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In Hollywood everybody says bad things about everybody, but with MGM chief James Aubrey, all the crimes have been documented. A top CBS executive fired in 1965, Aubrey got the job five years later to kick MGM into shape for financier Kirk Kerkorian. MGM crawled back into the black -- momentarily -- but Aubrey's legacy with filmmakers is a dark one. Directors from Blake Edwards to Sam Peckinpah saw their films grossly re-cut against their will, and often against signed agreements. The studio head that gave America Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies imposed his creative taste on pictures big and small.
One of Aubrey's early victims was "Open Shadow", a moody, dream-like retro-detective tale that pre-shadowed the neo-noir movement. Put together by Leslie Caron's husband Michael S. Laughlin and the young filmmaker Paul Magwood, the movie was given such a brutal post-production reaming by Aubrey that its producer and director went public to air their grievance of creative interference. Aubrey would later be known for running parallel cutting rooms, secretly making his version of a movie while the director and producers only thought they were in charge. At this time Aubrey was more open in his abuse, simply locking the creatives out of the cutting room and ignoring their intentions, right or wrong. 1
In almost every case of this sort of interference the result is a train wreck of a movie, with nobody quite able to decide if Aubrey ruined the films, or if they were no good in the first place. Paul Magwood's movie was renamed Chandler and released to a quick death on a double bill.
Although detective shows were still a mainstay of TV series Chandler does seem a few years ahead of its time, and clearly made by people with an awareness of film history. Up and coming leading man Warren Oates plays Chandler, who knows his namesake is a famous pulp author. We see the somewhat seedy, demoralized detective quit an oppressive job as a security guard, only to be hired under questionable circumstances to protect a mystery woman.
Chandler drives a 40s car and dogs his quarry like an old-fashioned shamus, and of course falls in love along the way. Leslie Caron is Katherine Creighton, a kept woman who knows too much about mob deals. She might be a witness for a grand jury, so her ex-lover John Melchior (Gordon Pinsent) sends hoods to get her back. But competing mobster Chuck Kincaid (Mitchell Ryan) and his advisor Ross Carmady (Alex Drier) want to use this conflict to eliminate Melchior entirely. Chandler's old friend Bernie Oakman (Charles McGraw) hires Chandler to serve as a decoy. The girl isn't the target, Melchoir is. At least, that's what I think the plot is about.
It looks as though Chandler began as an exercise in atmosphere and genre expectations, but was flattened into an awkward straight narrative after the fact. Aubrey re-inserted exposition scenes that the filmmakers say they discarded, indicating that much of the mob politics were intended to be even a greater mystery. For instance, it would surely have been better if the scene where Oakman hires Chandler were not preceded by the explanation that his hiring is a cynical ploy. Chandler and Katherine spend the movie ignorant of the mob power play and come off as clueless fools instead of noble romantics. No matter who is kidnapped, or threatened, Katherine and Chandler just keep on noodling through in an existential mode. Her reactions make little sense. In one scene Katherine pulls a gun on Chandler and in the next she warms to his hipster attitude. Then, for no reason, she goes schizo and tries to get him to leave again. At age 40 Leslie Caron is attractive but not the kind of swoon-bait that might send Chandler's head spinning, like Jane Greer in Out of the Past. She and Oates go through the moves, but not very much chemistry results.
The movie is handsomely filmed in Los Angeles and around the Monterey Peninsula. Director Magwood is partial to compositions of his leads standing around old cars, looking like refugees from a 40s picture. The giveaway is that Chandler doesn't wear a hat, as would his forebear Philip Marlowe. We can't tell if a director's cut would have established a different mood, as we're told that Magwood also intended to use a 40s- era soundtrack as another intentional anachronism. And as the movie lurches pointlessly forward, we can't understand why the bad guys don't just eliminate Chandler when the opportunity arises. Neither he nor Katherine makes much of an attempt to evade detection. Why Katherine doesn't just jump on a bus and disappear is a mystery as well. The narrative spends a lot of its time in a stall while the lovers exchange low-key hardboiled banter. Katherine keeps asking if she did well, or if Chandler likes her. His answer is always, "You'll do."
As edited, the engaging character actor Warren Oates doesn't carry the movie. He has a certain Humphrey Bogart slump to his posture and face but lacks Bogie's mellow charisma. Oates maintains a wry smile that indicates his character knows the score. As Chandler insists on behaving like an ignorant chump, this smile begins to look more stupid as the show goes on. Oates is of course fine in the action scenes; he would find a much better fit in his portrayal of John Milius' thuggish Dillinger. A typical dialogue line has Chandler drawling a tough-guy remark about California's electric chair. Katherine corrects him: the state uses a gas chamber. Chandler comes back with a "whatever" response. Another actor might be able to milk something from the joke, but with Oates the lines just sit there.
With film noir still an obscure term and "neo-noir" as yet uninvented, movies around this time were mostly stumbling over the task of reviving cool-cat Chandler-esque detective characters, the kind that solved crimes while saxophones wail on the soundtrack. Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye is practically a re-think of Chandler, with Elliot Gould as a 70s Philip Marlowe. Gould also drives a classic car and gets too involved with his clients. Considered an early-70s classic, it was also a box office bust. The only solid hit was Roman Polanski's more ambitious Chinatown, a transcendent hit that can stand alongside the classic originals in the genre.
The classic noir that Chandler most resembles is Richard Fleischer's 1951 The Narrow Margin. A detective is assigned to protect a woman who might testify against the mob, and does his best to save her; there's even an extended sequence on a train. Screenwriter John Sacret Young (Testament) puts together some good dialogue scenes but we unfortunately remember the ten-cent gangsterese spoken by an uninspiring set of mobsters. Gordon Pinsent ("The President" in Colossus: The Forbin Project) is colorless as Katherine's ex-squeeze, while Mitchell Ryan doesn't look bright enough to run a crime syndicate. Ex- Chicago TV news anchor Alex Drier is more colorful, and at least suggests the evil forces at work. Is it too much to guess that an original cut might have pared down their scenes a bit?
Director John Flynn would soon make The Outfit, a good crime film seemingly confected to concentrate as many forties noir favorites as possible. Besides the iconic Charles McGraw, Chandler gives us Gloria Grahame in a too-brief bit, along with old-timers Scatman Crothers, Richard Loo and Walter Burke. Marianne McAndrew (Hello, Dolly!) also has too little screen time as a tangential mob contact.
Chandler ends with a shoot-out on a Big Sur beach, yet another scene reminiscent of other more effective films of the time, like Get Carter and Hickey and Boggs. The filmmakers may have been trying for a more detached, dream-like detective film reverie and failed; or they may have had something special that "The Smiling Cobra" James Aubrey ground up into hamburger. Chandler is a good think-film for movie detectives ... start subtracting and rearranging scenes, and try to picture how the film might play differently.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Chandler is a splendid enhanced transfer of this wide-format picture. George Romanis' Aubrey-imposed music sounds quite good, especially the jazzy sections. The disc comes with a well-made trailer that emphasizes every fight and car chase, making the film look like a Warren Oates action picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Richard Harland Smith's excellent TCM Article on Chandler was a prime source for this review. Richard mentions specifically that James Aubrey would go into the trim bin and restore scenes that the filmmakers didn't want to use. In the old days director John Ford proudly stated that he routinely shot no coverage and nothing extra, just to limit the choices the front office would have should they attempt to override his directing decisions -- he edited in the camera, giving the Thalberg wanna-be's nothing to work with. That trick doesn't work when a producer like Hughes or Aubrey can order a quickie reshoot to reshape the movie as they see fit.
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T'was Ever Thus.