Background: Although he spent his formative years in England, Raymond Chandler will always be remembered for his stories of mid-century Los Angeles sleaze. Along with James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett, Chandler pioneered modern crime fiction and laid the foundations of film noir. His hard-boiled vision of the city remains a cornerstone of the genre, echoing through Chinatown (1974), Pulp Fiction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997.)
Chandler only began writing seriously at age forty-four, when the Depression and his own alcoholism ended a long career in the oil business. Desperate to find work, he began writing for the influential detective magazine Black Mask, honing his skills in a series of twenty-one novellas. He “cannibalized” two of them – science fiction authors would call it a “fix-up” – into his first novel, The Big Sleep. First published in 1939, Chandler’s debut introduced his most famous creation, cynical private detective Philip Marlowe.
I read The Big Sleep for this review and was struck by Chandler’s style: he had a tremendous economy of language and a true ability to create atmosphere. Despite his English background (he once remarked that he learned “American” as a foreign language), he really knew the Southern California landscape and had an ear for American vernacular. Writing from Marlowe’s perspective, Chandler immerses the reader in the detective’s nocturnal world. In one haunting passage, Marlowe drive through Laurel Canyon “past lighted windows in big houses on ghostly enormous grounds, vague clusters of eaves and gables and lighted windows high on the hillside, remote and inaccessible, like witch houses in a forest.” Chandler’s writing is so noir that you can see the chiaroscuro lighting.
Described by some critics as Los Angeles’s epic poet, Chandler conquered Hollywood in 1944: RKO released the first Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet, and Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the script for Double Indemnity. The James M. Cain adaptation became a hit with audiences and critics, receiving 7 Oscar nominations (including one for the screenplay) and earning a place in the film noir pantheon. A month after Double Indemnity premiered, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not that featured the first pairing of real life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Looking to capitalize on the couples’ notoriety, studio mogul Jack L. Warner asked producer/director Howard Hawks to find a new vehicle for them. Hawks suggested The Big Sleep.
After acquiring the rights to the book, Warner Brothers assembled an incredible team to bring it to life. Besides reuniting Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio also brought in Max Steiner to compose the score and a talented group to write the screenplay. Nobel laureate William Faulkner worked with noted science fiction author Leigh Brackett – she would co-write Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back much later in life – and longtime Hawks collaborator Jules Furthman adapt Chandler’s novel. The trio finished the screenplay in eight days and production started immediately, with principal photography wrapping up in January of 1945. (The finished product contains multiple references to wartime rationing.)
Warner Brothers, however, decided to tinker with the film before its wide release; Bacall’s agent pressured the studio to giver her more screentime. While several of the film’s slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were reduced or completely eliminated, Casablanca (1942) screenwriter Julius Epstein added sexual innuendo and developed the relationship between Bogart and Bacall’s characters. After these reshoots, Warners released The Big Sleep in August 1946. While I watched both versions, I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the differences between them, so this review will cover the final cut.
Plot Introduction: Wheelchair-bound millionaire General Guy Sternwood (Charles Waldron) has grown too old and infirm to control his two daughters’ scandalous behavior. When a blackmailer targets Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the general hires private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) to investigate. Marlowe discovers that blackmail is only the beginning of the Sternwoods’ problems: the family has become caught up in a spider’s web of murder and betrayal. Several killings ensue, all of which seem to involve racketeer Eddie Mars (John Ridgely.) To make things even more complicate, the detective falls in love with Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall.) Having solved the blackmail case, Marlowe descends into the L.A. underworld to solve the murders and protect the Sternwood sisters.
My Thoughts: When I mentioned echoes, I had something very specific in mind, as my first encounter with The Big Sleep was really when I watched The Big Lebowski (1998.) Yes, that Jeff Bridges cult classic is an affectionate pastiche of Chandler’s writing, sharing its setting, basic plot structure, and specific details – i.e. a disabled millionaire attended to by an obsequious butler – with the author’s first novel. (Joel and Ethan Coen seem interested in a kind of cinematic intertextuality; 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou has a close relationship with the films of Preston Sturges.) If you take my recommendation and watch or rewatch The Big Sleep, keep an eye out for how closely it mirrors The Dude’s strange adventure.
At its best, golden age Hollywood has this kind of mythological resonance, the ability to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by each new generation. Decades later, the images remain vivid in the popular imagination: a giant gorilla atop the Empire State Building, Dorothy Gale leaving sepia Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. I think that these film endure because they are the product of many talented people instead of one auteur, as myth belongs to no single author. Described by Roger Ebert as “a case where ‘studio interference’ was exactly the right thing,” The Big Sleep offers a perfect example of mythology created on time, on budget, and within genre conventions.
Few exemplified creativity within the system as much as director Howard Hawks. If you’re not familiar with Hawks, Peter Bogdanovich provides the perfect introduction to the filmmaker in his book Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich illustrates the director’s ability to handle many different genres by imagining a viewer watching a bunch of classic Hawks films and asking, “Did the same guy direct all of these?” Hawks, unlike many acclaimed directors – you always know when you’re watching a Hitchcock film or a Kubrick film – never overshadows the stories themselves.
Even with his famous versatility, Hawks is an especially good fit for The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe might be the perfect Hawksian hero, a consummate professional and nonchalant in the face of death. Hawks, who once said that “for me, the best drama is the one that deals with a man in danger,” excelled at directing this kind of characters in films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939.) Furthermore, he directed some of the studio era’s finest romantic comedies, and the witty, fast-paced banter of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) prepared him for Chandler’s sarcastic dialogue. When people talk about The Big Sleep, they always bring up the verbal sparring between Bogart and Bacall; Hawks has them play it like a screwball comedy.
And, of course, Hawks had Humphrey Bogart at the height of his powers. By the time he made The Big Sleep, “Bogie” was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) in the immediate past and Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) on the horizon. Bogart as a trench coat-clad detective has to be one of the most iconic images in film history, and his Philip Marlowe is even better than his Sam Spade. Because Bogart’s screen persona and Chandler’s character are almost identical, Bogart basically plays himself throughout the film, demonstrating again and again why he remains a symbol of cool. As one might image, he and his then-wife have fantastic chemistry; she’s just as good at delivering razor-sharp dialogue as he is.
Bogart and Bacall give stellar performances, but they also get a lot of help from a fine supporting cast. As Carmen Sternwood, Martha Vickers has to communicate her character’s troubled psyche through innuendo alone. In the novel, Carmen is completely out of control with sex and drug addictions; Marlowe’s initial task is to retrieve and destroy nude photos of her. Obviously, the Production Code meant that none of this could be said outright, but Vickers’ nymphomaniacal performance makes that unnecessary. She’s another great femme fatale. To play all the story’s various criminals, Warner Brothers brought together an army of strange-looking character actors: particularly effective are Ben Welden and Tom Fadden as Mars’ goons and Bob Steele as a hitman aptly named Canino. As Mars himself, John Ridgely plays an anti-Marlowe, someone just as quick-witted and unflappable but on the other side of the law.
While The Big Sleep undoubtedly ranks among the great films noir, its visual style doesn’t always match the genre’s iconic look. When I think of noir, I think of shadows: screens dominated by monolithic slabs of darkness. On this film, cinematographer Sidney Hickox goes in a different direction, with light defused through rain and fog and streetlamps reflecting off vintage cars. The film’s world is grayscale rather than the high-contrast black and white I’d associate with, say, John Alton’s cinematography. Many of the film’s most evocative scenes involve Marlowe sitting in a parked car, smoking and waiting for something to happen. These shots have a tremendous power, and I realized – after some thought – that Hickox’s cinematography channels the loneliness of Edward Hopper paintings.
When the story movies to the interior of blackmailer Arthur Geiger’s home, The Big Sleep fully embodies the classic film noir style. In both the cinematic and literary versions, the plot always returns to the Geiger house, which seems to be a magnet for death. Drawing on Chandler’s description of a creepy Laurel Canyon bungalow, Hickox and the production designers place lights and Geiger’s collection of “exotic” Asian trinkets in a way that creates strange, moving shadows. Simply put, I can’t think of a better illustration of how dreamlike (nightmarish?) old black and white film can be.
Along with the cinematography, the film’s screenplay preserves the novel’s atmosphere. Faulkner et al keep the flavor of Chandler’s dialogue and make it even wittier, adding double entendres and clever wordplay. As I mentioned before, this innuendo-drive approach is important because so much of the novel – homosexuality, drug abuse, pornography, nymphomania – would have been deemed unacceptable for contemporary audiences. Despite these limitations, the screenwriters keep much of the original plot, allowing all the members of Chandler’s underworld to form alliances and double-cross each other. They make one major change, however, transforming Vivian Sternwood from a minor character to the main love interest. In the book, Marlowe abides by a strict code of ethics and refuses to get personally involved with clients.
While it would be easy to criticize this as purely commercial, I think that the writers made the right decision. As every reviewer mentions, The Big Sleep has a labyrinthine plot built around interlocking murder mysteries. (This blog has a handy chart that explains the complicated connections between all the characters.) Simplifying the plot, however, would simply not work, as so much of the novel’s tense atmosphere comes from its tangled threads. Instead of cutting out plot points, the writers change the focus, using the crime plot as a backdrop for the romance story. As strange as it may seem, this through-line ties the film together as well as The Dude’s rug: now, Marlowe has a personal investment in the Sternwood family that did not exist in the original novel.
At the very beginning of Chandler’s book, Marlowe enters the Sternwoods’ stately home and sees “a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree.” Many scholars have identified Arthurian themes in Chandler’s ouvre (his original name for Marlowe was Mallory, as in the compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur) and, in many ways, that is what the film gives us. The many hands that it passed through shaped it into an archetypal, Campbellian story: a knight who wears a fedora and drives a coupe ventures into the dark world of 1940’s Los Angeles to save a maiden. Like no other film I can think of, The Big Sleep is a hero’s quest within a romantic comedy within a film noir.
Author’s Note: Much of the background information in this blog post came from Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips. If you’re interested in the noir genre, this book is definitely worth checking out.)