The Big Sleep – Film Essay

The film script can be seen as a nexus, an intermediary point between the world of literature and the visual world of cinema (Hueso, 221). In order to negotiate these two worlds – to get from a novel to a film – some form of adaptation is necessary. Howard Hawks’s, 1946

version of The Big Sleep, is, in this respect, not just as a visual retelling of Raymond Chandler’s novel but also an adaptation, with its own purposes, themes and emphases. Hawks’s ‘revised, revamped and renovated’ (Abbott, 313) story has several key differences from Chandler’s original but perhaps it is in what remains that the core messages of The Big Sleep can be found.

The omissions and additions that the script writers opted for have made certain critics, Abbott and Athanasourelis among them; believe that Chandler’s complex and gritty critique of society has been sanitised by the Hollywood production machine. In part this argument can be backed up by the overwhelming evidence that The Big Sleep was intended as a ‘star vehicle’ (Athanasourelis, 335) to capitalise on the success of Lauren Bacall (Vivian Regan/Rutledge) and Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe). Some scenes in particular, for example Vivian’s singing, have little plot value but mimic a similar occasion in Hawks’s first Bogart and Bacall picture, To Have and Have Not. Similarly, Vivian’s character is given a much more dynamic and active role in the narrative simply to include more scenes for the two stars. The aspect which has been most criticised however, is the way Chandler’s original characters, and the antipathy between them, have been weakened to allow for a traditional romance structure and a “happy” or at least enclosed ending. The loose ends of Chandler’s final pages (where Eddie has yet to be dealt with; Vivian and Marlowe part ways with rancour and our final view of Marlowe is at a bar drinking alone) are replaced by a balanced frame showing Vivian and Marlowe, shoulder to shoulder, looking out at the approaching sirens together and then turning to face each other. This image of solidarity and harmony is symptomatic of the trajectory of the rest of the plot; where, in the novel, Marlowe is alone or with other women, as in his captivity in Art Tuck’s house; Vivian is inserted into the scene to assure a romance angle.

This comfortable, because so traditional, addition to the plot may be a refusal to acknowledge the complexity and unredeemable qualities of Chandler’s characters but it is also a product of its historical context. Not only were Bogart and Bacall hot property at the time, leading to executive decisions to increase their number of scenes together, but also a happy ending was almost obligatory. Since 1927, Hollywood had instigated ‘a self-regulating mechanism, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors Association, whose strictures, commonly referred to as the Production Code…[were] a stringently enforced censoring mechanism that shaped narratives according to perceived mainstream moral values’ (Athanasourelis, 325). The Production Code performed ‘ideological censorship’ (Athanasourelis, 325), insisting on a “happy ending” specifically, the romantic attachment of a monogamous heterosexual couple. These industry strictures can account for some of the variations that occur from text to screen, for example, the romance or Regan’s transformation from husband to employee, in order to free Vivian from emotional attachment.

According to Athansourelis, (332) it also explains the rather neat ending, where Marlowe confronts Eddie, who is hinted as the murderer of Regan and who, in a moment of cosmic justice, is gunned down by his own men. The Production Code Officials were challenged by Hawks to some up with a new ending and they did so, conveniently laying guilt on Eddie Mars. This may explain, or at least excuse, the rather torturous manipulations of the final confrontation, the censors ‘were concerned, not with narrative credibility or aesthetics, but solely with placing the white and black hats firmly on the appropriate heads’ (Athanasourelis, 332). By making Eddie guilty they remove the criminal threat entirely. They also allow for an opposing view of criminality to appear than that which the novel seems to express. The film supports Jerry Palmer’s idea that crime fiction ‘asserts, at root, that the world does not contain any sources of conflict: trouble comes from the people who are rotten, but whose rottenness is in no way connected with the nature of the world they infect’ (Thrillers, p 87). Such a simplistic view of the world is endorsed by the film’s ending at least, if not by the rest of the action, as it neatly places criminal behaviour within specific strata of society. This is in direct contrast to Chandler’s open-ended and unresolved ending and to the novel’s refusal to reassure readers. Rather than a comforting portrayal of criminality as abnormality – more in keeping with Golden Age crime fiction – the noir detective ‘discovers darkness everywhere’ (R. Palmer, 73). Chandler does not allow us, as readers, to comply with the facile judgement that ‘crime is committed only by a distinct social class’ and his unresolved and complex narrative confronts ‘his readers with the possibility that, even if they are not directly affected by crime, it is impossible not to live within its reach’ (Athanasourelis, 327).

It is not only plot additions that drastically alter Chandler’s narrative but omissions as well. The Big Sleep has often been seen as an extremely convoluted narrative, which is further complicated by the industry’s insistence that for reasons of morality the drugs, pornography and homosexual aspects of the text must be removed. That these still remain in the subtext of the film is a testament to the power of Chandler’s plot, which cannot merely be torn apart and, perhaps, to Hawks’s own subversive attitude. Of particular interest in terms of the overall tone and mood of the piece are the omissions regarding the Sternwood sisters and the character of Marlowe. Carmen is given a smaller role in the film, removing the ruthless scene where she tries to shoot Marlowe, and Vivian, whilst still manipulative, is ultimately subordinate to Marlowe as his love interest and his (though admittedly sassy) sidekick. This again, has much to do with the mood of Hollywood and America in the 1940’s. Having just come out of the second world war there was an increased displacement and maladjustment for men upon returning home (Maltby, 45) and an increased anxiety over masculinity. This anxiety over sexuality may account for the sister’s less powerful roles and the number of female characters who make themselves sexually available to Marlowe: the bookshop girl, the taxi driver and so on. In this climate of concern over male and female roles it was imperative that women be subdued and subordinated to men.

Showing a ‘spoilt, exacting, smart and quite ruthless’ daughter and a ‘child who likes to pull wings off flies’ (Chandler, 18) may be more psychologically interesting but it is an image of threatening female power. In order to remove these menacing elements of the novel the ‘slithering twin threats’ of the Sternwood sisters are transformed into ‘a petty nuisance’- Carmen is less vicious than in the novel – and ‘a redeemed love interest’ (Abbott, 306). Likewise, the character of Marlowe undergoes some alteration. Chandler’s Marlowe is a more or less honourable man, who works for his money (quote ) a wisecracking, witty detective, much as Bogart plays him, but he is also a man who plays chess alone rather than interacting with people (Chandler, 150-151), ‘a man who can be driven to dissolution and hysteria’ (Abbott, 306). Bogart’s ‘sardonic, knightly’ Marlowe ( Abbott, 305) would never find himself, after killing Canino, laughing ‘like a loon’ (Chandler, 194) – in an inexplicable, chilling and extended manner – nor would he ‘savagely’ tear his bed to pieces because the unstable Carmen has been in it (Chandler, 155). Neither of these episodes occurs in the film. Screen Marlowe is infinitely more stable, killing Canino and reacting afterwards with cool efficiency, displaying none of the vulnerability that makes the textual Marlowe so compelling.

At this juncture, it is perhaps significant to note that the common film noir cinematic techniques, as set out by Schrader, are stylistically absent from The Big Sleep. Whilst he argues that the essence of film noir is in ‘more subtle qualities of tone and mood’ (53), there are a number of stylistic aspects, such as deep and shadowed images, oblique and vertical lines, jarringly unbalanced frames and a space that is ‘being continually cut into ribbons of light’ (57). Hawks’s film noir, though still given that appellation, has none of the camera and lighting effects which are common in other examples of the genre. This use of more traditional technique, despite the fact that The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944), forerunners of the genre, had by this time appeared, signifies also a deliberate difference in mood from Chandler’s novel. The Big Sleep, as a text, is dark and shadowy, occurring in cramped spaces such as the claustrophobic greenhouse, Geiger’s fussy house and rain swept streets. The atmosphere is one of gloom, rain and night, yet the film, whilst keeping the formal elements – many of the scenes are set at night and rain is almost omnipresent – refuses to emphasise the darkness, the instability of the noir world that is at all times on the brink of dissolution . Even in ‘the heart of the noir world’ in the depths of depravity at Geiger’s house, all the details of the crowded orientalised room are clear (Walker, 191) rather than bathed in the devouring shadows of other noir settings. It may seem pedantic to accuse the film of not having those elements which were only recognised in hindsight and are still being argued over, but it does seem relevant that an expressive form, which existed at the time, was not used to emphasise the anxiety and corruption within the text. Perhaps this is another instance of sanitising the text; a wish to create a façade of harmony and resolution for the tattered fragments of instability that Chandler exposes.

This analysis alone, however, is too simplistic a view of the film adaptation. It is necessary to complicate this facile judgement which too easily writes off the film as inferior without taking into account both the production constraints and the film in its entirety. For one thing, there is much that Hawks does not leave out, that remains very much in the text and in the film. An example of this would be the General’s stoic and realistic portrayal of his daughter’s vices and their ‘corrupt blood’. Indeed the entire scene in the hothouse, with the luscious orchids and their ‘rotten sweetness of corruption’ (General Sternwood) is an almost exact match to Chandler’s text. This scene is particularly significant because it sets out several of the main themes of the work as a whole: corruption, ambiguity, façade and cover up. The lush setting and the reason for Marlowe’s arrival – the General wishes to remove a blackmailer – are signs both of their wealth and position in society but also of the pervasiveness of criminality. The so-called higher class are just as full of ‘all the usual vices’ (General Sternwood) as the rest of society, implicating a grand narrative of criminality rather than confining it within a set sphere or restricting it as abnormality. This is also the only view of family life that appears in the narrative. R. Palmer states that: ‘[t]he crime melodrama characteristically images the illicit and the erotic as otherness apart from safer forms of living – in particular a family life defined by marriage and parenthood’ (71) but here the family we get are deviant, corrupt or half dead and where illicit and illegal forms of behaviour begin.

The ambiguity of this situation, as with the Generals insistence that he doesn’t want to know anything about how Marlowe works which is implied in the text (Chandler, 20) and explicit in the film, are likewise symptoms of a society preoccupied with façade: showing the right cover story to the public. In both text and film the media are misinformed and manipulated and in the film the DA rips up some shorthand notes which refer to aspects of Marlowe’s tale which he wishes to cover up. The theme of façade is continued throughout the film and text, as we see behind Vivian’s, Geiger’s, Carmen’s and, in the text at least, behind Marlowe’s façade. Thus Vivian’s comment, ‘[y]ou don’t put on much of a front’ (Chandler, 59), is a tacit acknowledgment of the way society in general does create façades, which is counterintuitive to the traditional view of detectives as exposing what lies beneath. The theme of ambiguity is kept up thematically by our ever shifting ideas of who the killer is and explicitly in the film when Marlowe tells Vivian: ‘I don’t want to ask you any more questions.’ This is striking considering the general expectation that a detective’s job is about truth and revelation. Here Marlowe’s job is to hide, to send Carmen away, to cover up for her. This is less explicit in the film – despite the suggestion that Eddie is Regan’s killer and not Carmen – in the way Marlowe removes Carmen from his account of Joe Brody’s murder. A detective’s role is presumably to bring to justice but Marlowe must circumvent justice. The narrative as a whole depicts the failure of the orderly legal system, Carmen is not punished or revealed as the killer, Brody, Geiger, Canino and Eddie are not punished legally, but by the divine retribution of death for their rackets and their murders. In fact, it is hinted in both film and text that Geiger’s ‘racket’ is known by and untouched by the police. In terms of ambiguity as well there is the ultimate ambiguity in that, neither in the film nor in the novel, do we ever definitively uncover the murderer of Owen Taylor.

These explicit examples are in keeping with the ethos of Chandler’s work and his gritty, subversive view of a dissolute and disordered society. There are also, however, implicit moments within the film, at the level of subtext, that open up ideas of ambiguity and fluidity. For example, the pornographic nature of Geiger’s business is implied by Marlowe’s ‘[s]he takes a nice picture’, the drug angle is sufficiently inferred by Carmen’s dopey performance at the scene of Geiger’s murder. Similarly implicit is the homosexual aspect of Geiger and Carol’s relationship. Hawks uses parallel shots of running legs, to show Taylor running out of Geiger’s house and Carol running out of Brody’s flat (Walker, 193). This echoing of sequences implies a connection between them and their motives for killing. In addition there is Marlowe’s assumption that Carol has a key to Geiger’s house; easy shorthand for implying that they were lovers. That these elements are only in the subtext does not remove the subversive accounts of sexuality and pleasure that they expose. On a stylistic note the references to rain and water, which display ‘an almost Freudian attachment to water’ (Schrader, 57) which occur in both the text and screen versions creates a world of fluidity, of indistinct edges and blurred lines. This lack of solidity is mirrored by ‘the dram-like quality’ (Walker, 193) of the narrative itself, a constantly shifting set of crimes, victims and possible explanations, and by Marlowe and the world he inhabits. It is a morally ambiguous and fluid world, where we feel sympathy for a small time crook, Harry Jones, where ‘a pornographer, a blackmailer… a killer by remote’ (Chandler, 187) is an almost attractive character and where a private detective is our hero. The detective is an intermediary figure, he inhabits the space ‘midway between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink…fulfilling the requirements of his own code and of the genre as well’ (Borde and Chaumeton, 21). He also acts as a guide between the viewer and the criminal world (McCraken, 63). Marlowe, as detective, ‘facilitates a transgressive act’ (Mcraken, 63) not merely textually, in his covering up of several crimes, but metatextually, in the very act of being a detective. By negotiating our entrance, as viewers or readers, into the deviant criminal world, he acts both within and without the narrative, as aiding, rather than revealing, transgression.

The film may try to sanitise and clean up Chandler’s work or as Robin Woods describes it: ‘the Chandler-Hammett atmosphere is too stifling for Hawks to breathe in happily: he lets in what fresh air he can’ (quoted in Walker, 191) and he does this by papering over the dissolution, instability and disorder of Chandler’s world with a patina of romance, happiness and resolution. Ultimately the subversive and threatening themes of Chandler’s work escape these strictures an the film cannot escape the undermining influence of a world that shows itself, whether textually or sub-textually as ambiguous, fluid and disordered. As a film, The Big Sleep may offer more traditional cinematic techniques and a more conventional resolution but it can never completely subdue the subversive elements that it was founded on and the noir themes from which it originates. Neither the fictional setting of Hollywood nor the strictures of the industry can completely efface the corruption and ambiguity of the noir world and, as in Chandler’s novels, despite Hollywood’s sheen the ‘streets are [still] dark with something more than night’ (quoted in Haut, Pulp Culture, 73).