Friday, October 24, 2008

Faulkner goes noir

The story goes that when Howard Hawks found out Ernest Hemingway was having money troubles he provocatively claimed that he could take Hemingway's worst novel and make a good movie out of it. Hemingway took the bait and asked what that would be. Hawks named To Have and Have Not, a 1937 novel about a blackmarket smuggler who runs human contraband between Key West and Cuba. Hemingway sold him the rights and in late 1943 veteran scenarist Jules Furthman wrote the first draft. According to Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner, Warner Brothers balked at Furthman's treatment for political reasons. "A film about an American who smuggled rum and revolutionaries between Havana and Key West, and in which the Cuban flag was raised, would deeply embarrass the government." Hawks brought in his friend William Faulkner to do a re-write. Faulkner changed the location to French Martinique and added an anti-Vichy element which would go over better with studio execs and wartime audiences. More importantly he condensed two female characters into one. "Slim" would be the star-making role for leggy 19-year-old Lauren Bacall. Her pairing with Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart would create one of the great movie duos onscreen and an enduring romance off. Has any actor looked at a woman the way Bogie looks at Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep? I think not.

To Have and Have Not was well received, though most of the credit went to Hawks. Still, it was a positive experience for Faulkner after a long season of what he considered hackwork. The Big Sleep was a labyrinthian 1939 crime novel by Raymond Chandler that introduced one of the archetypical characters of American fiction -- Philip Marlowe. Jack Warner was eager for another vehicle to showcase Bogie & Bacall, so Hawks successfully pitched the idea of adapting Chandler. Of course Bogart would play Marlowe and Bacall would play the femme fatale. Bogart's Marlowe would be one of many -- and arguably the greatest -- screen interpretations of this character. I also like Elliot Gould's early 70s take on Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Hawks again enlisted Faulkner to write the screenplay (with newcomer Leigh Brackett riding shotgun) and gave him his marching orders, "It's not supposed to be a great work of art...just keep it going."

As they began dramatizing this story about Philip Marlowe, Chandler's tough private eye, Leigh Brackett found herself completely in awe of her co-worker in the adjoining office. He laid out the work in alternate sections, and she would remember his turning out "masses of material, but his dialogue did not fit comfortably the actors' mouths and was often changed on the set. Amazingly (to me, after breaking my teeth on some of his novels) he was a master at story-construction." One morning when she entered his office he offered her a cup of the very black and strong coffee from the pot he kept hot. She noticed, to her surprise, that he was reading the Bible. Although he could well have picked it up to read the New Testament for the fable, what he mentioned was the Old Testament. He smiled. "I always enjoy reading about the rainbow-colored backside of God," he told her.*

The world inhabited by Philip Marlowe was miles apart from Yoknapatawpha County, but Faulkner took to the material. Hawks, Faulkner and Brackett struggled mightily to make Chandler's convoluted plot intelligible to audiences (I've watched it several times and still haven't figured it out), but any failings were more than made up for by the terrific dialogue and performances. How much of the finished product was Faulkner's is hard to say, but no doubt he made a huge contribution to one of the greatest "noir" detective films ever. In 1997 The Big Sleep was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

As interesting as Faulkner's time in Hollywood was, we all know his genius lay elsewhere. So did he. While he worked on The Big Sleep he told Meta Carpenter, "Sometimes I think if I do one more treatment or screenplay, I'll lose whatever power I have as a writer." In December of 1944 he finished the last changes on a train back to Mississippi. He enclosed a note. "The following rewritten and additional scenes for The Big Sleep were done by the author in respectful joy and happy admiration after he had gone off salary and while on his way back to Mississippi." He would have been happy if that was his last farewell to Hollywood, but there would be more "sojourns in Babylon" as he put it. Later on he would sell the screen rights to several of his novels for handsome sums, including The Sound and the Fury. One wonders if this was a perverse sort of revenge. The resulting 1959 adaptation starring Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward was a risible disaster. Faulkner couldn't care less. When a reporter asked him if he'd be at the world premiere in Jackson, Faulkner pointedly said no, and added "that his contract specifically stated that he did not have to read the screenplay or see the picture." William Faulkner was finally through with Hollywood for good.

*All of the quotes and most of the material in this series was borrowed from Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner

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