I am a sucker for narrative foreplay. I like stories that build up to their central problem in an unhurried way. Don’t get me wrong I love a good thrill ride. But the pleasure of a rollercoaster, for me, includes the part where the machinery of the coaster is reeling the cars upward. Up, up, endlessly up, chukka-chukka-chukka, fighting gravity all the way. I like to have time to contemplate what lies ahead, to look at all the scenery that’s going to be nothing but blur in a few minutes time. And I love the caught breath at the top, that scary-delightful tipping point that offers you a moment’s illusory stasis… before the dizzying roll downhill.
Which is why I feel there is something thoroughly sublime about the beginning of The Big Sleep.
It’s the kind of opener you rarely see in movies these days: low-key, moody, and heavy on the exposition. It is, in fact, one of the talkiest scenes you’ll ever have the privilege to sit through, My Dinner with Andre notwithstanding. In fact, this scene does things that we writing instructors tell people, in all earnestness, not to do. There’s so much beginning in this beginning! It starts so far from its eventual point! Then again, it starts with Humphrey Bogart, and he’s almost a point in and of himself, isn’t he?
So, yes, Bogie, a.k.a. Phillip Marlowe. He shows up up at an overblown L.A. mansion, exchanges knowing looks with the butler, and then fences briefly with an attractive young woman who’s all of about five, emotionally. And all of this is just prelude to his falling down the rabbit hole of The Story So Far.
The Big Sleep’s backstory unfolds as a leisurely and beautifully written dialogue between Marlowe and the man who’s allegedly his client, General Sternwood. I say ‘allegedly’ because the poor General, who is played with ascetic charm by Charles Waldron, gets hijacked by Lauren Bacall after only one scene. He never reappears. Yet the script and director lavish attention on him. He’s the amuse-bouche in a long, delicious meal, and every second he’s on screen is worth savoring.
Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from a terminal case of the chills, Sternwood has retreated to a greenhouse full of orchids, where he melts Bogie to a puddle and briefs him on every little thing about his life: his failing health, limitations as a parent, the personalities of his two daughters, and oh, yes a minor situation with a runaway employee. It’s two guys yakking. There are no guns, no posturing, no eye-catching pyrotechnics. You’ll feel like you’ve known both men for a decade before the General gets around to explaining that someone is blackmailing the youngest of his spoiled daughters, Carmen.
This is in some ways the last scene that makes much sense in The Big Sleep. To a great degree and for reasons I’ll go into later the plot is a little dodgy. It seems promising enough. Marlowe has barely begun working on the blackmail before one of his suspects is murdered. Before he can follow that up, the person who did the deed is killed, too. (Here’s a clue, Marlowe! Follow it to this person… oops, they died. Sorry about that.)
As all the would-be extortionists bump each other off and get bumped in their turn, the elder Sternwood daughter, Vivian Rutledge, pokes her nose in. She is busily engaged in trying to figure out why, exactly, her father has hired a private investigator. Does it have something to do with the missing employee, Sean Regan?
(Clearly, this isn’t a family that has heart to hearts over the orchids on Sunday afternoons.)
It is apparent the deaths are tied to the blackmail, at least, and to the missing employee, but how is Vivian tied up in it all? Is she a villainess, or a dame in a jam?
We care less because it makes sense than because Vivian Rutledge is, of course, Lauren Bacall. She’s sultry, she’s smoking, and her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart is a wonder to behold. Now, almost seven decades later, we have seen infinite variations on this story. What The Big Sleep offers isn’t a brilliant twist on a crime story: it’s Bacall and Bogey trying to shake the truth from each other. Marlowe can act as tough as he likes, but we are tuning in to watch them fall in love. There’s killing and all, but really this is practically a chick flick.
Which is good, because by the end of the film, a fair number of viewers have always said they weren’t entirely sure who’d killed who anyway. The novel The Big Sleep is clear about all the murderers and their motives, or so I hear. The film is vague because in Hollywood movies, sixty-five years ago, a little thing called The Hays Code made it impossible to adapt this story faithfully. There were lots of cosmetic changes: the gay villains weren’t gay anymore, or pornographers for that matter. (I have mixed feelings about this. They almost certainly would have been depicted as evil gay pornographer perverts, had this been allowed, and not so much as a couple of guys in love who happened to have smut and crime as their day job). More to the point, the Hays Code didn’t didn’t have room for troubled rich girls who acted out their problems by climbing naked into Humphrey Bogart’s bed, and they certainly didn’t allow nice characters played by someone like Lauren Bacall to have moral ambiguities like sympathizing with a murderer.
The central question of the movie, however muddied, does come through. It is, basically, ‘how far will you go for someone you love?’ The problem, for Vivian, is that her loyalties are divided. She wants Marlowe, but someone has a prior claim on her heart, and so she is stuck wooing him on one hand and betraying him on the other.
And it works. Honestly, this movie has it all. Well, okay no ninjas. But there’s a crooked casino owner and a poisoning and an evil bookseller and a profoundly cute bookseller and fights and tough guys and shootings and all kinds of enjoyable mayhem and sexually suggestive talk about horses and true love. Also, Bacall gets to sing a peppy song about… well, about domestic violence. Watching old movies does involve a bit of time travel and culture shock.
There’s also rain. The Big Sleep, like a lot of noir films, is deeply atmospheric.
My hometown, Vancouver, offers a lot in the way of rainstorms, chilly, tree-rattling, blustery November downpours, and there is no better weather for curling up on the couch with this film. It’s perfect comfort viewing for stormy nights, and that’s what I recommend. Next time the thunder’s rumbling, when the skies are as colorless and rainy outside as they are in this black and white classic movie, make yourself a big bowl of popcorn, turn on The Big Sleep, and snuggle in tight with someone you love.