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A fresh look at Wilder and Chandler

April 20, 2013|By Lynne Heffley | By Lynne Heffley
  • Raymond Chandler (Shaun O. Hagan) and Billy Wilder (Kevin Blake) in the world premiere of 'Billy & Ray' at the Falcon Theatre.
Raymond Chandler (Shaun O. Hagan) and Billy Wilder (Kevin… (Photo by Chelsea…)

Before Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled L.A. detective Philip Marlowe and his vivid literary prose caught the public's attention, before Billy Wilder's towering position as one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, there was a James M. Cain novel titled, "Double Indemnity."

The true story of how Chandler and Wilder made movie history with the book's screen adaptation in a collaboration that would launch not only their respective iconic careers, but the dark and edgy genre of American film noir, is the subject of playwright Mike Bencivenga's first-rate new comedy, "Billy & Ray," expertly crafted and well-cast in its world premiere run at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

It's an oil-and-water mix when tormented, down-and-out author Chandler (Shaun O'Hagan) and crude, lewd and brilliant Wilder (Kevin Blake) team up to adapt Cain's novel for the screen. Wilder is asked by Paramount producer Joe Sistrom (sympathetic Anthony Starke) to see what he can do with Cain's novel. Wilder's regular co-writer, however, wants nothing to do with it. Impressed with Chandler's stylish prose in short crime stories published in a popular pulp magazine, Wilder recruits him for the project, although he and secretary Helen (smart, wise-cracking Ali Spuck) are taken aback to find the author ascetic and dour, even prudish in person.

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Chandler, it turns out, has never seen a screenplay before and doesn't consider it "real writing." Chandler, who took up writing later in life having lost a prestigious position in the oil industry in large part due to alcoholism, accepts the job simply because he's broke.

Wilder, recognizing that Chandler's disdain targets Cain and Wilder himself, takes perverse pleasure in goading his new writing partner with vulgarities and peripatetic pacing. Their comic back-and-forth, at times laugh-out-loud funny, doesn't hide the deeper dimensions that drive both men, revealed partly in the telling physicality that director Garry Marshall (assistant director Joseph Leo Bwarie is also credited) gives both lead actors. O'Hagan, in a tour-de-force of nearly continuous movement, uses the stage as both a defensive and offensive physical statement. For the most part, Blake's painfully self-contained Chandler remains seated, occupying one end of a sofa, briefcase close at hand, in what appears to be self-protective emotional confinement.

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