Raymond Chandler Denounces Strangers on a Train in Sharply-Worded Letter to Alfred Hitchcock

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Alfred Hitchcock, like several other of the twentieth century’s best-known auteurs, made some of his most widely seen work by turning books into movies. Or rather, he hired other writers to turn these books into screenplays, which he then turned into movies — which, the way these things go, often bore little ultimate resemblance to their source material. In the case of his 1951 picture Strangers on a Train, based upon The Talented Mr. Ripley author Patricia Highsmith’s first novel of the same name, Hitchcock burned through a few such hired hands. First he engaged Whitfield Cook, whose treatment bolstered the novel’s homoerotic subtext. Then he importuned a series of the brightest living lights of American literature — Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett — to have a go at the full screenplay, none of whom could bring themselves sign on to the job. Then along came the only respected “name” writer who could rise — or, given that many at first thought Highsmith’s novel tawdry, sink — to the job: Philip Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep author wrote and submitted a first draft of Strangers on a Train. Then a second. He would hear no feedback from the director except the message informing him of his firing. Hitchcock pursued “Shakespeare of Hollywood” Ben Hecht to come up with the next draft, but Hecht offered his young assistant Czenzi Ormonde instead. Together with Hitchcock’s wife and associate producer, Ormonde completely rewrote the script in less than three weeks. When Chandler later got hold of the film’s final script, he sent Hitchcock his assessment, as featured on Letters of Note:

December 6th, 1950

Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a “far less brilliant mind than mine” to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.

(Signed, ‘Raymond Chandler’)

Note that Chandler, ever the writer, points out his own “extremely cumbersome sentence” even as he summons so much vitriol for what he considers a lifeless script. As a longtime resident of Los Angeles by this point, and one who had already worked on the screenplays for The Blue Dahlia and Double Indemnity, he knew well the procedures of “the standard Hollywood depravity.” But nothing, to his mind, could excuse such “clichés,” “faceless characters,” and dialogue that “says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied.” We could all, no matter what sort of work we do, learn from Chandler’s unwavering attention to his craft, and we’d do especially well to bear in mind his preemptive objection to the argument that, hey, at least he got a big check: “Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.”

Whatever your own opinion on Hitchcock, don’t forget our collection of 20 Free Hitchcock Movies Online, nor, of course, our big collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The Art of William Faulkner: Drawings from 1916-1925

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Before William Faulkner more or less defined the genre of Southern literature with his folksy short stories, tragicomic epic novels, and studies in the stream of damaged consciousness, he made a very sincere effort as a poet with a 1924 collection called The Marble Faun. Published in 500 copies with the assistance of his friend Phil Stone, who paid $400 dollars to get the work in print, Faulkner’s poetry did not go over well. Although later judgments have been kinder, the publisher called it “not really a very good book of poetry” and most of the print run was remaindered. The young Faulkner fared much better however with another of his early creative endeavors: art.

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Between 1916 and 1925, the University of Mississippi—which Faulkner attended for three semesters before dropping out in 1920—paid him for drawings published in the university newspaper Ole Miss and its humor magazine The Scream. The drawings, like that of a dancing couple at the top, show the influence of jazz-age art-deco graphic illustration as well as that of English illustrator and aesthete Aubrey Beardsley (who gets a name-check in Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!). Beardsley’s influence seems especially evident in the drawing above, from a 1917-18 edition of Ole Miss.

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Many of Faulkner’s illustrations are much simpler cartoons, particularly those he did for The Scream, such as the 1925 drawing above of two men and a car. Even simpler, the line drawing of an airplane below recalls the author’s fascination with aviation, manifested in his failed attempt to join the U.S. Air Force, his successful acceptance into the R.A.F., and his non-Mississippi 1935 novel Pylon, about a rowdy crew of barnstormers in a fictionalized New Orleans called “New Valois.” You can see more of Faulkner’s drawings here and read his early prose and poetry in an out-of-print collection housed online at the Internet Archive, which has been now added to our collection of Free eBooks.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Arthur C. Clarke Narrates Film on Mandelbrot’s Fractals; David Gilmour Provides the Soundtrack

In 1995, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the futurist and science fiction writer most well known for his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, presented a television documentary on the 1980 discovery of the Mandelbrot Set (M-Set)Fractals: The Colors of Infinity brings us inside the world of fractal geometry, and soon enough we’re encountering what has been called “the thumbprint of God” and some of the most beautiful discoveries in the history of mathematics.

Clarke narrates the 54-minute film, which includes interviews with important mathematicians, including Benoît Mandelbrot himself. David Gilmour, the guitarist for Pink Floyd, provides the soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect combination. Fractals: The Colors of Infinity first appeared on Open Culture back in 2010, which means that a second viewing is long overdue. A book closely related to the film can be purchased here: The Colours of Infinity: The Beauty, The Power and the Sense of Fractals.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Albert Einstein Called Racism “A Disease of White People” in His Little-Known Fight for Civil Rights

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Albert Einstein’s activities as a passionate advocate for peace were well-documented during his lifetime. His celebrity as a famous physicist and one of the world’s most recognizable faces lent a great deal of weight to his pacifism, a view otherwise not given much consideration in the popular press at almost any time in history. However, according to a 2006 book titled Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Roger Taylor, the scientist was also as passionate about combating racism and segregation as he was about combating war. This facet of Einstein’s life was virtually ignored by the media, as was a visit he made in 1946 to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first degree-granting college for African-Americans and the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall.

Invited to Lincoln to receive an honorary degree, Einstein gave a lecture on physics but also bluntly addressed the racial animus that held the country in its grip, reportedly calling racism, “a disease of white people” and saying he “did not intend to be quiet” about his opposition to segregation and racist public policy. Lest anyone think the Nobel-prize-winning physicist was pandering to his audience, the Harvard Gazette offers a comprehensive summary of Einstein’s support of progressive anti-racist causes, including his personal support of members of Princeton’s black community (he paid one man’s college tuition), a town Princeton native Paul Robeson once called “the northernmost town in the south.”

Einstein formed relationships with several prominent black leaders—inviting opera singer Marian Anderson to stay in his home after she was refused a room at the Nassau Inn and appearing as a character witness for W.E.B. Dubois when the latter stood accused of “failing to register as a foreign agent.” But it was his 20-year friendship with Robeson that seems central to his involvement in civil rights causes. The Harvard Gazette writes:

Einstein met Paul Robeson when the famous singer and actor came to perform at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 1935. The two found they had much in common. Both were concerned about the rise of fascism, and both gave their support to efforts to defend the democratically elected government of Spain against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. Einstein and Robeson also worked together on the American Crusade to End Lynching, in response to an upsurge in racial murders as black soldiers returned home in the aftermath of World War II.

At the time of the Gazette article, 2007, a movie about Einstein and Robeson’s friendship was apparently in the works, with Danny Glover as Robeson and Ben Kingsley as Einstein. The project is apparently stalled, but with the upsurge in popular interest in the history of civil rights—with the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and the widespread coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—perhaps the project will see new life soon. I certainly hope so.

via PourMeCoffee

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch The March, the Masterful, Digitally Restored Documentary on The Great March on Washington

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest human rights rallies in American history, took place 50 years ago today in Washington, D.C.. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke that day, delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, while Bob Dylan performed “When the Ship Comes In” and Odetta sang “I’m On My Way.”

In 1964, the director James Blue released a documentary called The March. Produced under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, the film proved to be a “visually stunning, moving, and arresting documentary of the hope, determination, and camaraderie embodied by the demonstration.” And while the film initially sparked some controversy (read the account here), it has had a big impact on audiences inside and outside the US throughout the decades.

In 2008, The March was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the The March for Jobs and Freedom, the US National Archives has completed a full digital restoration of the film. You can watch it free above, or find it in the Free Documentaries section of our collection of 550 Free Movies Online.

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“Glory to the Conquerors of the Universe!”: Propaganda Posters from the Soviet Space Race (1958-1963)

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Walking around L.A. just yesterday, I noticed new banners emblazoned with illustrations touting subway stations now under construction. In bold, bright colors, they deliver clear, ambitious imagery of a bright future ahead: dedicated builders, focused students, noble working commuters, surging trains. Why, I thought, those look a bit like Soviet propaganda! I had no political comparisons in mind, only aesthetic ones, and this Retronaut post shows off many perfect examples of the Cold War-era Russian posters the Los Angeles Metro’s brought to my mind. They capture the imagination by exuding even more intense scientific, technological, educational, and social optimism — and doing so in even more visual detail — than I’d remembered.

And boy, speaking of ambition: “From student’s models to spaceships!” “To the Sun! To the stars!” “Glory to the conquerors of the universe!” Children inclined to accept these glorious slogans and the rapturous imagery they accompany could not possibly fail to believe that, thoroughly educated by their country, their generation would go on to usher in a new galaxy-spanning order of peace, prosperity, and socialism. Yet we in the rest of the world now know of the boredom, cynicism, and oppression that attended many Soviet citizens’ everyday lives. A Cold War-specialist college history professor of mine liked to tell a story about a trip to Moscow he took in the sixties, on which he kept seeing adolescents with nothing more productive to do than openly chugging vodka on street corners.  Yet, seeing posters like these, you simply want to believe, just like I want to believe in the extension of Los Angeles’ subway — which, at times, seems about as plausible as the conquering of outer space.

“From student’s models to spaceships!”

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“Glory to the workers of Soviet science and technology!”

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“I am happy — this is my work joining the work of my republic”

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“In the 20th century the rockets race to the stars”

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Visit Retronaut for many more space propaganda posters from the Soviet era.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

John Lennon’s Raw, Soul-Baring Vocals From the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (1969)

“When you’re drowning,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “you don’t say, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.’  You just scream.”

“Don’t Let Me Down” is Lennon’s anguished scream to his lover, Yoko Ono. When he and the Beatles recorded the song during the Let It Be sessions in late January of 1969, Lennon asked Ringo Starr to hit the cymbal very hard at the beginning, to “give me the courage to come screaming in.”

The Beatles were in the process of breaking apart when Lennon wrote the song. It was a dark time in my ways, and he was becoming more and more dependent upon Ono for personal and creative support. As Paul McCartney told writer Barry Miles in Many Years From Now:

It was a very tense period: John was with Yoko and had escalated to heroin and all the accompanying paranoias and he was putting himself out on a limb. I think that as much as it excited and amused him, at the same time it secretly terrified him. So ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was a genuine plea, ‘Don’t let me down, please, whatever you do. I’m out on this limb, I know I’m doing all this stuff, just don’t let me down.’ It was saying to Yoko, ‘I’m really stepping out of line on this one. I’m really letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.’ I think it was a genuine cry for help.

You can get a strong sense of Lennon’s anguish and vulnerability when you listen to the isolated vocal track above. And for the full arrangement, including Starr’s cymbal-crash near the beginning and Billy Preston’s brilliant electric piano playing, see below.

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T.S. Eliot’s Radical Poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Read by Anthony Hopkins and Eliot Himself

T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” contains some of the most unforgettable images in modern poetry: the “pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”; the yellow fog that “rubs its back upon the window panes”; the evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” The poem’s sudden juxtapositions disrupted and dismantled the staid poetic conventions of its time. Like his beloved metaphysical model John Donne, Eliot pushed the resources of literary language to their outer extremes, while still maintaining a respectful relationship with traditional form, deploying Shakespearean pentameter lines whose music is deceptive, since they are the vehicles of such strange, neurotic content.

“Prufrock,” first published in 1915 in Poetry magazine—at the instigation of literary impresario Ezra Pound—caused a shock at its first appearance. Students today are apt to remember it as a bewildering swirl of references—to Dante, the Bible, Shakespeare—and as sardonic commentary on what Eliot saw as the profoundly enervated and impotent condition of modern man (and of himself). It is a daunting study, to be sure, but the poem’s first readers and critics tended to dismiss it as either shockingly anarchic or trivial and meandering.

By 1947, “Prufrock” was recognized as a modernist classic, and Harvard University recorded Eliot reading the poem (above). His thin voice may not carry the weight of the poem’s dense allusive grandeur, so we have Anthony Hopkins at the top of the post reading “Prufrock” as well. Hopkins seems to rush through the poem a bit, capturing, perhaps, the nervous energy of its title character’s psychic anguish.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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