The Big Sleep (1946). 114 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge), John Ridgely (as Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (as Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (as General Sternwood), Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Harry Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (as Joe Brody), Bob Steele (as Lash Canino), and Dorothy Malone (as Acme Bookstore proprietress). Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep is a befuddling but magical detective movie. Its plot points are overly complicated, much of the action does not make sense, and the audience is left with many unanswered questions when it ends. But The Big Sleep’s relentless use of cool attitudes, mystery-rich moodiness, and snappy, arch dialogue encourages us to enjoy the story’s stylish atmosphere and characterizations in lieu of the usual and more predictable pleasure that we might take in successfully unraveling a gumshoe’s investigation. The result is a film that is rebellious in terms of both the characters it depicts (especially their attitudes towards sex, crime, and life on the edge) and its method of storytelling. For those who are willing to relinquish their need for logical outcomes, watching the film, especially the relationship between the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is one of the great experiences of Golden-Age film noir.
The Big Sleep stars Bogart as Philip Marlowe, a Los Angeles-based detective summoned by the aging General Sternwood to investigate a case of blackmail against his family. Sternwood has two daughters: the astute Vivian (played by Bacall) and the young, flirtatious Carmen. It soon becomes clear that Carmen has become enmeshed in a dangerous crowd, presumably engaged in the production of pornography and drug use but also murder. Vivian is combative towards Marlowe and cagey in response to his questions but ultimately begins to fall for him. Dead bodies appear and disappear, including that of the Sternwood family chauffeur. Eventually, out of a sea of unsavory characters, Marlowe narrows his sights on a creep named Eddie Mars, whom he identifies as the source of the trouble plaguing the family. He disposes of Mars in a showdown, thus solving the crime and saving the Sternwoods’ reputation.
Attempting to summarize the plot of The Big Sleep points to its defects: unexplained corpses and indefinite crimes, impressionistic storytelling, and many characters and small scenes that complicate our understanding of the story’s core. Perhaps it would be different if the film were guided by a voiceover akin to the first-person narration used by author Raymond Chandler in the novel it is based on. That narration, provided by detective Marlowe, furnishes guidance as characters come and go and the plot becomes more complicated, and it also helps us to process whatever and whomever we encounter. Without a voiceover, the movie struggles to piece together a lucid plot.
But the film of The Big Sleep provides many opportunities for our appreciation of characters, themes, and subtexts to twist and deepen through elements that do more than simply advance or complicate the plot. For example, to my mind one of the most delicious examples of The Big Sleep’s use of atmosphere to establish pertinent, lingering themes is the early scene set in the greenhouse with General Sternwood where Marlowe first meets the ailing patriarch and learns the details of the case he is to take on. Although the setting is rich in fertile growth, it nevertheless is marked by unsettling morbidity, evident in General Sternwood’s illness but also by revealing snippets of dialogue, such as when Sternwood discusses orchids with Marlowe (“Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption”). The greenhouse also offers us competing audiences for the conversation between Marlowe and Sternwood. Their encounter takes place within the greenhouse and thus within the walls of the Sternwood estate, but because the greenhouse is made of transparent glass, the environment is also semi-public, unenclosed. We do not have a specific reason to believe that anyone outside of the greenhouse is watching the two men; nevertheless, the conversation only has the appearance of privacy and, as it advances, generates discomfort—in Marlowe, but also potentially in us.
Sternwood explains his problems to Marlowe while seated in a wheelchair and wearing a thick robe and blanket. The sun streams down through the glass, and the room is thick with orchids and other plants. Sternwood soaks up the sun and heat—he is so old and sick, he says, that he cannot get warm enough, and the steamy atmosphere does not make him uncomfortable. Marlowe, on the other hand, begins to sweat profusely in his light suit and uses a handkerchief to dab at his skin. To make his guest feel at home, Sternwood encourages Marlowe to drink from a cart of alcohol—the general mentions that he can no longer drink due to his health problems but enjoys sharing his bar with others.
As Sternwood looks on, it is clear that the general is living vicariously through the detective, who imbibes and sweats simultaneously in a strange display of his physical ability to function in good health. But the scene is about more than vicarious pleasure; it is also about voyeurism—from the glass walls of the building to the general’s attentive gaze. The dialogue and the way that Sternwood behaves towards Marlowe lacks a sexual component, yet the element of voyeurism in this scene relates to the larger context of kinkiness and perversion that the story strives to communicate impressionistically elsewhere. The greenhouse scene thus communicates the basic tangible facts of the case that Marlowe is about to investigate while also establishing something more intangible: the feeling that The Big Sleep’s characters—even older, presumably respectable characters such as the general—belong to a world laced with subversion and edginess, where what seems like normative behavior actually suggests upon closer inspection a hidden dimension, a double existence, and a secret world.
From the deep and somewhat unsettling interior of the Sternwood estate, the film then launches itself into the dark post-war city. Taking his leave of the general, Marlowe returns to his car and embarks on a tour through Los Angeles’s underbelly, prowling through the underworld in all its scuzzy splendor with its back-room pornographers; intoxicating substances; fast-moving, lascivious women; gun-toting hoodlums; and malevolent sexual exploiters. It is a dangerous world, full of implied violence, blackmail, and urban sleaze. For example, Arthur Geiger uses his legitimate-appearing bookstore to run obscene literature out of a rear door (we get a brief glimpse of men working with books in boxes but no further explanation of what is transpiring). Carmen Sternwood is drugged and made to pose for explicit photographs in Geiger’s house, and the film communicates this by having her wear a Chinese ensemble in an exotic chair while giggling and falling all over herself, unable to speak coherently. The presence of a nearby camera hints at what has happened.
Whereas Chandler’s novel makes its sexual elements more explicit, in the movie version of both the bookstore scenes and the scene in Geiger’s house with Carmen, kinky activity is only obliquely touched upon. The movie of The Big Sleep feels oddly muted, especially when we compare the scenes it has in common with the novel, but the movie will feel strangely opaque even to someone who has not read the source material. There is also content that never made it into the film due to the Hollywood Production Code, such as the episode in the novel where Carmen appears in Marlowe’s apartment nude and in his bed, waiting for him to return home. The result is a movie that feels both seedy and weirdly tame—a strange combination, especially for a film noir.
Still, it would be wrong to say that the sexual element is not present. For example, the film of The Big Sleep takes pains to communicate, albeit through suggestion, that its women are wild. From the playful sexual tension of Carmen Sternwood’s first encounter with Marlowe (“She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up,” he says), to the audacious dialogue about race horses that takes place between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood, to Vivian’s gambling habits, to the Acme bookstore clerk who closes her shop for an afternoon of naughtiness with Marlowe, to the female cabby who gives Marlowe her card, saying “If you can use me again sometime, call this number” (“Day and night?” he asks. “Uh, night’s better. I work during the day”)—women in this movie have an energy that is on the verge of erupting into problems.
The book clerk is a particularly fun example. Marlowe visits the Acme Boosktore so that he can spy on Geiger’s shop across the street. The clerk agrees to shut down her shop on a whim so they can spend the afternoon together while he waits and watches Geiger’s operation. Marlowe then asks the clerk, who is wearing glasses, to take them off—an inconsiderate gesture, given that she is likely wearing them because she needs them—but she complies and takes down her hair in the process. She even has alcohol, which the two drink while flirting. A cut in the scene to later in the day elides whatever else transpires: do they do more than drink? We are not told; it is evening and Marlowe takes his leave.
The scene at the Acme establishes that Marlowe is a sexual overachiever who can quickly and effortlessly persuade women to do anything from shutting down their business for the afternoon so that they can chat with him in comfort to changing their appearance to please him. But it also suggests the latent potential for these women to become luxurious sexual adventurers, keen on letting their hair down and abandoning the world of traditional behavior for the favor of an alcoholic beverage and some shrewd talk. This aspect of the novel, and of Chandler’s fictive world generally, is difficult to suppress, even under the protections of the Hollywood Production Code.
All of the implicit naughtiness of this world surely contributes to its edginess, but if there is any one aspect of The Big Sleep that above all cements its appeal, it has to be its stylish dialogue. Take, for example, the race horse exchange between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood that I mentioned earlier:
Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.
This scene was added to the film in post-production after the studio decided to capitalize on the burgeoning real-life Bogart-Bacall relationship by turning up the heat on their on-screen relationship. But interestingly, making their on-screen selves more erotic and intense involved additional dialogue, not additional action, embraces, and so on. That decision is reflective of The Big Sleep’s commitment to talkiness, but also its reliance on dialogue to fill in the sexual gaps that were created when the novel was adapted for the screen.
Elsewhere the dialogue is equally snappy, especially between Marlowe and Vivian. “You go too far, Marlowe,” she says to him as he goes to leave in one scene; he replies, “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.” Or there is the wonderful moment when Vivian snaps at him, “I don’t like your manners,” and he snaps back:
I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings, and I don’t mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Dialogue such as this contributes coolness and mystique to the film’s characters. But elsewhere dialogue actually serves as action: events take place in words rather than on the screen. For example, we learn that General Sternwood’s son-in-law Regan dies, but we do not see his death, and we never see him while he is alive either. The dialogue about Regan is the only mark that the character leaves on the screen, and information about Regan comes only from these other characters. Direct action is suppressed again when General Sternwood’s chauffeur Taylor appears dead in a car that has been pushed off a pier. At first Taylor’s death may seem like an active, violent imprint, but we only see the car being dredged from the river, not going into it, and our experience of the death is primarily managed through the discussion of it at the pier by Marlowe and the police. Moreover, the identity of Taylor’s killer is never made clear (or is his death a suicide?), and how his body and car got into the river is never explained. Prompted by Bogart, director Howard Hawks telegrammed novelist Raymond Chandler to learn how Taylor dies, but according to Lauren Bacall, Chandler famously had to admit, “Dammit, I didn’t know either.” The movie does not resolve the mystery.
What action there is either on or off screen, which to be fair includes a few shootings that we do see, is often inexplicable, in part because of the need for the film of The Big Sleep to communicate its more scandalous elements obliquely but also because the action can be either devoid of logic or so convoluted that it cannot be parsed out without significant effort. Why does Geiger’s body disappear from his house, only to show up days later positioned neatly on his bed? What is the relationship of the shadowy bookstore operation to everything that comes after it? How does Taylor die? How has Marlowe determined that Carmen Sternwood is a killer, and is that really what he is saying at the end of the film? Why is he going to great lengths to protect her, especially given that we almost never see her in the film? Chandler’s novel is admittedly complicated, but even it does not offer so many loose ends. The movie’s vague sense of cause and effect is complicated by the introduction of characters who come and go, each one involved in some nefarious scheme for which there is rarely a scene of resolution where the end to something or someone is clearly registered and the next step that Marlowe takes is made explicitly necessary.
The Big Sleep is at times allergic to logic and clarity in this way, a mystery story that is itself a mystery; however, it also works. I would say that in spite of its being difficult to follow, it is also pleasurable, but doing so would eclipse a larger point that must be made about the film: there is something about the periodic murkiness that actually seems to contribute directly to the subversive agenda that The Big Sleep embraces. The story advances through the cloudiness of its plot threads with a lack of concern that mimics the post-war cool of its characters. Punctuated with wisecracks and snappy retorts that abstain from small courtesies and politeness, The Big Sleep proceeds cockily as a storytelling venture as well, piling on characters and developments without pausing to refresh or review plot points. It matches the flippant attitudes offered up by Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood (and, in particular, the tough-guy machismo of Marlowe) with its disregard for more explicit hand-holding as we lumber through its world.
The Big Sleep’s commitment to this kind of rebel chic threatens to outstrip its status as a recognizable detective drama. If that is a turnoff, then The Big Sleep will be a turnoff. But passing on it would be passing on a film noir classic, one of the more involving and tantalizing movies of its kind. Its creators think that we are capable of enjoying a film that is largely an unsolved and provocative puzzle. I would rather be subjected to their high estimation of my ability to appreciate a convoluted film than a more modern movie’s assumption that any such appreciation is a lost cause.