In Lily Torrence, a hotshot young writer directer, Max Beckerman, and a talented older mystery writer, Lyman Wilbur, team up to write a screenplay for a hardboiled murder story called Double Down. And they respect each other’s abilities, but hate each other. This is the engine that drives Lily. And it is closely based on fact.
In 1943 Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity, and hired Billy Wilder to direct it, and he, in turn, hired Raymond Chandler to co-write it. Part of the reason for this was that Wilder, a German immigrant, was not completely comfortable with American vernacular, in particular the sort of streetwise lingo that tough characters in movies were always spouting. Chandler, of course, had honed his skills in this kind of dialogue and description through years of writing pulp magazine stories and his Philip Marlowe novels.
Wilder was a bon vivant, a wit, extremely well-connected in Hollywood. He was just getting started on his career as one of the greatest writer-directors in the history of movies. Chandler was quite a bit older, a recovering alcoholic with an English prep-school education, who, despite his success as a “pulp” writer (a success that paid extremely poorly) never gave up his literary aspirations. And he was a complete outsider at the Hollywood studio where he now worked.
The tension of working together all day, combined with their equally matched egos and well-honed irritabilities led to several well-remembered explosions, which are recounted in biographies of the two men. They got off to a bad start when the neophyte Chandler, not realizing the work was a collaboration, started writing the screenplay on his own. In Wilder’s recollection:
“He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He'd put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he'd grasped the technique.
I sat him down and explained we'd have to work together.” (James Linville, “Billy Wilder” 1996).
Here’s how the scene plays in Lily Torrence.
“How was your weekend?”
“Productive.” Lyman stood and handed him a sheaf of papers, about thirty pages, neatly typed. “I didn’t nearly finish, of course, but I would call it a good start.”
“Was ist das?” Max looked at the gift. “Double Down. Act One, Scene One.” He read a few lines, then riffled through the pages, stopping here and there. He read out loud: “‘Camera follows Archer into the office. The ice-cool blonde eyes him. Close up of her thin, gold pencil tapping the desk indolently.’”
He looked at Lyman. “You read the screenplays I gave you?”
Max cut him off. “Mister Wilbur, a screenplay is not something you throw together over a weekend.”
Lyman smiled, and his pipe clicked between his teeth. “Of course. I—”
“And camera movements are not dictated by a beginner writer to a director.” Max could hear his voice rise. He adopted a friendly, teacherly tone instead. “We will work together on writing this picture. You will help me turn this admirably flavorful novel you wrote into a usable set of dialogues. He says, she says. That is all, and it is enough.”
Lyman blinked at him for a long moment. “Naturally, I expected there would be revisions.”
“Revisions!” For just a moment, Max considered throwing Lyman’s papers at his puffy, offended face, and just dropping the whole project.
You will have guessed that “Max” and “Lyman” are stand-ins. Once these two characters are established, the story moves off on its own. Max is accused of shooting his wife’s lover, and Lyman gets involved in proving Max’s innocence. Of course Wilder never shot anyone, and Chandler would have danced if he had. But that’s non-fiction, so ugly in its pettiness. In Lily, Lyman doesn’t save Max—the facts of the case to that—but it’s the impetus for him delving into much seamier and sadder lives, as we’ll talk about in future installments.
Read More: “Billy Wilder: On Raymond Chandler,” interview by James Scott Linville, The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1, 1996, and at http://themainpoint.blogspot.com/2008/06/billy-wilder-on-raymond-chandler.html.
Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood 1977.
McShane, Frank, The Life of Raymond Chandler 1976.