Moving Pictures
May 21, 2024, 06:27AM

When Billy Wilder Met Raymond Chandler

The director sparked a brief but fruitful screenwriting career for the writer.

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In 1943, renowned writer/director Billy Wilder wanted to make a gritty film noir. He was under contract to Paramount Pictures and told studio brass that his dream project was James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. A studio bidding war occurred and Paramount lost out on the story rights to MGM. Undaunted, Wilder shifted his attention to another story by Cain. It was called Double Indemnity and was included in a collection of novellas titled Three of a Kind.

The story is about an insurance salesman who falls for an alluring femme fatale. The woman purchases a life insurance policy from the salesman with a “double indemnity” clause that doubles the insurance payout if the woman’s husband dies. The wife convinces the salesman to help her kill her husband but the plan goes awry when the salesman’s colleague, an insurance investigator, becomes suspicious.

Wilder’s screenwriting colleague at the time was Charles Brackett. Brackett felt the story was “too grim” and dropped out of the project. Needing a co-writer with experience in the world of crime stories, Wilder turned to novelist Raymond Chandler, whose first novel The Big Sleep (1939) achieved critical acclaim.

Chandler was the originator of the hardboiled school of detective fiction. Though he didn’t begin writing until his 40s, his books quickly gained notoriety. His writing was filled with dense atmosphere, witty dialogue and memorable descriptions. In The Big Sleep he details the moment detective Philip Marlowe meets a new client in a greenhouse: The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.

Chandler was a misanthrope who eschewed parties and social gatherings. He preferred staying home with his wife Cissy who was 18 years his senior. Cissy suffered from health issues and Chandler became her caregiver. He spent his days writing and his nights drinking gin gimlets (the same as his alter ego Philip Marlowe). Like his father, Chandler became a functioning alcoholic.

Unlike Chandler, Wilder was a cultivated gentleman who thrived in social circles. Born in Austria, he became a screenwriter in Berlin. He was Jewish and when Hitler came to power in 1933, Wilder knew his German film days were over. He moved initially to Paris and then escaped to Los Angeles in 1934. He became a Hollywood screenwriter and was nominated for an Oscar in 1939 for co-writing Ninotchka. He made his American directing debut with the 1942 comedy The Major and the Minor.

In 1943, Wilder read Chandler’s stories from Black Mask magazine. One line in particular stood out: Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool. Wilder, who viewed himself as a screenplay whisperer of sorts, offered Chandler $750 a week for 10 weeks as a co-writer. Chandler read the Double Indemnity novel and told Wilder, “It’s absolute shit.” But he was broke so he took the job. (Chandler was stringing tennis rackets for money at the time.)

Chandler had never written a screenplay. He wrote his novels slowly, revising each line until it was a gem. This was a problem since screenwriting required speed and efficiency. Wilder and Chandler immediately clashed. Chandler preferred writing alone. Wilder’s process involved pacing the room, bantering aloud as ideas flowed from his mind to his tongue. To Chandler this wasn’t writing, but talking. Wilder expected Chandler to take dictation. Chandler resented taking orders from a European immigrant who was 18 years his junior. (Chandler was 55; Wilder was 37.) Chandler also hated having to show up at the studio writers building at nine each morning like a working stiff.

Chandler knocked out an 80-page first draft in 10 days. Wilder thought it was garbage. He critiqued the novelist for not knowing anything about screenplay structure. Chandler was so offended he resigned. He wrote a complaint letter to producer Joe Sistrom. Wilder later recalled the letter to director Cameron Crowe in the book Conversations With Wilder: He couldn’t work with me anymore because I was rude; I was drinking; I was [fornicating]; I was on the phone with four broads, with one I was on the phone—he clocked me—for twelve and a half minutes; I had asked him to pull down the Venetian blinds… without saying please.

Sistrom talked Chandler off the roof and convinced Wilder to be more sensitive. The two men resumed writing together though their relationship grew more strained. Chandler, who always wore a suit and tie, objected to Wilder’s casual dress. When Wilder left the office, Chandler swigged whiskey. Wilder later said, “I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.”

To Wilder, Chandler’s fatal flaw was viewing screenwriting as real writing. Wilder saw things differently: A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent; but also a sense of how to manage it, so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.

By the end of their time together, Wilder and Chandler developed a working rhythm. “Chandler would come up with a good image and I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens.” Wilder later credited Chandler for teaching him “what real dialogue is…He was a peculiar guy, but I was glad to have worked with him.”

Double Indemnity remains one of the great contributions to film noir cinema. At the film’s premiere in Westwood, the audience gave a standing ovation. Chandler wasn’t there to see it. But author James Cain was. He told Wilder it was the only film made from his books that he ever liked.

Wilder resumed writing with Charles Brackett. His next film was The Lost Weekend about an alcoholic writer. It was Wilder’s attempt “to try to explain Chandler to himself.” The Lost Weekend won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1945 Oscars.

Chandler never made peace with Hollywood. In a 1945 article in The Atlantic, he wrote: Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made. The publisher and the play producer are showmen too; but they exploit what is already made. The showmen of Hollywood control the making—and thereby degrade it.

Chandler went on to write two screenplays for Paramount: The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Similar to his experience with Wilder, Chandler grew to despise Hitchcock though the resulting film was a critical and box office success.


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