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Fresh from his career-defining role (if only in retrospect) as "GTO" in Monte Hellman's existential road picture Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Warren Oates was signed by producer Michael S. Laughlin for a multi-picture deal. The first and only project out of the gate for this partnership was a film noir throwback whose original title, Open Shadow, was eventually changed to Chandler (1971). The allusion to Raymond Chandler, author of such vintage hardboiled detective classics as Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, was not accidental. "C-H-A-N-D-L-E-R," Oates barks into a telephone early in the film. "As in Raymond." Not actually playing Raymond Chandler or Chandler's most famous creation, gumshoe Philip Marlowe, Oates' down-market private dick is nonetheless etched as the last in a noble bloodline, an honest but thoroughly luckless man in the Chandler tradition whose innate decency, chivalry and curiosity will bring him, in the service of a good cause, to an inevitably bad end. Oates was at this point in his career crossing over from the second string to MVP status. One of the ensemble in buddy Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), he would emerge as the star of Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), as well as Philip Kaufman's The White Dawn (1974) and John Milius' Dillinger (1973), a chronicle of the last days of the legendary Prohibition era outlaw. The Kentucky born actor would enjoy lead and second lead roles for the remainder of his career, which ended abruptly with his untimely death in 1982.
A story of aging, obsolescence and fermenting regret, Chandler found a bankrupted Metro Goldwyn Mayer catering to the vogue in Hollywood for "youth" pictures. Inspired by the success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal invested in untested new talent with Two-Lane Blacktop and Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971, which also featured Warren Oates), while MGM threw some money at Shaft (1971), directed by novelist Gordon Parks (who had only one other feature film to his credit) and Chandler. The script was the work of UCLA postgrads Paul Magwood and John Sacret Young. With first-timer Magwood entrusted with directing, cameras rolled in May of 1971, in downtown Los Angeles (particularly Union Station and Olvera Street) and coastal Monterey. Although Oates and costar Leslie Caron (then the wife of producer Laughlin) got along well, both knew they lacked chemistry. Oates talked the film up in press junkets but confided to friends that it was "a horrible film." MGM senior executive James Aubrey, Jr., smelled trouble and had the film recut, eliminating scenes involving actors Royal Dano and James Sikking (whose names appear in the end credits) and ordering a new score. Magwood and Young retaliated by placing an apology to the public in the Hollywood trade papers for Aubrey's tampering and postproduction was plagued by lawsuits (including one by Caron, for equal billing). Adjudged a loser, Chandler was dumped into play dates on a double bill with Clay Pigeon (1971), starring Telly Savalas. In his review, New York Times critic Roger Greenspun derided Chandler as "incomprehensible...dull nonsense, wholly without delight in its own incongruities."
True, Chandler is no classic but its lack of cinematic grandeur just might be the key to its charm. Predating Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), the film charts the downward arc of its outcast hero without pandering to the reactionary tastes that made a hit of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971). Unlike other detective films released that year - Shaft, Klute, The French Connection - Chandler lacks an encompassing visual aesthetic that nonetheless encourages a tighter focus on the performances. Warren Oates was such a raw diamond of an actor that it's great seeing him allowed to occupy the frame without having to serve a movie star. The part allows him moments of gruffness and grace; it was not in the actor's nature to disengage entirely from a performance and there are flashes throughout of his trademark querulous uncertainty.
Surrounding Oates in Chandler is a stellar cast of supporting actors, most notable Gloria Grahame (the In a Lonely Place  star was paid $500 for one day of work), Charles McGraw and Richard Loo. (Sadly, all of these actors would be dead in little more than a decade.) Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet (1977) seems an attempt to re-spin this material into box office gold (which it did, whether the similarities were intentional or not) but Chandler seems influenced at least in part by Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971), right down to the climactic beach head shootout that lands the protagonist supine in the surf.
Producer: Michael S. Laughlin
Director: Paul Magwood
Screenplay: John Sacret Young; Paul Magwood (story)
Cinematography: Alan Stensvold
Art Direction: Lawrence G. Paull
Music: George Romanis
Film Editing: William B. Gulick, Richard Harris
Cast: Warren Oates (Chandler), Leslie Caron (Katherine Creighton), Alex Dreier (Ross J. Carmady), Mitchell Ryan (Charles 'Chuck' Kincaid), Gordon Pinsent (John Melchior),Charles McGraw (Bernie Oakman), Richard Loo (Leo), Walter Burke (Zeno), Marianne McAndrew (Angel Carter), Scatman Crothers (Smoke), Lal Baum (Waxwell), Charles Shull (Binder Ransin).
by Richard Harland Smith
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