When Hollywood Communists Adrian Scott, a producer, and Edward Dmytryk sought material that was both entertaining and capable of making their anti-capitalist points, they searched no further than noir writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s hyper-cynical portrayal of a murdering, drug-taking upper class, corrupt brutal cops and all of the above’s business relationship with LA’s criminal element must have seemed perfect for communist agitprop. The result of Scott and Dymtryk’s labors was Murder My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Chandler’s second novel, Farewell My Lovely.
In it, an unshaven and punch-drunk Dick Powell weaves through a maze of quacks capitalizing on neurotic rich women, former showgirls murdering to retain the position they’ve married into, and ex-cons duped and then framed because of their romanticism.
Three years after the film’s release, the Left promoted Chandler as representing a victimized left, personified by private eye Phillip Marlowe in his novels, overwhelmed by capitalist society.
But the real Raymond Chandler was worlds away from being the proletarian writer of hopeful leftists. Courtesy of his prolific letter writing, we have his documented response to Marxist readings of his novels: “Marlowe has the social conscience of a horse…P. Marlowe and I don’t despise the upper classes because they take baths and have money; we despise them because they are phony.”
This phoniness did not, however, move Chandler into sympathy with Communism. With the two filmmakers in particular and their ideology in general, he professed no sympathy, even when Marxism was placed in juxtaposition with Catholicism. Indeed, his comparison of the two found greater fault with communism: “[The Catholic Church] proselytizes constantly, but it does not shoot people in the back of the head because they are forty-eight hours behind the party line.”
Nor had his former job as an oil executive in the Tea Pot Dome decade sent him to a Party recruiting station, or even moved him toward favoring socialist ownership of private enterprise: “I think a bunch of bureaucrats can abuse the power of money just as ruthlessly as a bunch of Wall Street bankers, and far less competently.”
To be fair, the Left’s misperception about Chandler occurred in other quarters as well. Basing their physical impressions of the author on their readings of his tough guy novels, Director Billy Wilder and Paramount executives were expecting a thirtyish writer with a cigarette; who showed up instead for the scriptwriting assignment was a fiftyish public school intellectual in tweeds. But at least their errors were based on physical impressions. The Left took Chandler’s vision of capitalism running amok as the total package, perhaps forgetting that a writer of such uncompromising honesty toward corruption could also apply it toward communism.
But perhaps their misreading was based on generalizations about mystery writers. For over a decade, the CPUSA watched members such as Dashiell Hammett and sympathizers such as James Cain bash capitalism but put their cynicism on hold about the Soviet Union.
Or perhaps, by putting the Chandler method in practice of delving deeper, something more damning than a lazy reading was involved. Basing their views exclusively on his novels doesn’t really let the Left off the hook. A more discerning reading reveals that although in Chandler’s world everyone is either buying someone or being bought off, it is not a cell or labor union or New Deal agency that is weaving past the corruption and solving the crime; it is an individual. This theme of individuals battling forces through non-collective action is more part of the American mainstream than any scheme promoted by the CPUSA of this period.
In sum, the Left, as when they looked East, saw only what they wanted to with Chandler. And as with the Soviet Union, the information about Chandler was always there; they just had to be willing to look for it.