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Penguins: James Tormey’s Raymond Chandler covers

The exclusion of designer James Tormey  – and in particular his early 70s covers for a series of Raymond Chandler books – from Phil Baines’ history Penguin By Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 has long rankled with me.

I was expecting to find out more about the man whose remixes of Hollywood classic stills led me to Chandler in my early teens. But there is no mention of Tormey or these covers, which hummed at the time with the revival of interest in 40s cinema, and film noir in particular.

Bewitched by Chandler’s prose – the geographic precision of which imbued in me a lifelong fascination for the city of Los Angeles – I was soon spending odd Saturday nights and Sunday mornings propped up by Pro-Plus at the NFT, attracted by quadruple bills starting at midnight and grouped under such banners as “All Night Loners”.

Given the opportunity, which pretentious alienated youth of the the early 70s could resist?

Now interest in Tormey seems to be gathering pace. Other onliners – such as Permanent News – have discussed how his application of harmonised neon starkness accorded with the principles of the Penguin brand identity as set out by Germano Facetti in the 60s.

Here are some of my own copies of Tormey-designed books – with possessive teenage ex libris markings on title pages – as well as a few filched from PN and mjkghk’s wonderful Penguin flickr site.

Of Chandler’s seven novels, The Long Goodbye remains the bitter pinnacle, predicated as it is on the relationship between Philip Marlowe – ever-present in the text and never failing to surprise and delight – and the almost entirely absent foil Terry Lennox.

Unlike Howard Hawks’ near-peerless The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye’s transposition to the big screen at the hands of Robert Altman in 1973 was poorly conceived.

In more carefree times Elliot Gould’s anti-hero mumbling and the director’s deliberately loosened grip on the storyline have conveyed a rambling charm, but a recent viewing was dulled by disappointment at the ham-fisted treatment of Chandler’s dialogue as the storyline struggled under the sheer weight of stoned silliness.

The book of Chandler’s which most demands a film version is the only one which hasn’t been tackled yet: the poignant Playback.

Chandler’s final work, it is uneven and so sparse as to feel incomplete, yet the air of resignation enhances Marlowe’s nobility; the ultimate loner in the urban landscape, he is as usual beset at every turn by vixens and molls, crooked cops, corrupt DAs and toughies, cheapies and playboys, but this time Marlowe is nearly over the hill and he knows it.

Imagine my delight when I came across Fictional Film Club’s 1982 “version”, directed by Brian De Palma to a Todd Rundgren soundtrack with Dennis Quaid as Marlowe and Theresa Russell as the enigmatic Betty Mayfield.

Not my directorial or leading man choices but a fantastic take on what, in the right hands, would be a fabulous film and remains in literary terms a careworn classic, as effortlessly conveyed by Tormey’s cover.

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Author: / Published: Nov 1st, 2011 / Category: Books, London, Penguin paperbacks / Comments: 4

4 Responses to “Penguins: James Tormey’s Raymond Chandler covers”

  1. LondonLee
    on Nov 2nd, 2011
    @ 12:32 am

    I love Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’, Marlowe’s world-weary nobility is even sadder in stoned and amoral 70s Los Angeles

    Great covers

  2. Paul Gorman
    on Nov 2nd, 2011
    @ 8:41 am

    Dear Lee

    Each to his own.

    I was bemused when I first saw it in the 70s (I guess part of the intention), intermittently charmed when it was on late night rotation in California in the early 90s but now think it is barely there as a film – Nina Van P is a saving grace, but the gratuitous violence, the actor who plays the author being the biggest ham ever (and so irritating you want him to go away quickly), that embarassing scene where they are drunk on the beach after his demise…phooey.
    I guess it’s just not tightly-wound enough for Chandler. Again, the intention but rather missing the point imho.

  3. Penguins in The Guardian « Paul Gorman is…
    on Oct 31st, 2012
    @ 2:32 pm

    […] Read my piece about Tormey’s Chandler designs here. […]

  4. Mark Sohn
    on Aug 8th, 2017
    @ 4:45 pm

    As a recent convert – in the last few years – to Chandler, I asked my Darling Wife if the Treasury would extend to his works and she indulged me, including a few of these ‘Bogart’-covered copies… as for the films, they vary dramatically from awful to sublime… apart from Elliot Gould’s constant smokescreen and catchlines, plus that piss-awful song, I loved The Long Goodbye… a man out of his time. Watching a film about a man out of his time. With Schwarzenegger in y-fronts. And tits. Many tits. A great film with some unexpected laughs… as for Sterling Hayden being a (drunken, self-destructive) ham?; he was playing Chandler, to a ‘T’… the author on a long self-destructive slide, to The Long Goodbye.

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