Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s characters are all acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part.

The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or modelling their behaviour on the actors they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (The High Window, Chapter 10)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (THW, Ch. 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW, Ch. 30)

Even the highly self-conscious, first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch. 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the way the tough guys he encounters ceaselessly model themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction.

Thus Raymond Chandler’s novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (THW. Ch. 4)

Why are eyes so important?

Throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on his descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc, and wondering why he takes so much trouble on what amounts almost to a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes – the acting, and the seeing – are interconnected.

Eyes are mechanisms of concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many, if not all, the other characters are trying to conceal from him.

Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So, in a detective novel, what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions.

They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, sizing up how successfully or not all the other characters are playing their roles play a part. They are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES.

People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words and, inadvertently, give away all kinds of meanings and intentions which words alone conceal.

Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal. In the following I categorise and try to define the various ways Chandler uses eye imagery.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves.

Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’.

As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and, in cynical 1940s Los Angeles, the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to shutter and curtain, to cover with ‘blinds’.

But the eyes’ owners are all too often weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW, Ch. 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS, Ch. 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS, Ch. 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS, Ch. 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS, Ch. 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW, Ch. 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS, Ch. 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch. 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS, Ch. 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment.

People’s eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into the narrator’s mind

But of course it works both ways: the other characters’ eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liars to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights which those third-person liars themselves use to probe into the narrator’s acts and thoughts.

They are not only the means other people use for acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether the narrator is are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful.
‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’
‘Yeah. I understand.’
He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS, Ch. 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS, Ch. 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW, Ch. 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully… (THW, Ch. 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW, Ch. 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS, Ch. 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS, Ch. 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS, Ch. 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others, using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And the subject becomes an opportunity for Chandler to show off, to take the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW, Ch. 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS, Ch. 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS, Ch. 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS, Ch. 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or how Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS, Ch. 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW, Ch. 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW, Ch. 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW, Ch. 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

You can see from these examples how the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. The self-referentiality of his gaze is linked to the acute self-consciousness of all the characters, all playing parts.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses.

I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. When they do it’s clear what their function is – to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is an elementary, physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ i.e. less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and therefore more distant and detached from everyone else, including people they speak and interact with.

And why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially the police) wearing shades. It is because, not being able to ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. At a disadvantage.

An attitude of supposed invulnerability which Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW, Ch. 4)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS, Ch. 21)

Othertimes, as already noted, the shades are there, but the mockery is implicit. They are, quite simply, more opportunities for Chandler to display his virtuoso way with phrase making.

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW, Ch. 22)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS, Ch. 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutral eyes, belonging to people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are outside of the game of deception and search the main characters are playing. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW, Ch. 14)

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of eyes are just a pair of eyes. Or are they? The irony is that this old geezer – named Grandy – despite his dead, watery, old-man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

Maybe there are no innocent eyes anywhere in the stories.

6. Eyes of the dead

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch. 28)

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. And both of them are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see i.e. to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true of the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes.

For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which – I am arguing – is one of the central and defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch. 34)

7. Marginal eyes

And some final, minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give the quickest snapshots of characters or their emotions, for Chandler the state of the character’s eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch. 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch. 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS, Ch. 22)

Marlow is a ‘private eye’

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an ‘eye’?

Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, more important than any other aspect of a person which can be hired.

And it is as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough to interpret and understand – he must hire another pair. One pair of eyes isn’t enough in the war of eyes. The client needs to hire mercenary eyes.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that they are unknown to whoever they’re tasked with investigating and spying on.

But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing – and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting – all these actions take place in Raymond Chandler’s novels predominantly through the eyes.

And hence, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with phenomenal meaning and significance.


Appendix

a) Eyes in The High Window

All Chandler’s novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run-of-the-mill, through the contrived, to the inspired. It is the sheer variety, and the variety with which he describes such an apparently everyday business – looking and seeing – which is awe-inspiring.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch. 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch. 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch. 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch. 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch. 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch. 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch. 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch. 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch. 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch. 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch. 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch. 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch. 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch. 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch. 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch. 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch. 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch. 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch. 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch. 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch. 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed with panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch. 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch. 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch. 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch. 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch. 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch. 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch. 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch. 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch. 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch. 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch. 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch. 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch. 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch. 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch. 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch. 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch. 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch. 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch. 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch. 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch. 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch. 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch. 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch. 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch. 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch. 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch. 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch. 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch. 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch. 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch. 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch. 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch. 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch. 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch. 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch. 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch. 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch. 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch. 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch. 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch. 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch. 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch. 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch. 33)

P.S.

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans can be admitted into this realm of conflict, their animal devotion a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye, but still not entirely innocent. No eye in Chandler ever is.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS, Ch. 19)


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