The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Straight Man

[Warning: contains (very mild) spoilers for The Big Sleep and The Little Sister.]

Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is associated today with film noir and the hard-boiled:

Marlowe is a private detective, a smart and tough lone wolf with a sense of honor.

What is lost in this summary is Marlowe's stern and judgemental morality. He has a keen eye for police corruption and brutality (like that of Captain Gregorius in The Long Goodbye), but his real disgust is reserved for the pointless corruption and joyless debauchery of the rich and idle. In The Big Sleep:
"I do all this for twenty-five bucks a day--and maybe just a little to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood, in the thought that his blood is not poison, and that although his two little girls are a trifle wild, as many girls are these days, they are not perverts or killers."

Even when he knows the truth. Or, most devastatingly, in The Little Sister:
"Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blase and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture mover in a sweaty undershirt."
More than his homophobia or residual sexism, it is his relentless and unforgiving moral evaluation that marks Marlowe, today, as a relic of a past time. He sees the parade of pornographers and pimps not as merely harmful, but as irremediably depraved. But all this is a necessary part of him. Without the possibility of condemnation, there can be no meaningful praise; only Marlowe's harshness gives weight to his eulogy for the fallen villain of The Lady in the Lake:
Something that had been a man.