Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

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“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the 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.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of — and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on — the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross