Film Adaptation and the Censors: 1940s Hollywood and Raymond Chandler

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Although their author would not necessarily agree that the film versions of his work were in any way successful, Raymond Chandler's novels have been thoroughly and interestingly adapted for the screen. From the gritty chiaroscuro of Murder, My Sweet (1944) through the sardonically updated Marlowe (1969) to the sun-drenched anti-heroics of The Long Goodbye (1973), the sheer number of film adaptations and the eccentric variety of interpretation attest to the inherently cinematic quality of Chandler's fiction--not a surprising fact, considering Chandler's own career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Aside from their intrinsic merits, these books and films can be viewed in tandem. An adaptation can highlight aspects of the written narrative that might otherwise be overlooked, and the concerns of the filmmakers, answering as they do to producers and the producers' conceptions of/he taste of the mass audience, are most fully appreciated inasmuch as they contrast with the written narrative. One important factor in adaptation is that of length: if followed point for point, an adaptation of a novel would result in a film far longer than the Hollywood standard of ninety minutes. Often, however, changes cannot be traced to a need for brevity.

More significantly, ideological censorship, dictated by studio owners and managers, regulated the transition of book-to-film projects for most of the period in American cinema when the major studios had a stranglehold on production (roughly 1930-1960). The most obvious manifestation of rigid control of narrative is the insistence on a "happy ending" by means of establishing a monogamous, heterosexual, seemingly lasting relationship between protagonists by the fade-out, a sure indication that problems have been overcome and all is well. Such narrow restrictions have not always obtained: American film has always appealed to a perceived sensationalism on the part of its audience, but films of the late 1920s and early 1930s aroused the vigilance of religious and civic groups such as the Legion of Decency, affiliated with the Catholic Church. For these concerned citizens, Hollywood too often depicted the joie de vivre of loose-living flappers and charismatic, Tommy-gun toting gangsters, products of the high-spirited Jazz Age. The industry's response was a self-regulating mechanism, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors Association, whose strictures, commonly referred to as the Production Code, were first instituted in 1927 and subsequently made more and more restrictive. In the 1940s, when the first Chandler adaptations were produced, the Code was still a stringently enforced censoring mechanism that shaped narratives according to perceived mainstream moral values.

Although it encompassed a multitude of sins, the Code was particularly sensitive to gangster films of the early sound era, whose charismatic, blatantly violent, and ambitious heroes parodied the optimistic Horatio-Alger model of democratic self-reliance and upward mobility. The Code demanded that "the treatment of crimes against the law must not ... make criminals seem heroic or justified" (qtd. in Schumach 290) and even in cases where the criminal is captured or killed, the MPPDA was perceptive enough to recognize the allure of such criminal protagonists. A milestone in film history, Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932) exploited the public fascination with the success of Prohibition gangsters, and it is easy to see how Paul Muni's electrifying performance could have made the censors nervous. Hawks compounded the perceived problem by suggesting an incestuous relationship between his Capone-like gangster, Tony Camonte, and his sister, Cesca, played with equal elan by Ann Dvorak. In this area the Code was yet more sententious, preaching that "the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. No film shall infer [sic] that casual or promiscuous sex relationships are the accepted or common thing" (qtd. …