To Be Or Not To Be: The Big Sleep

from To Have and Have Not

Last night I viewed Howard Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep (1946). It was the fifth or sixth time I’d watched it, and the first thing to say is that this is the rare kind of film you can do that with, good reliable entertainment no matter how often you see it.

The film is of course based on the book of the same name by Raymond Chandler, written in 1938. Chandler based it on three short stories he had written earlier: Killer in the Rain (1935), The Curtain (1936) and The Man Who Liked Dogs (1936). Chandler was a poor plotter, and often re-used plots taken from his excellent short stories in his novels. Famously, he was confused about the murder of one character in this book, the chauffeur Owen Taylor, and couldn’t explain it to Howard Hawks when the scriptwriters asked for more details (This anecdote shouldn’t stop you from noticing that the murder is explained in both book and film. You just have to be quick in order to get it). One of these scriptwriters was William Faulkner, and as both Faulkner and Chandler had a drinking problem (both would have said a drinking solution) one can imagine the conversation might have been hard to follow had both men spoken after a few drinks.

Chandler had an aim in writing his fiction, which was to give crime stories back to the people who killed or were killed, and take it away from the neatly and ingeniously plotted vicarage murder, with the butler who did it, which rightly evolved into the board game Cluedo. He put the emphasis into pacing and atmosphere, and thought this book was the best paced one he ever wrote. It is of course filled with the witty dialogue Chandler is famous for. With this one book Chandler added romanticism to the realistic plotting of Dashiell Hammett and the dark fantasy of James M Cain, and founded a genre of crime novel successful as both literature and film. It is one of the best crime novels ever written (unless you’re an Agatha Christie fan). It is worth noting that in repudiating the whodunit style and advocating the whydunit, Chandler was merely stepping in the footsteps of Georges Simenon, who had been doing work in this style since the early 30s.

This was exactly the approach to appeal to Howard Hawks. Hawks was hailed as an ‘auteur’ by the French New Wave writers and directors but was never comfortable with this role. In a documentary on him I saw years ago (Men Who Made the Movies, Richard Schickel 1973) he said again and again he had no message, no point of view, no intention but to entertain. As writer, producer and director Hawks was more comfortable with the name ‘craftsman’. Let’s just say he was one of the greatest craftsmen Hollywood ever produced. His films were notable too for their fast and furious pacing. Films like Twentieth Century (1934) with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant and Catherine Hepburn, and His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell all featured frenetic, overlapping dialog, with probability being jettisoned for good scenes racing furiously into one another. In 1945 Hawks was ready for another masterpiece.

The foundation for a good film is often said to be a good story and script. Writing the screenplay of The Big Sleep were William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, with contributions from Howard Hawks. Faulkner is of course famous for his early novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, two of the best books he ever wrote and both among the best novels ever written. He wrote six screenplays in Hollywood, five for Howard Hawks, and won the Nobel Prize in 1949.

Here’s a famous anecdote about William Faulkner. Director Howard Hawks related once how he took Faulkner and Clark Gable along with him on a hunting trip. Hawks was friends with both, but neither Faulkner nor Gable knew each other and Hawks didn’t tell either one who the other was. During the trip the conversation turned to writers, and Gable asked Faulkner who he thought were the best writers. Faulkner replied, “Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann and myself.” Gable said, “Oh, do you write, Mr. Faulkner?” Faulkner replied, “Yes. And what do you do, Mr. Gable?”

Leigh Brackett was a famous and popular science fiction writer whose screen credits include, aside from The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye for Robert Altman and The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas (unfinished at her death). Jules Furthman had been writing scripts since 1915, including Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus for Josef von Sternberg, and To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks. That’s a lot of talent in the writing department.
The film is strong on pacing and atmosphere. It’s also strong on glamour. Virtually every female character in The Big Sleep is a classic beauty. Lauren Bacall is the lead, but there’s also Martha Vickers as Carmen, Dorothy Malone as the bookstore owner, Peggy Knudsen as Mona Mars, Joy Barlow as the taxi driver, Deannie Best and Tanis Chandler as a couple of waitresses, Sonia Darrin as Agnes, Carole Douglas as a librarian and Shelby Payne as a cigarette girl. One remembers what a key part Hawks had in the career of  Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Rosalind Russell. The man could pick them.
Some elements in the book were changed in the film to avoid trouble with the Hays Office. Carmen’s photos, the lever to extort blackmail from the wealthy General Sternwood, were nude ones. When she breaks into Marlowe’s apartment in the book he finds her nude in his bed. Needless to say, we don’t see Martha Vickers in the nude. Carmen and her extorter, Geiger, are both drug addicts, but we only see Geiger dead, and Carmen’s habit looks pretty much like drunkenness in the film. Carol Lundgren, one of the murderers, is Geiger’s homosexual lover in the book, but there is no hint of this in the film. These omissions play havoc with characters’ motivations, and only the fast pace prevents us asking just why one character would want to kill another. To compensate, Hawks throws in some comedy, such as Bogart as the pseudo book collector (“The Ben Hur of 1860, no, no, not the first edition, the third, you know, the one with the erratum on page 116″) and builds up the relationship between Vivian and Marlowe, minor to the book but vital to the film because the studio was banking on Lauren Bacall as a star, and she and Bogart had been popular in To Have and Have Not (1944). “If you want me, just whistle. You do know how to whistle, don’t you?” Bacall had ‘the look’, but it’s the interaction between her and Bogart you recall, not her acting. Martha Vickers as Carmen is a much better job than Bacall’s Vivian. It is sobering to realise that for Warners this was a low budget, low profile film.

The film is a film full of quotations, just as Casablanca is. From the opening scene: CARMEN: You’re not very tall, are you?
MARLOWE: Well, I try to be.

GEN. STERNWOOD: No, and I don’t intend to. If I did she’d just suck her thumb and look coy.
MARLOWE: Yeah. I met her in the hall and she did that at me. Then she
tried to sit down in my lap when I was standing up.

VIVIAN: You go too far, Marlowe.
MARLOWE: Woo, those are harsh words to throw at a man. Especially when
he’s walking out of your bedroom.

MARLOWE: I hurt you much, Sugar?
AGNES: You and every other man I’ve ever met.

VIVIAN: You forgot one thing. Me.
MARLOWE: What’s wrong with you?
VIVIAN: Nothing you can’t fix.

Big Sleep

The plot? Forget it. A pornographer, drug addict and homosexual called Geiger is blackmailing Carmen Sternwood. Marlowe is hired to get rid of the man. He follows Geiger to his house and breaks in when he hears a scream to find Carmen drugged and Geiger murdered. On two subsequent visits he finds the body has disappeared, then returned and laid out. The Sternwood chauffeur, who is in love with Carmen and acting to protect her and who has murdered Geiger, is himself found murdered, and Marlowe finds out the murderer is a man called Brady, who has blackmailed Carmen on a previous occasion and is now attempting to take over the Geiger blackmail operation. But Brady in turn is murdered, by Geiger’s employee Lundgren, who believes Brady has murdered Geiger and acts in revenge. A gambler named Eddie Mars becomes involved, and Vivian Sternwood (Mrs Rutledge) seems anxious to shield him. Mars is spreading a story that the ex gunrunner Shawn Reagan, employed by the Sternwoods, has run off with his wife. Marlowe eventually finds this not to be true, that Reagan has disappeared, that Carmen has something to do with it and that Mars has a hold over the Sternwoods and is also blackmailing them. In a climactic shootout Marlowe kills Mars’ hired killer the vicious Lash Canino, and later sets a trap for Eddie Mars which results in his death from a shooting by his own men, who think they are shooting Marlowe. Marlowe and Vivian have developed a relationship, and declare their love. The end. To viewers used to Charles Bronson having his family killed and tracking them down and killing the murderers one by one this movie is overplotted to a ridiculous degree. But Hawks and his scriptwriters saw Chandler’s book as a masterpiece, and made a brave and determined effort to leave most of it in the final script. The plot? Forget it.

Humphrey Bogart c. 1930

The film is dominated by Humphrey Bogart’s masterly portrayal of Philip Marlowe. He acts with such assurance in the role you unhesitatingly believe in him. He is able to show a craggy kind of humanity towards ex colleague Bernie Ohls, arrogance morphing into tenderness towards Vivian as their attraction grows, yet be really scary coming up against thugs such as Canino.

But Bogart shouldn’t let all the other fine performances go unnoticed. John Ridgely as Eddie Mars and Bob Steele as Lash Canino make formidable villains (and the hero is only as good as the villain he overcomes). Martha Vickers is outstanding as Carmen, the younger Sternwood sister. Charles Waldron gives depth to the part of General Sternwood: he’s just a plot device that starts the film rolling, but giving detail and background to a fine actor to work with adds a lot to the credibility of the film. Charles D Brown as Norris the butler has some great scenes, minor villains Harry Jones, played by Elisha Cook Jnr, and Joe Brody, played by Louis Jean Heydt, give convincing performances, Dorothy Malone as the bookshop owner has a sizzling sex scene with Marlowe, Sonia Darrin is not just beautiful but plays the minor role of Agnes well, and Joy Barlow as the taxi driver on a tail job is wonderful. “Call me”. “Night and day?” “Night’s better. I work in the day.”

It’s a film that, in addition to the enormous contribution made by its writers and actors, is significant because Hawks is able to recreate the dark fatality underlying Chandler’s novel. Much of the action takes place at night, and the blackmailers, gamblers, drug addicts, con artists and killers are all plotting against and betraying each other while they are waiting to sleep the big sleep. Into this sordid world comes Marlowe, of it yet somehow above it, with his rock solid integrity and gallows humour. That’s all it takes, both Chandler and Hawks seem to be saying. Just a little integrity.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “To Be Or Not To Be: The Big Sleep

  1. I thought Martha Vickers was great in this film, but she got shortchanged when they deleted a couple of her scenes to emphasize Bacall. There’s an alternate version of the movie somewhere that includes her deleted scenes.

    1. I agree about Martha Vickers, loved her in the film. Somewhere I read a story that Hawks wanted her to cry and moan in one scene. “Just like an orgasm” he said, to help her. “What’s an orgasm?” she said. Thanks for the tip about a longer version, I’ll investigate. Any idea of the running time?

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