Raymond Chandler is one of the foundational authors of noir. His Philip Marlowe is the quintessential hardboiled private investigator, a character Chandler rode until Marlowe seemed to become a pastiche of himself. This is not to say the acclaim Chandler derived in his career was unwarranted, but the pressure took its toll the author, and in his later years he became cantankerous and hard to work with, partly because he’d been taken advantage of (or so he felt) by the film industry and partly because he was a sour, curmudgeonly man. It didn’t help that he was also an alcoholic.
All of his novels, bar one, were filmed in one incarnation or another. The Big Sleep is the most famous as it established him on the pulp fiction scene, and the film version with Humphrey Bogart is as iconic as Bogart’s turn as Sam Spade, the PI creation of Dashiell Hammett. The Long Goodbye is probably Chandler’s best in terms of quality and substance and is my personal favorite. But this article is about Playback, specifically the film treatment that never got made.
Playback went through development hell, with Chandler and producers butting heads so frequently the script was all but abandoned. In fact, it was presumed lost until the 1980s when it was rediscovered. In the interim, Chandler had reformed the script into a Philip Marlowe novel, but Marlowe is totally absent from the script and was a later addition when reworking it into longer form. Playback is not as well regarded a book as the rest of his, and for good reason. It’s not as well-written as his other works, with a plot lacking significant stakes for Marlowe, and which, as I indicated above, reads more like a pastiche of Marlowe than an original. One of the main criticisms from literary circles is the simplicity of the plot, which does seem to have been streamlined from the screenplay. It’s like Robert Jordan’s take on Conan: It attempts to hit the story beats of the original but never really feels correct.
In 2006 a French duo, writer Ted Benoit and artist Francois Ayroles, turned Playback into a graphic novel, which was my first exposure to the script, many years after I’d read the novel. While I enjoyed looking at what is effectively a storyboard for a film, I can see why it didn’t get made.
Main character Betty Mayfield is fleeing to Canada after being acquitted of her husband’s murder. Her husband had been abusive and drunk after his service in WWII. He needed a neck brace or else he might die, and in a fit of rage, removed it himself. But Betty’s father-in-law, a powerful man with connections, all but forced the jury into deciding Betty had removed the brace and killed her husband. The judge recognized the truth and overturned the conviction, at which time the father-in-law issued a death threat. While on the train to Vancouver, without proper passport identification, she meets a playboy who schmoozes the customs official and gets Betty a room in a swanky hotel. A while later she gets invited to a party, where the playboy drunkenly makes a pass, which she rejects, but when she gets back to her room, his dead body is on her balcony. All signs point to Betty having murdered him, but of course there’s more to the story. Since Betty doesn’t want to out her past to the police, she’s uncooperative. Oh, and there’s another woman, one the playboy had been seeing until his infatuation with Betty. But the plot shifts again, and it’s neither of the obvious killers. Turns out there’s blackmail, a hit man hired by Betty’s father-in-law, and it all climaxes with a boat chase in the foggy Vancouver sound.
If that sounds a bit convoluted, it is. Like many noir works, it has double and triple crosses and mixed story threads in abundance. You could say many of Chandler’s works are the same, but perhaps they are polished enough the rough cuts don’t seem quite as disjointed as here. But where Playback really fails is its rushed ending that seems disconnected from the story at large.
The graphic novel gets mixed reviews, mostly because readers don’t like the art style, but I thought the art was decent enough. It’s certainly period appropriate art for the source material (heavy inks in black and white) instead of contemporary color paintings the way most modern comic books are created. That said, the script itself is online, and reading Chandler’s scene descriptions make the story more enjoyable than the storyboards alone. The old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words is decently accurate, but in this case, as in most, I’ll take the words. I need to reread the novel version now to see if my opinion on it has changed in light of reading the graphic novel and screenplay.