A few weeks ago, Turner Movie Classics aired the 1971 noir film, Chandler, starring Leslie Caron and Warren Oates, a tie-in perhaps with the its release as a new Warner Archive DVD . As one of the log lines describes it: “A private eye (Oates) is hired to follow a mobster’s former mistress (Caron).” Several notable noir icons are present, including Gloria Grahame, Charles McGraw and Royal Dano. What is left unsaid is that the script used the same basic outline as Raymond Chandler’s final completed work, PLAYBACK.
The movie does not live up to its promise. But, for me at least, it holds fond memories. I’d been a resident of Southern California for about a week when I became marginally involved in its production.
A few film notes: its producer, Michael Laughlin, had put together several very successful films in London, and was married to it star, Leslie Caron. Paul Magwood was a first-time director. The fledgling screenwriter was John Sacret Young, who would later win an assortment of awards and accumulate lots of loot for creating and producing the television series, CHINA BEACH. The script was not an official adaptation of PLAYBACK, but, by naming the private eye Chandler and then releasing the movie with that title, they were not exactly hiding its source. An homage, then.
Through a friend of Magwood’s, I got to sit in on meetings, meet the participants and even appear as an extra in a sequence at the art deco train station in downtown L.A. where Oates, as Chandler, follows Caron, the female in jeopardy. All great fun, and fascinating. But it wasn’t exactly putting food on my table.
As I went on to writing jobs that were lucrative, if not as entertaining, I followed the film’s progress in the trade publications. There was a screening of the rough cut that the then head of the studio, James Aubrey, didn’t like at all. He ordered changes, clarifications. He didn’t like those either.
Finally, one morning when Magwood showed up at the studio with his editor, he discovered that Aubrey had locked up the film. He, his editor and Laughlin had lost control of their film. It was cut and reshaped by nameless others. A subplot was shot and inserted. Key bits of dialogue were deleted.
Laughlin and Magwood took out an ad in the trades telling other filmmakers to beware of Aubrey. This did not endear them to the studio head. The film, released on the bottom half of a double bill, was not an overwhelming hit. It nipped Magwood’s directing career in the bud, severely damaged Caron’s and Laughlin’s standing and curtailed Oates’ chances of moving up from notable character actor to leading man.
Would the movie have been better received if Aubrey had allowed it to be released in its original state? Who knows. As it is, some reviews consider it a precursor to Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (itself not a hit at the box office, but at least a succes d’estime), with praise for its “lack of cinematic grandeur,” and with nods to Oates’ performance.
In any case, shortly after its release, Aubrey was unceremoniously given his walking papers from the studio.
I doubt any of them thought too fondly of CHANDLER. But I do. Because of it, I became friends with Michael Laughlin. Many years later, while working on one of his film projects, I spent the winter at St. Barth’s with him and his new family. The latter included a bright and pleasantly precocious twelve-year-old girl who became the inspiration for the teenage sleuth Serendipity Dahlquist in the mystery that launched my career as a novelist SLEEPING DOG.
Hooray for Hollywood!