting method into a discipline, an art, a means of “perfecting one’s character”, rather than becoming some sort of killing machine. But this is certainly not an instructional manual, and the passages that explain aspects of the people and culture of Japan are as frequent as those about the martial arts. For me, there’s something about the very way this book is written, a calmness and clarity in its language, a simplicity in its insight into the many paradoxes of Japanese culture, and Karate in particular, that reveals how deeply Nicol was changed by the experiences he describes.

Doing a web-search, I was surprised to learn that C W Nicol is quite a celebrity in Japan, and has written more than a hundred books, not to mention plays and scripts for TV. He continues to practise Karate, and to follow his other passion, for the environment. His official website’s here, but alas (for me), it’s in Japanese. Amazon lists a couple of other English language books by him, though, so I may well be checking those out in the near future.