© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same title, is notable partly because its detective figure, Philip Marlowe (played by Dick Powell in the 1944 Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet), is played by megastar Humphrey Bogart, just reaching his zenith as Hollywood’s biggest male star, thus taking film noir into more mainstream territory than it had ever before occupied. The screenplay, meanwhile, was co-written by famed novelist William Faulkner (along with veteran screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman), giving it additional cultural credibility. And the film was directed and produced by Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most respected names (as both a director and a producer). This film was thus more mainstream than most noir films in a number of ways, though it also deviates significantly from the Hollywood norm, as in its tendency, inherited from Chandler, to depict American society as corrupt and decadent to its very core. In addition, the film breaks all kinds of rules of Hollywood narrative in terms of its complex and confusing plot structure. It is, in short, a film filled with disjunctions and contradictions, a fact that might ultimately be its greatest strength.
The Big Sleep was a substantial commercial success that only added to Bogart’s growing prominence in Hollywood. Nevertheless, while it simplifies the convoluted plot of Chandler’s novel to some extent, it complicates it in others, and the film is well known for its baroquely complicated (and under-explained) plot, which often leaves viewers guessing in an effort to fill in the gaps. Bosley Crowther’s initial complaints about the impenetrability of the film’s narrative in his initial New York Times review of the film have become an established part of film noir lore, for example, though later critics have been more generous. Thus, Kevin Hagopian describes The Big Sleep as a film “whose narrative elaborations are only decipherable through far more advanced elliptical reasoning than the classical Hollywood cinema regularly demands of its viewers. These elaborations constantly threaten to distend the film into insensibility” (34). For Hagopian, though, the film’s deviations from accepted practices of Hollywood narrative might potentially be seen, not as mistakes, but as innovations that make the film a forerunner of later postmodernist films by filmmakers such as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.
There has, however, been considerable disagreement over just how much of the deviation of The Big Sleep from the Hollywood norm is a matter of genuine aesthetic innovation. David Thomson—noting aspects of the film such as its use of far more characters than are really needed to tell its story—declares that it is “one of the most formally inventive ever made in Hollywood” (64). Mark Bould, on the other hand, disagrees, arguing that Thomson exaggerates the extent to which Golden Age Hollywood films in general obeyed a very strict idea of convention narrative. Hollywood narratives, he declares, are not nearly as consistently coherent as Thomson believes; even very mainstream Hollywood films often depend as much on spectacular individual scenes as on smooth narrative flow. For Bould, then, “while The Big Sleep might be remarkable, it is far from exceptional (69).
Even Hagopian believes that the anarchic structure of the film, more than anything, should be seen as a reflection of the chaotic circumstances under which the film was produced. He puts great emphasis on the turbulence and turmoil of the wartime context in which this film was originally conceived and filmed as an influence on its final form. In particular, Hagopian warns that it is crucial to read The Big Sleep within the context of film noir, and not merely as a product of Hawks’s Hollywood auteurism, in order to appreciate its “twisted image of wartime life [as] perverse, relentlessly violent and sexual, and above all unpredictable, an image that exemplifies noir’s power to offer a cynical analysis of American life all the more unexpected because it occurs in a medium which was otherwise co-opted to present archetypes of social consensus and harmony” (45).
However, wartime anxieties were only the beginning of the forces that impacted The Big Sleep, which was initially filmed between January and March of 1945, then previewed in this preliminary form for American soldiers overseas. Before the film could go into general release, however, World War II came to an end in the summer of 1945. At this point, Warner Bros. still had a backlog of war-related films waiting to be released. The Big Sleep, while it contains a few clear clues to the fact that it was made during the war, does not particularly depend on that context, so its release was pushed back in order to give priority to films that directly dealt with the war, allowing them to get to theaters as soon as possible, while they were still relevant. In the meantime, a number of revisions were made to The Big Sleep, partly in response to feedback from its overseas previews and partly as a result of its changing context, which included not only the end of the war but the May 21, 1945, marriage of stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose relationship consequently became even more an object of public fascination than it had already been since their appearance together in To Have and Have Not (1944).
By the time it was finally released, numerous modifications had been made to the original film, with newly filmed scenes edited into the existing ones, adding to the chaos of the plot structure. Then again, The Big Sleep is also a film in which the plot is largely beside the point, functioning primarily as a way to create atmosphere and to highlight the characters. Indeed, The Big Sleep is, more than anything, a star vehicle for Bogart and a study in character focused on Marlowe, who is substantially changed relative to the original novel (or Murder, My Sweet), partly to bring him more into line with the image the studio wanted to project for their biggest star. This image, though, was a complex one. Bogart had established himself early in his career as a tough guy, often playing gangsters and criminals, mostly in B-movies, though his roles in films such as The Petrified Forest (1936) and High Sierra (1941). The Maltese Falcon went a ways toward upgrading his image to allow him to play more positive roles, though still with an emphasis on his toughness. But his major move toward stardom came in Casablanca (1942), widely considered to be one of the most romantic films ever made. Bogart’s romantic image was then further enhanced in To Have and Have Not, the film that began his relationship with Bacall (and one that was clearly influenced by Casablanca).
The Big Sleep seeks to capitalize on both the tough and the romantic sides of Bogart’s image, even if the second of these sets him somewhat apart from Chandler’s version of Marlowe. For example, the promotional campaign for The Big Sleep put great emphasis on the central roles played by Bogart and Bacall and on the romantic relationship between their characters in the film. Thus, one promotional poster (shown below) featured a drawing of their characters about to kiss, emblazoned with “Bogart and Bacall” in huge letters, followed by the film’s title is somewhat smaller letters. This poster also included the designation “The picture they were born for” to suggest further the importance of their relationship in the film. In point of fact, however, that relationship is actually less important in the film than such promotions would imply.
The Big Sleep itself begins on a note similar to these posters, as the opening titles begin with a shot of Bogart and Bacall in silhouette, while their names are overlaid side-by-side in huge white letters that virtually fill the screen. It is only in the second title frame that the title of the film is displayed, followed by a third frame announcing that this is a “Howard Hawks Production.” The actual film then begins with a sequence in which Marlowe (who frequently, in Chandler’s fiction, greets the ostentatious wealth of L.A.’s elite with a certain amusement) rings the doorbell of the imposing mansion of the elderly General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants to hire Marlowe to do a service for him. There is none of the irony with which Marlowe approaches the Grayle mansion in Murder, My Sweet (where he notes that it was not that impressive, no larger than Buckingham Palace). In the novel, however, this arrival is accompanied by Marlowe’s description, which is laced with irony, suggesting that he is a bit out of his element in such a building:
“The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying” (1).
Bogart’s Marlowe, however, is so poised and self-possessed that he is never out of his element anywhere, so he merely takes the posh mansion in stride. Nor is he fazed when Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the younger of the general’s two daughters, approaches and begins to flirt with him in a manner that suggests she is accustomed to men being swayed by her flirtations. But this Marlowe has seen it all, and Carmen’s baby-doll act doesn’t make a dent in his calm demeanor. When Sternwood’s butler Norris (Charles D. Brown) returns to take Marlowe to see the general, Marlowe remarks of Carmen, “You oughta wean her. She’s old enough.” “Yes sir,” says Norris, with butler-like reserve, but it is clear that Marlowe and Norris are already beginning to establish a rapport that will last throughout the film.
Marlowe immediately hits it off with the general as well, suggesting the way in which he is able to move easily from one social milieu to another, always able to function smoothly. The film portrays Sternwood rather positively. Though he is old and infirm, it is clear that he had once been much more vigorous and that he is anything but an effete, snobbish aristocrat. This is a general, after all, a man of action who seems to have earned his own fortune—though not necessarily in the most scrupulous of fashions. He immediately identifies Marlowe as a man after his own heart (almost as a sort of younger version of himself), and Marlowe seems to take to the older man as well. Marlowe shows no hint of jealousy at the old man’s wealth; if anything, he is here (and throughout the film) somewhat solicitous of the general, with his failing body and his wild daughters. Indeed, the younger of those daughters, Carmen, is the source of the trouble that old man Sternwood hires Marlowe to deal with for him. It seems the general has received a bill for “gambling debts” owed by Carmen to one Arthur Gwynn Geiger, supposedly a seller of rare books, though it is immediately clear to Marlowe that the request for payment is part of a blackmail scheme.
Marlowe will meet the elder of the two Sternwood daughters immediately after his conversation with the general. It is clear that Vivian Sternwood (played by Bacall) is a bit more mature and level-headed than is her younger sister, toward whom she is clearly very protective, knowing of her penchant to get into trouble. In the novel, Vivian is the former wife of Rusty Regan, though she doesn’t seem to have been very attached to him and was perfectly willing to help dispose of the body and cover up the fact that Carmen killed him. In the film, however, Vivian is a divorcée, the former wife of a man who doesn’t figure in the story at all, thus making her seem a bit more eligible to be a romantic partner for Marlowe. And the film makes several subtle modifications to the book to move their relationship forward. When they first meet in the book, for example, Vivian greets Marlowe with a barb: “So you’re a private detective. … I didn’t know they really existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotels.” Marlowe, however, simply ignores her comment and decides not to respond. In the film, however, this exchange is expanded into a classic bit of film noir banter that is also reminiscent of the dialogue in the screwball comedies for which Hawks had had so much success in the past. Vivian begins with essentially the same remark as in the novel, then adds, “You’re a mess, aren’t you?” In this case, meanwhile, Marlowe responds with a witty repost: “I’m not very tall, either,” he says, referring to Carmen’s earlier quip. “Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.” “I doubt if even that would help,” responds Vivian, unfazed by this bit of class-based antagonism.
Such changes seem to have been designed not only with an eye toward boosting Bogart’s image as a romantic lead but also as a boon to Bacall’s career, which was still in its early stages when she was cast in The Big Sleep, only the second film in which she had a credited role. While The Big Sleep was being revised, Bacall also made another film, the war-related Confidential Agent, which was released in November 1945, to largely negative reviews, which were especially critical of Bacall’s performance. It thus became critical (after the initial version of The Big Sleep had already been filmed) to Bacall’s career that she be a success in this film, so that she could get back on the road to stardom that had begun in To Have and Have Not (her first film), allowing the studio to take full advantage of the Bogart-Bacall relationship as a marketing phenomenon. Unfortunately, Vivian Sternwood does not really play all that great of a role in Chandler’s novel, and the writers of the film did not give her much more to do there in the initial version of the script, so many of the revisions to The Big Sleep between March of 1945 and August of 1946 had to do with increasing her role—and in particularly with increasing the role played in the film by the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian.
Still, even though The Big Sleep was widely marketed as a “Bogart-and-Bacall,” her role is still secondary to his, with the revisions consisting largely of attempts to reproduce the chemistry that the two had shown together in To Have and Have Not, chemistry that had largely to do with the sassy attitude shown by Bacall’s character toward Bogart’s. As a whole, these revisions play up character interactions within specific scenes, resulting in a significant uptick in narrative incoherence from scene to scene. Actually, Vivian comes on to Marlowe even more strongly in the novel than she does in the film, but there is no real romantic spark between them. In the film, however, she seems genuinely drawn to him and he to her.
At the end of Chandler’s novel, the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian is still rather formal and distant. He walks away from her and goes to a bar alone, though he is still thinking about her. The book stipulates, however, that he will never see her again. At the end of the film, Marlowe and Vivian are together, trying to figure out how to protect General Sternwood and what to do with Carmen. “What about me?” asks Vivian, suggestively. “What’s wrong with you?” asks Marlowe. “Nothing you can’t fix,” she says. They look at each other and seem about to kiss as the film ends.
It’s a classic Hollywood ending with a completely different vibe than the darker ending of Chandler’s novel—though the latter is more poetic, including Marlowe’s ending explanation of the book’s title as he meditates on Regan, his body rotting in a sump:
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep” (171).
The film ditches the poetry and the philosophy of Marlowe’s narration (and Chandler’s writing) in the novel in favor of making the detective a more dashing and romantic figure who gets the girl in the end. Of course, he is characterized in the film as a man who can get pretty much any girl he wants. Indeed, the emphasis on Marlowe’s sex appeal is significantly ramped up in the film—including an interesting encounter with the young (unnamed) proprietess of the Acme Bookstore (played by Dorothy Malone), which Marlowe ducks into to get out of a rainstorm, but also because it is directly across the street from Geiger’s shop and can thus allow him to keep Geiger’s establishment under surveillance. That plan doesn’t work, however, because Marlowe hits it off so well with the Acme woman that she ends up closing her shop for the afternoon while she and Marlowe go in the back to have a drink of rye from the bottle that Marlowe is conveniently carrying in his pocket. “I’d a lot rather get wet in here,” he suggests rakishly, indicating the rain outside (and the drink inside), but the clear sexual double entendre (again reminiscent of that in screwball comedies) in this quip is obviously not lost on the woman, whose positive response makes it clear that she is game. As they prepare to drink in the back, she takes off her bookish-looking glasses and unpins her hair (about as much undressing as the Code would allow), and Marlowe enthusiastically greets the symbolic disrobing. Then the film cuts to a later point when Marlowe and the woman demurely return to the front of the store acting like old pals, thus placating the Code censors, but most critics of the film have agreed that they have had sex.
This scene, which has no counterpart in the book (where Marlowe consults the woman briefly, then leaves), thus contributes to the film’s figuration of Marlowe as a more actively romantic figure than he is in the novel. He is more than able to resist the advances of women whom he deems inappropriate, improper, or dangerous mates, no matter how attractive they are. But he is a red-blooded male who is more than happy to indulge in casual, no-strings-attached sexual activity with an attractive woman he likes and who likes him. He is also willing to play a harmless flirting game with women he meets casually, even when he has no intention of having a relationship with them. Thus, when he goes to the library to research rare first editions of books in order to arm himself with information to use when he visits Geiger, a pretty blonde librarian notes that he doesn’t look like the kind of man who would collect rare books. “Well,” he says, “I collect blondes and bottles, too.” Later, when he hops into a cab with a woman cab driver (a clear sign that the film was made during World War II, when women drivers became common due to the fact that so many men had gone off to war), he tells her that he needs a “tail job.” What that means in private-eye lingo is well-known, of course, but the sexual double entendre is again clear, as is the flirtatiousness of the driver’s response: “I’m your girl.”
Neither of these two flirtatious encounters appears in Chandler’s novel; they are clearly added to the film in an attempt to boost Marlowe’s status as a smooth talker whom women find irresistible—a sort of American forerunner of famed fictional British spy James Bond. He is thus established as a man who appreciates and likes women (and can treat them like pals), but does not unfairly take advantage of them. He, in fact, can be downright chivalrous, as when he declines the sexual invitations of Carmen Sternwood—though this might also be seen as a matter of common-sense self-preservation. In addition, when the film makes it clear that he and Vivian might have an ongoing liaison, he is characterized as a man who might actually be interested in an ongoing committed romantic relationship, something it is difficult to imagine Chandler’s Marlowe doing. Thus, the film seems to want to position Marlowe (via Bogart) as a sort of fantasy object whom men might wish to be and women wish to be with.
In addition, as opposed to all those hapless noir protagonists who find themselves being lured to ruin by unscrupulous femmes fatales, Marlowe is impervious to such temptations. Carmen Sternwood is not a real femme fatale (though she might some day become one), but there is one such figure in The Big Sleep, a relatively minor character who nevertheless keeps popping up everywhere. This character is Agnes Louzier (Sonia Darrin, who does not even appear in the on-screen credits), described by Hagopian as “the film’s most intensely cynical character.” Hagopian goes on to note that
“Agnes, handsome and humorless, is the picture of unalloyed greed and underhandedness. Mere association with Agnes is fatal. She is Geiger’s hardboiled secretary in the pornography operation, until he is killed, then she is Joe Brody’s moll and accomplice in blackmailing Carmen, until he is also killed, then she is Harry Jones’ disinterested paramour and partner in the selling of information to Marlowe, until Jones, too, is killed. She is the only woman in the film whose actions are so consistently self-interested that they inspire a puritanical response in Marlowe” (45).
Puritanical or not, Marlowe sidesteps any involvement with Agnes (other than prying some crucial information out of her) and makes clear to her just what he thinks of her. He easily avoids being caught in her web, because no amount of seductive charm can cloud the judgment of the stalwart Marlowe.
Marlowe can, however, be persuaded by the charms of Vivian Sternwood, who is a classic example of what Andrew Spicer has called the film noir “good-bad-girl,” who combines the two opposed female figures of the femme fatale and the nurturing homebuilder often found in noir films (92). Should figures are acceptable mates for an exemplary male protagonist like Bogart’s Marlowe, while maintaining some of the extra sexual charge of the femme fatale. This sort of idealized characterization is pure Hollywood, of course, and it might be noted that Bogart’s characters were also given a romantic aura in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, to the extent that neither of these films is typically regarded as true noir, despite displaying so many characteristics that one would typically associate with a noir film. Interestingly enough, The Big Sleep, which typically is regarded by critics as a noir film, deviates even further from the noir formula through the addition of a number of comic touches, as when Marlowe poses as a nerdy (and somewhat effeminate) book collector when he first enters Geiger’s shop, accompanied by a musical cue that directs the audience to receive the scene as comical. The reason, I think, that The Big Sleep still feels like a noir film is the way in which the basically dark narrative of Chandler’s novel keeps leaking into the Hollywood edifice constructed by Hawks, giving the film a noirish tint even when certain details (like the suggestions of Geiger’s homosexuality or his participation in a pornography ring) have to be muted in order to satisfy the Code. This disjunction between Chandler’s dark vision and the finely-crafted mainstream Hollywood vision of Hawks is, I think, one of the key reasons why The Big Sleep seems so chaotic. It is also one of the main strengths of the film, creating a sort of cognitive estrangement in viewers, who are encouraged, first, to ask basic questions about the plot (Who, in fact, killed Owen Taylor? Did Marlowe and the proprietess of the Acme bookstore really have sex? What is going to happen between Marlowe and Vivian?), and then to go further, asking basic questions about the nature of the world in which that plot takes place. But this world, however stylized, is close enough to the real Los Angeles (and the real America) that any questions asked about this world have the potential to cause viewers to begin to meditate on the true nature of the world in which they live. In particular, the tendency of elements left over from the cynical novel to bleed into the rosier Hollywood text of the film tends to undercut the ostensible project of that text and to suggest that rosy Hollywood visions of American society are suspect in general. This message, of course, is delivered in numerous noir films, but few of them incorporate (and thus engage) those visions as thoroughly as does The Big Sleep.
Bould, Mark. Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Wallflower, 2005.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Vintage Crime-Random House, 1988.
Hagopian, Kevin. “‘How You Fixed for Red Points?”: Anecdote and the World War II Home Front in The Big Sleep (1946).” Film Noir Reader 4. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.
Sosa, J. L. “Watch Bogie Teach Bond a Thing or Two in ‘The Big Sleep.’” Film School Rejects (November 9, 2008). https://filmschoolrejects.com/watch-bogie-teach-bond-a-thing-or-two-in-the-big-sleep/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Longman, 2002.
Thomson, David. The Big Sleep. British Film Institute, 1997.
 To Have and Have Not is also a direct predecessor to The Big Sleep. Not only does it star Bogart and Bacall, but it was directed by Hawks and written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner.
 In what is, for those in the know, one of the film’s funniest moments, she first greets Marlowe by playfully remarking, “You’re not very tall, are you?” Marlowe, unbothered, responds, “Well, I try to be.” The joke here is that, in the novel, Carmen begins her advance by saying “Tall, aren’t you?” The reversal thus pokes a bit of fun at Bogart’s small stature (he was approximately 5’ 8”), despite his tough-guy image. In Chandler’s fiction, Marlowe is roughly 6’ 1 ½”. In the 1978 film adaptation of the novel, which features 6’ 1” Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, Carmen’s initial line from the novel is left intact.
 See J. L. Sosa for a discussion of just this connection.
 Naremore argues that this impression is coded as gay, which seems correct, especially as such coding is so common in film noir (222).