Raymond Chandler — the quintessential American hard-boiled detective novelist — no doubt had plenty of interactions with Jews while working in Hollywood in the 1940s as a screenwriter. And the first Jew he had any serious interaction with appears to have been the famous director, Billy Wilder. Wilder was an Austrian-born Jew who had read Chandler’s novels and liked the way he wrote dialogue, so he offered Chandler a job in 1943 to write the screenplay adaptation of James Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity — for which he was nominated an Academy Award.
From all accounts the urbane and English-educated Chandler strongly disliked working with Wilder whom he found crude, slovenly and abrasive. At one point, Chandler went so far as to send a letter to the movie’s producer with a list of complaints about Wilder, who later remembered the list:
“He couldn’t work with me anymore because I was rude; I was drinking; I was [fornicating]; I was on the phone with four broads, with one I was on the phone — he clocked me — for twelve and a half minutes; I had asked him to pull down the Venetian blinds….without saying please.”
Of course, at the end of the war, the same Billy Wilder went on to direct anti-German propaganda films for the Allies — about the “horrors” of the “Nazi” death camps — with shrunken heads and lamp shades made from Jewish skin.
The Little Sister (1949)
While Chandler wrote a few Jews into his novels as minor characters, there’s no real indication that he held any serious “antisemitic” attitudes toward them — one commenter described Chandler as “politely antisemitic,” quoting him from a letter he had written, “I distrust Jews, although I admit that the really nice Jew is probably the salt of the earth.”
When Chandler published his next novel — The Little Sister — in 1949, it included a Jewish character named Moss Spink — a thuggish enforcer who runs interference for a high-powered Hollywood agent. This Spink character could very well have been inspired by Chandler’s unpleasant experience with Billy Wilder.
There is a palpable tension between Spink and Chandler’s famous detective, Phillip Marlowe — whose name Chandler likely borrowed from the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe — who wrote the “antisemitic” play, The Jew Of Malta.
In The Little Sister, Chandler writes,
A plump white-haired Jew sat at the desk smiling at me tenderly. “Greetings,” he said. “I’m Moss Spink. What’s on the thinker, pal?” Park the body. Cigarette?” He opened a thing that looked like a trunk and presented me with a cigarette which was not more than a foot long. It was in an individual glass tube.
“No thanks,” I said. “I smoke tobacco.”
He sighed. “All right. Give. Let’s see. Your name’s Marlowe. Huh? Marlowe. Marlowe. Have I ever heard of anybody named Marlowe?”
“Probably not,” I said. “I never heard of anybody named Spink. I asked to see a man named Ballou. Does that sound like Spink? I’m not looking for anybody named Spink. And just between you and me, the hell with people named Spink.”
“Anti-Semitic, huh?” Spink said. He waved a generous hand on which a canary-yellow diamond looked like an amber traffic light. “Don’t be like that,” he said. “Sit down and dust off the brains. You don’t know me. You don’t want to know me. O.K. I ain’t offended. In a business like this, you got to have somebody around that don’t get offended.”
Since Marlowe claims he’s never heard of anybody named Spink before, it would seem that he doesn’t connect the name with Jews — like, say, Goldstein would — so there’s nothing necessarily anti-Jewish about the way he mocks the name — though that doesn’t stop Spink from taking it that way.
So when Spink accuses Marlowe of being an antisemite, it comes across as perfunctory — just to put Marlowe on the defensive. When Marlowe doesn’t respond to Spink’s accusation, Spink fumbles around for another angle to get some other leverage over Marlowe — finally admitting that he’s not really offended anyway.
This brief scene shows that Chandler had a very subtle understanding of how many Jews operate — it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that a Jew in Hollywood had off-handedly and cynically accused Chandler of being an “anti-semite” — just to test him to see if he’s squirm. But Chandler — like his alter-ego Phillip Marlowe — was a cool customer — and it’s doubtful that such an empty accusation would raise anything in Chandler except for perhaps an eyebrow.