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, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray­mond Chan­dler: There’s No Art of the Screen­play in Hol­ly­wood

Watch Ray­mond Chandler’s Long-Unno­ticed Cameo in Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty

Alfred Hitch­cock: The Secret Sauce for Cre­at­ing Sus­pense

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.

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Comments (8)
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  • Joesixpack says:

    Loved this. Hitch­cock­’s films are, with only a few notable excep­tions, some of the most absurd and pedes­tri­an “thrillers” to ever blight the screen. “Strangers” is not one of those excep­tions. These films that don’t make any demands on the audi­ence’s atten­tion (or intel­lect). Like a Godzil­la movie, you can go to the bath­room or go for pop­corn with­ougt ever hav­ing to ask “What did I miss?”

  • Joel Gunz says:

    Chan­dler was prob­a­bly drunk off his ass when he wrote this.

  • Don Kenner says:

    I love Chan­dler and I enjoyed his swipe at Hol­ly­wood, but the film Strangers on a Train was bril­liant. I’m not one of those peo­ple who thinks Hitch­cock always hits a home run, but Strangers was one of his best.

    Joel Gunz: I don’t know if Chan­dler was “drunk off his ass,” but he was a high-func­tion­ing alco­holic. He may very well have been a bit ine­bri­at­ed.

  • I’ve always been both­ered by the fact that Hitch­cock elim­i­nat­ed one of the most bru­tal and breath­tak­ing aspects of the book’s plot. The Mas­ter of Sus­pense watered down one of the best ele­ments of the sto­ry.

  • Jef says:

    Sure­ly the beau­ty of Hitch­cock films is the cam­era work ? Strangers is a bril­liant film IMHO , down to the cam­era and some superb type­cast­ing good actors ? Jus sayin , I not an expert ( hell I even liked the long good­bye film!)

  • Doug Noakes says:

    From what I have read of Chan­dler, it is a fair assess­ment that he was in fact “drunk off his ass”.

  • DW Gregory says:

    Fun read. Sor­ry, though, that you could­n’t iden­ti­fy Hitch­cock­’s “wife and asso­ciate pro­duc­er,” Alma Reville. A seri­ous tal­ent in her own right, she deserves as much cred­it as Hitch him­self for many of his suc­cess­es. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/9832084/Mrs-Alfred-Hitchcock-The-Unsung-Partner.html)

  • Matthew Baker says:

    Yes! Huz­zah for Alma Reville! A great cin­e­mat­ic artist in her own right!

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