Raymond Chandler's Long Shadow

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, November 21, 2005


"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a comic tribute to two of the richest veins of American pop culture during the last century: the hard-boiled Hollywood private eye novel, invented by Raymond Chandler in 1939's The Big Sleep, and its cousin, the LAPD mismatched buddy cop movie, honed to commercial perfection by screenwriter Shane Black in 1987's "Lethal Weapon."

After making himself perhaps the highest paid and most despised screenwriter, Black disappeared a decade ago. Now, Black is back with a loving spoof of the Chandlerian tradition, an ingenious, self-satirical contrivance that would be incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with Chandler's glorious cinematic offspring, such as "Chinatown," "Blade Runner," "LA Confidential," and "The Big Lebowski." Indeed, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is so fast-paced and convoluted that it's close to impenetrable, period. As in Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels, figuring out whodunnit takes a back seat to just enjoying the ride.

To play his detective leads, Black was able to hire cheaply two of the most gifted but least trustworthy stars, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. When just a small boy, Downey began receiving recreational drugs from his father, the leftist director of "Putney Swope." His abusive upbringing appears to have rewired his brain, connecting it directly to his mouth, making him superhumanly articulate, but also deactivating all the normal circuits for self-restraint and common sense. Watching this wounded man-child play a lovable loser to perfection resembles what it must have been like listening to the great castrati sing arias -- simultaneously awe-inspiring and guilt-inducing. 

The Los Angeles detective tale has attracted some of the finest masculine storytelling talent of the last three generations, both filmmakers and crime novelists such as Ross Macdonald and Walter Mosley. Yet, Chandler's legacy is often misunderstood.  

In 1930, Dashiell Hammett took the detective story out of the country estate drawing room with The Maltese Falcon. It was exactly the kind of nonliterary novel that adapts well for the screen. Indeed, John Huston's first draft for his classic 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade was merely Hammett's book retyped in screenplay format. Still, as Chandler noted, Hammett's language "had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill." 

Chandler taught himself to write pulp fiction in Hammett's style, but, armed with his Proustian eye for evocative detail, his aesthetic ambitions were higher. In The Big Sleep and his 1940 masterpiece Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler devised a new, endlessly imitated prose style that lifted the detective story to an unexpected level of artistry. 

The French term film noir for movies such as 1944's "Double Indemnity" (for which Chandler rewrote James M. Cain's dialogue) and the 1946 adaptation of "The Big Sleep" has perpetually confused thinking about Chandler's books by implying that they are morally and visually dark. In reality, the bad guys serve as contrasting backdrop for Chandler's shining hero Marlowe, of whom the author idealistically proclaimed, "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." 

Nor is the LA of Chandler's pages the dingy, underlit Warner Bros. backlot of 40's film noir. The gorgeousness of Chandler's vision wasn't transferred to the screen until 1974 in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." The celebrated plot is largely Watergate-era tosh -- millions now believe that the great aqueduct engineer William Mulholland impregnated his daughter -- of which even its screenwriter, Robert Towne, has grown increasingly embarrassed. Yet, "Chinatown's" cinematography revealed how beautiful Los Angeles had been before smog enveloped it during the World War II boom. 

While "Chinatown" embodied LA's past, in 1982, "Blade Runner" indelibly envisioned for LA a dystopian future unleashed by uncontrolled immigration.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a much slighter effort than those two monumental films. Nor is it quite up to the standard set by the Coen Bros.'s shaggy dog version of Chandler, "The Big Lebowski," which is now generally thought the most hilarious film of the 90s. Still, "Kiss Kiss" is as smart and funny as any film so far this year. 

The question this minor masterpiece of mannerism raises and can't answer is whether the LA detective genre has become so barnacled with past greatness that it's inevitable that all new renditions will similarly end up being about their predecessors rather than about anything remotely resembling real life. 

Rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity.


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