The Big Sleep was one of the first noirs I ever saw. This was long before I read the novel, which I've now read many times. Reading the book has, unfortunately, diminished my enjoyment of the movie considerably, but I'll come back to that in a moment. Back when I first saw The Big Sleep I became obsessed with it. I watched it numerous times, trying to capture something that eluded me. That something was an understanding of the plot. To put it simply, I loved the movie, but found it incomprehensible at the same time.
Now, I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the humans and their motivations, but I've come gradually to realize that my lack of comprehension wasn't altogether my fault. This is for two related reasons:
- The Big Sleep speaks in what we might call "Hays code," a language I didn't understand at the time.
- The Big Sleep does not, in fact, make a great deal of sense.
I remember reading the description of The Big Sleep on the back of the box before watching it for the first time. Pornographers were mentioned. Pornographers! Imagine my disappointment when I got to the Bogie-and-Bacall cigarettes smoldering in their shared ashtray at the end with nary a hint of these sleazy, soulless pornographers having passed before my eyes. I watched and rewatched the movie. I even asked third parties. Nothing. In the end (I'm embarrassed to admit this now) I concluded that the "pornographers" were just a figment of marketing hyperbole.
And then I read the novel, and I was like, O-o-o-o-oh.
But listen. I grew up in the eighties and nineties. If a director wanted to show us something, they showed it. None of this implicit stuff. But so much that goes on in noir isn't stated explicitly. It has to be inferred. I can think of a reference to abortion in They Live by Night, for instance, or to make-up sex in Criss Cross. In a way, movies these days, with all their box-checking and point-counting for MPAA ratings, might go far beyond Hays code films in isolated F-bombs and nipples, but never come near the alienation, the raw cynicism, and the savage moralism of film noir.
All that said, The Big Sleep leaves so much to inference that the plot suffers. Carmen Sternwood, instead of being stark naked when Geiger is killed, is fully clothed, as she is when Marlowe finds her in his apartment. If the games Geiger plays with Carmen amount to taking pictures with a weird Buddha head while she's high on laudanum, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. There's the whole play with the books, of course, but so much is removed from the narrative that there's hardly even a hint left. (Though perhaps a part of the problem is that I've grown up in an era when porn is a lot easier to come by.)
A few other plot elements that get washed out for one reason or another include Carol Lundgren's characterization as Geiger's young male lover, the transformation of the novel's Vivian Regan (the wife of the man whose murder Marlowe is unwittingly investigating) into the Vivian Rutledge of the movie, and Carmen's almost terrifying depravity.
The film's incoherence doesn't end with all that, however. The dialogue goes in circles from scene to scene. Clues mysteriously appear and disappear. For instance, in one scene, Vivian brings up Eddie Mars voluntarily, telling Marlowe that Shawn Regan ran off with Mars's wife. Later, during that famous horse-race sexytalk scene (which is delightful), Marlowe asks Vivian whether she knows that Shawn Regan ran off with Eddie Mars's wife. "Who doesn't?" she nervously replies, apparently forgetting that she's the one who told him.
Immediately after that conversation ends, Marlowe telephones Mars from the restaurant and makes plans to meet him at his gambling house. Mars tells him to come on up at once, and he does. When he arrrives, he finds that Vivian has somehow beaten him there, despite (apparently) having stopped somewhere to change into a completely new outfit, and is now ensconced with the band as though she's been there all night. (It's a little sad that the gambling house is everything Chandler mocks in Hollywood gambling houses.) And then he goes and talks to Mars and starts making perceptive guesses about...Mrs. Mars and Shawn Regan! After which a scene is staged to convince Marlowe that Mars and Vivian have no connection, although she's the one who told him about the "bond between Eddie Mars and the Sternwoods" in the first place!
To be fair, the horse-race scene, and, to some extent, the resulting incoherence, is the result of a re-shoot aimed at emphasizing the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. And some confusion comes straight from a plot hole in Chandler's novel. But I think that what really mixes the movie up is the fact that someone, somewhere, decided that Vivian
|Obligatory Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid reference. Carl Reiner gets it.|
* * *
I give The Big Sleep a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
- A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
- B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
- C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
- D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Takeaway quote from The Big Sleep:
*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: Introduction – Phantom Lady – Double Indemnity – Murder, My Sweet – Detour – Scarlet Street – The Blue Dahlia – The Lost Weekend – Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai – The Stranger ***
"Get up, angel, you look like a Pekingese."