Aug 15 2011 10:00am

The Big Rewatch of The Big Sleep

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.

A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

This article is part of Noir Week on ‹ previous | index | next ›
seth e.
1. seth e.
The story goes that while they were filmmaking, Hawks and his collaborators couldn't agree on who'd actually killed the chauffeur, in the original crime that sets the plot in motion. One person thought one thing, one thought another. They argued it back and forth; they went over multiple drafts of the screenplay; they even went back to the book itself, but they couldn't figure it out. Finally they just called up Chandler and asked him outright.

Chandler admitted that he didn't know either; if he'd ever known, he'd forgotten. "Just fake it," he said, "and see if anyone notices."

That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
John Richards
2. wanderingoutlaw
I think there should be at least mention that William Faulkner was one of the screenwriters, and he admitted that he had no idea who committed one of the murders.
Alain Fournier
3. afournier
Love that movie. That said it makes more sense if you previously read the novel. I’ll second the Bogart-Bacall observation and add that the acting was top notch throughout.
I turned my wife on to Chandler by watching this movie with her. She was a big fan of the early Spencer novels so admittedly he was predisposed to liking Chandler.

So what other films are you going to cover?
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
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 Big Sleep might be one of the clearer Marlowe novels (with the possible exception of the chauffeur question, as others have mentioned), but as much as I love Chandler's stuff, I rarely get to the end of a Marlowe book and completely understand everything that happened. That's just me, though. (And I have this issue with much noir fiction, not just Chandler.) That said, I loved this novel and now feel compelled to Netflix the film, which I have not seen (yet). Great novel-- Chandler could string words together like nobody else.

It's interesting to note that The Big Sleep (the novel; perhaps the film, too?) clearly influenced the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski. The eponymous "big" L is clearly an homage to General Sternwood. In fact, the exteriors for the big L's mansion are actually shots of the Doheny mansion in LA; when Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, he intended the Sternwood character as a riff on the Doheny family, which readers of the period would have recognized. (SF great Larry Niven is related to the Doheny family, interestingly enough.) The Doheny wealth came from oil; Chandler worked as an oil executive in the 1920s. (Write what you know, I guess.)

I highly recommend the book A Bright and Guilty Place by Richard Rayner; it's full of fascinating tidbits about Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th century, including many factoids about Chandler and influences on the Marlowe novels.
Lev Rosen
5. LevACRosen
Possibly my favorite movie of all time. I was very jealous when Bridget said it had already been claimed, but clearly I am not the only one who loves it. I love the flirting. Bogart and Bacall flirt and tease like no one else. Just such an amazing movie.
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
One of my fave Bogie movies. In fact, anything with Bogie and Becall works really well. I know the plot doesn't make a lot of sense but the journey is great.

There was a great bit with Bogie in the bookstore with Dorothy Malone, just as her career was beginning.

And another with Elisha Cook, Jr who was one of the really interesting character actors. He was poisened, knew it before he drank it and did it for love. All really evident in his face, a very cool scene. And Marlowe in the next room, unable to do anything to help him.
seth e.
7. seth e.
ITregillis @4 - That's just me, though. (And I have this issue with much noir fiction, not just Chandler.)

It's not just you at all. The basic noir story is about people, acting from good or selfish motives, getting caught up in complications beyond their control. The complications always take over to a degree that obscures the original motivator for the plot; that's by narrative design. The underlying theme of noir is that it doesn't matter what the original intentions were, it doesn't even matter who killed the chauffeur. There is no moral center, or pre-determined good action; people consist of their reactions to the complications in which they find themselves, and that's all. The Maltese Falcon is a little early to be considered real noir, but it makes that point very clearly.

This is why the mid-century French reacted to film noir so strongly. It's also why most noir stories have darkish endings, which makes the ones with happy endings even more interesting.

Dear Are you doing Gilda and Laura? If not, then dammit!

johntheirishmongol @6 - There was a great bit with Bogie in the bookstore with Dorothy Malone

One of the most egregious Hollywood-ugly moments in movie history. There's just no way Bogart could have told she was a looker--she had glasses on.
Ian Tregillis
8. ITregillis
seth e.@7:

Very interesting, the notion that the obfuscation of plot is by narrative design! Cool. I'd never thought about it that way, but it does make a certain amount of sense, and explains why this seems to be endemic to much noir fiction. Some noir fiction, though, is quite clear about what's happening-- certain Chandler works, and Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice spring to mind. (Though these are maybe an offshoot in a slightly different direction; they aren't hard boiled.)

And yes, certainly Maltese Falcon is a fine example of the murkiness of character. Which is a major point of it all. I'd argue, though, that at least in the Chandler novels, Phil Marlowe is the moral center of an otherwise very gray universe. He is, after all, the "shop-soiled Galahad". He isn't a knight in shining armor, but he does adhere to a personal moral code that's more honorable than that of anybody else around him. (Perhaps better to say that he's the least tarnished?)
Rowan Shepard
9. Rowanmdm3
I'm so glad I'm not the only person who was terribly confused by this movie. Though I adore Bogie and Bacall and they make up for the plots holes, the confusion did lesson my enjoyment a little b/c I felt stupid for not being able to figure it out. Now I'm going to rewatch the film this week and just enjoy the film and not worry about who killed who; it should make for an interesting rewatch.
seth e.
10. seth e.
ITregillis @8 - by "moral center" I mean a reciprocal relationship between the protagonist and the story, in which the protagonist's actions are always, ultimately, the right thing to do in the context of the story. The famous example is the protagonist who uses torture to solve a problem. Torture is okay when he does it, because he is the person he is; in fact he's proving what a good person he is by his willingness to do bad things. Sometimes he gets to be all broody and conflicted about it, but there's never any real suspicion that he's a bad person, because the story is on his side.

I don't think this is true of Marlowe. When he does moral things, it's because he chooses to do them, and when he doesn't, he's aware of it. Given the genre he's in, one of the interesting things about Marlowe is how many people he doesn't kill.
seth e.
11. Gabemar
Is there any examples of SF or Fantasy Noir that any of you guys recommend? Is there such a thing? I would be interested in checking out something like that.

John Adams
12. JohnArkansawyer
Gabemar @ 11: It isn't quite noir, perhaps, but I love John M. Ford's The Last Hot Time and will not be surprised if it is included this week.
seth e.
13. Steve-O
one thing that's fairly consistent about classic noir: the stories are convoluted. I had to finally take long notes on legal paper while rewatching Out of the Past for the 5th time before I fully understood what was going on -- all the flashbacks don't make it easier. So The Big Sleep is definitely in that category. And wonderfully so...

As far as gays in noir. They were there. Just hidden a bit. Watch the Maltese Falcon again and tell me Peter Lorre isn't playing a gay man. Obviously they couldn't come out and show him kissing Sydney Greenstreet (there's an image for ya) but it's there. I love noir because of what's NOT SAID or SHOWED. The code made the filmmakers work harder to talk about sex or show violence without actually doing it. In The Big Sleep they're not really talking about horse racing... know what I mean?
seth e.
14. Gabemar
JohnArkansawyer @ 12 Thanks. It sounds good. The description was enough for me to order it. It reminds a bit of Dark City, which I thought it was a pretty good movie. Maybe the best noirish sci fi I've seen with the exception of Minority Report.
Alain Fournier
15. afournier
JohnArkansawyer@12 I am assuming that you have seen Blade Runner which I think qualifies as noir.

If you don't restrict yourself to movies than Richard Calder's Altered Carbon is an excellent SF noir.
Alex Bledsoe
16. alexbledsoe
Love this movie. Besides Faulkner, one of the screenwriters was SF/mystery author Leigh Brackett; you can see the attempt to add this level of banter to the Han Solo/Princess Leia relationship in "The Empire Strikes Back," the final script on which she worked. And if you pick up the DVD release, there's an earlier "preview" version of the film that includes a scene with the DA in which Bogart and his cop pal lay out who did what to whom pretty clearly. This was cut in the release version, and replaced by the Bogart-Bacall horse-racing scene. A fair trade, as far as I'm concerned.
seth e.
17. sashanova
Please include the film "Brick" in noir week!
Alyx Dellamonica
18. AMDellamonica
I'm going to check out A Bright and Guilty Place very soon indeed! Thank you for the tip, ITregellis. And alexbledsoe, I'm with you--I'd rather have horse racing subtext than a boys workin' the clues scene any day.
Jen Moore
19. Jenavira
There is actually an edition of this movie that purportedly makes slightly more sense; it's the flip side of the disc that comes in the Bogie & Bacall box set. Apparently they decided to cut some plot scenes in favor of having more of Bogie & Bacall flirting with each other, and I can't say that they were wrong.

I'm a huge fan of Chandler, and I've always been sad that they've never really filmed a good version of The Long Goodbye. It'd make a great period piece filmed today.
seth e.
20. Liddle-Oldman
The book is actually quite clear: the younger daughter killed the chauffer and dumped his body in one of the oil sumps because he turned her down. The movie makes little sense because they took out all the sex -- which the book was filled with, and powered all of the plot -- and injected romance, which the book had none of and no room for.

Mind, it's a fine movie -- who the hell can refuse Bacall? -- but one really needs to have read the book and know all of the elements that were cut out for it to be comprehensible.
Alyx Dellamonica
21. AMDellamonica
It never seemed that unclear to me: she was unbalanced enough, and Bogie said enough, that it made sense. The murky point, for me, was who'd killed the second chauffeur, who was in love with her. And at some point I just decided Joe Brody was lying when he said he hadn't done it.

I really should read the original, though.

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