Who Killed the Chauffeur? INHERENT VICE and the Tradition of the Impossibly Convoluted Detective Plot

Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE is in theaters now and it is weaving its spell of confusion on audiences everywhere. The labyrinthine convolutions in plot may rightly be seen as the trademark of the author of the original novel, Thomas Pynchon. But there are honorable cinematic antecedents as well.

The straight detective movie makes the viewer a detective, he or she is watching for signs, reading the witnesses, collecting clues and putting it all together as the film goes on. The perverse detective movie enjoys cramping the viewers’ powers of observation. It gets into the mechanism of logical collation and jams the gears. INHERENT VICE is just the latest in a tradition of perverse detective movies.

Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP (1946) was also derived from a literary source, Raymond Chandler’s great, prowling LA detective novel. Chandler provided the original story which was adapted by what is possibly the greatest team of writers ever assembled for one film – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and (uncredited) Hawks himself, a prolific though generally uncredited writing collaborator.

To view THE BIG SLEEP is to become so enveloped in the joy of the dialogue and the personalities of Bogart and Bacall and the humor of the situations that the plot becomes meaningless. We may find ourselves losing the thread of the murder story but with so many other delightful distractions at hand, we probably don’t much care. The grace notes overwhelm the piece itself and we accept it, because it works as part of a higher order.

Interestingly, during a story conference the scriptwriters ran into a loose end that they could not nail down. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur? The novel itself gave few hints. The logic of the plot did not point to any particular beneficiary of the murder. Hawks rang up the novel’s author, Raymond Chandler and asked him. Chandler’s response was “damned if I know.”

Brackett adapted Chandler’s later novel THE LONG GOODBYE years later, in 1973, to be exact. Robert Altman directed and Elliott Gould starred as detective Philip Marlowe. This time the convolutions were added during the filming process, as Altman and Gould let the wandering muse guide them down back-alleys and expensive private drives that neither Chandler or Brackett had intended. But the spirit is there – a particular variety of golden sun and neon moonglow lights Marlowe’s tortuous and picaresque way.

The Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) is practically a cinematic essay on the “man with a code in an absurd and unknowable moral labyrinth” story that the two Chandler adaptations had lit the way for. The plot is regarded with such contempt that it is never resolved. There is not even a bowling tournament. It is a clear riff on THE BIG SLEEP’s oddball melange of characters, and a love letter to the cinema of unfollowability.

I was discussing INHERENT VICE with someone the other day and he said “I need to see it sober. I watched it stoned and I couldn’t follow the plot.” Well, I watched it sober and I couldn’t either. I didn’t try very hard. It’s fun to let a movie like this bob you up and down like an overloaded waterbed.

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