January 22, 2008

"There Will Be Blood," Edward Doheny, and Raymond Chandler

The Daniel Day-Lewis / Paul Thomas Anderson art house film "There Will Be Blood" (which received eight Oscar nominations this morning) is vaguely based on some quite interesting history. From my review in The American Conservative:

No movie of 2007 sounded more promising than "There Will Be Blood," which stars the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 roman a clef novel about prospector Edward L. Doheny, Oil!

In 1893, Doheny sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, digging 155 feet down by hand. His oil discoveries all over California and Mexico (where he employed a private army of 6,000), enabled him to give his son the most imposing house in California south of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, Greystone, a 55-room Beverly Hills mansion with a private bowling alley (where the last scene of "There Will Be Blood" was filmed).

During the Harding Administration, however, Doheny, a Democrat (but an open-minded one), became entangled in the Teapot Dome scandal. After receiving a no-bid contract to drill on Navy lands, he sent his son with a "loan" of $100,000 in cash to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.

Outraged, the muckraking socialist Sinclair wrote a verbose but well-researched novel about oil, "the black and cruel demon," leavened with some surprisingly affectionate depictions of the old rascal. If Sinclair had waited two more years, though, he would have had the perfect climax. In 1929, having been acquitted of conspiracy, Doheny was still facing trial on bribing Fall, when his son and his son's secretary, both potential witnesses, died at Greystone in a murder-suicide. Who had murdered whom? The police quickly blamed the underling and the newspapers went along.

The Doheny affair was not forgotten, however, by a Los Angeles oil industry executive named Raymond Chandler. When he drank himself out of a job in 1932, Chandler tried writing detective fiction. The ambiguous Greystone killings became the archetype for Philip Marlowe's cases, with Doheny Sr. perhaps the inspiration for the dying General Sternwood who hires Marlowe in The Big Sleep.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Jim O said...

By the way, the reason that "The Big Sleep" (both in novel and movie form) has a reputation as being impossible to follow is because it's true. The novel's bad enough, but the scriptwriters butchered the plot further, so the movie's ending makes virtually no sense at all. Why I feel the need to say this, I have no idea.

Steve Sailer said...

The death of the Sternwood chauffeur, whose car goes off a Malibu pier into the Pacific, is never fully explained. It was probably a suicide, caused by the younger Sternwood daughter breaking his heart.

Chandler's plots generally don't involve a large, planned-out conspiracy. Instead, usually something happens that can't be ignored -- somebody goes missing or a dead body turns up -- and that leads to a lot of rocks being turned over and a lot of unseemly conduct being exposed, much of it only tangentially related to the original crime.

Kind of like when young Chandra Levy disappeared in Washington, and it was quickly discovered that she was sleeping with her married boss, Congressman Gary Condit. Then lots of people assumed he killed her, but no evidence for that has turned up. That's kind of like a Chandler plot - a little unsatisfying, but instructive.

Anonymous said...

Good point Steve. Of course Hammett because he WAS a real detective had more tightly focused plots. Red Harvest was based on his strike breaking work at Butte Montana.

Anonymous said...

With Chandler its not the plots, its the language. James M Cain had much better plots (and movies based on them).

Steve Sailer said...

Cain's "Mildren Pierce" is a wonderful ultra-realist novel, with a great section on how to run a chicken restaurant (the Joan Crawford movie version is good but not as good as the book).

The funny thing about the famous movie version of Cain's book "Double Indemnity" is that Raymond Chandler rewrote (with Billy Wilder) all the dialogue. Chandler said the dialogue was perfect to read but all wrong for the movies. Cain, who was working at the same studio on the screenplay for a different movie, was called in and he agreed with Chandler.

Steve Sailer said...

Jeez, Hammett's "Red Harvest" was based on real events? That's scary - there are like 50 dead bodies in that book. It starts out like a normal murder mystery but the action ends up like that in "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Nothing like the old mining business for intense worker-capitalist struggles...

Anonymous said...

It's alleged that Bogart and Howard Hawks phoned Chandler to resolve their argument as to who had killed the chauffeur, but Chandler had no idea.