‘The Big Sleep’ directed by Howard Hawks (1946) was originally written by Raymond Chandler. It is a man’s film. Most of the movies frame is dominated by detective Marlow and there is only one frame where he isn’t dominant. This is where Vivienne is on his desk. She is in no position of power, it suggests more that she is Marlowe’s burden, a workload stacked high on his desk.
The film has the noir style, but is not straight film noir. It is gris noir. It was Schrader who once said that ‘style determines the theme in every film and, as I stated in The Crime Fiction Genre Section, what better way then to use noir to adapt a book that took crime and put it in the mean streets where it should, and has always been.
The noir style uses shades of unnatural light and silhouettes to convey a dark atmosphere. It has visual emphasis on corruption as seen through the first scene where the orchids smell and the heat brings sweat all over Marlowe.
The uses of light and absence of light is seen in the scene where Jones is poisoned. The dominant man standing had a dark backdrop and light upon his hat covered face. Jones is in complete vulnerability and looks as though he is baring all in how he is in the light. He did, however, withhold the truth from the evil one.
The film has a lot of dry and Black humor with quick and clever dialogue.
Agnes: Is Harry There?
Marlowe: Yeah, yeah, he’s here.
Agnes: Put him on, will you?
Marlowe: He can’t talk to you.
Marlowe: Because he’s dead. Your little man died to keep you out of trouble.
Most of the is set on the mean streets of LA.
The wealthy house of the Sternwoods makes Marlowe uncomfortable. He isn’t apart of the wealth upper class, he belongs on the mean streets. He is hot, sweaty and bothered in the house and leaves with a wet shirt.
In eddy Mars’ office he has pictures of hounds on the walls. Hounds like his boys that he sends to do his dirty work.
The context of hard-boiled fiction can be read into with great depth on the Crime Fiction Genre page. ‘The Big Sleep’ was after WWII and their was a move towards a secular
Society. It was set after the prohibition years of the United States and presents a criminal underworld where alcohol isn’t the source of crime.
Philip Marlowe(Humphrey Bogart):
Marlow is the Private investigator (P.I.). he is the tough-talking, streetwise, risk taking, cynical detective who lives societies edges and solved crafty murder cases that is typical of a hard-boiled text..
He is a loner, ‘They fired me for Insubordination’, and works in the mean streets of the city. He has an inner moral code that he brings out with integrity and believes in justice. He is a P.I. because he works better alone and can’t be bound by rules like he was when working for the District Attorney.
Marlowe is sexually attractive to the girls in the film and makes a lot of wise cracks and expresses dry humor.
Carman: Not bad looking. Oh you probably know it.
Sternwood: how do you like your brandy, sir?
Marlowe: In a glass.
His coolness with women is the same coolness he keeps when he is under pressure. The only time we see him take on an aggressive person is in the closing scene between himself and Mars.
He isn’t very tall, smokes and wears a big coat over a suit. The dress of a detective if there ever was one. He is observant and able to change his persona in order to be disguised.
Marlowe: Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860?
Agnes: A what?
Marlowe isn’t fooled by women who have their own agenda, even those who he likes. When he is invited to dinner with Vivian he gets appears to be oblivious to her intentions, but soon gets to the questioning without a hint of hesitation.
Marlowe has someone who he trusts and who trusts him on the force and that is Bernie. He has a gun but only uses it when he needs to. He is not afraid. When he has already satisfied his client he continues to pursue a ‘hunch’ because he feels there is more to the story. To stop the crime he must stop the cause.
Vivian Rutledge(Lauren Bacall):
Sternwood: …The same corrupt Blood.
Vivian is the sister of Carman and is wild in her gambling. She is persistent in pestering Marlowe for what it is her father hired him to do. She is mixed up with Mars and tries to get her sister out of trouble.
Marlowe seems to think that there is some good in Vivian and likes her because of their similar personalities.
Vivian: You do like to play games, don’t you?
Marlowe: Hmm, hmm.
Marlowe stands by those who he thinks are genuine, who he thinks have good intentions amongst all the evil that surrounds them. He stands by those who show compassion.
Marlowe: She’s alright Eddy. She made a deal with you and she kept it. She didn’t tell me a thing except that she killer Regan but I didn’t believe that. Regan’s dead alright, but she didn’t do it. It was Carmen, wasn’t it?
Carmen Sternwood(Martha Vickers):
Sternwood: Carmen is still a little child who likes to pull the wings off flies.
Carman is more than that. She is found high as a kite in Eddie’s house with a dead body on the floor.
She is the femme fatale more so than her sister because her sister has a compassion deep down in her heart that Marlowe can see.
General Sternwood(Charles Waldron): Marlowe’s employer/client. The wealthy father of Vivian and Carman, his two wild daughters, and I dying man.
Eddie Mars(Joe Ridgely):
Mars is the one who was blackmailing the Sternwood household. He is in a high position in the criminal underworld and has a lot of people do his dirty work for him. He runs a gambling casino (where some people decide to dress as cowboys) and also is apparently the landlord of Geiger’s house.
Mars is the villain.
The victim. The dead body was found on the floor in the house where Carman sat intoxicated. He ran something out the back of his bookstore.
Values and Themes:
One of the major themes that is present in ‘The Big Sleep’ is corruption. Marlowe stands out because he is able to work the streets without becoming corrupt himself. One of the values shown here is integrity.
Loyalty is another major theme in ‘The Big Sleep’. Marlowe’s initial client was General Sternwood and keeps is loyalty with him. He does not tell any information about his client to anyone, not even Viviane. He is also seen being loyal to his client when he takes Carman home from a murder scene without informing the police that she was there.
Viviane also has her loyalties. She is loyal to her father and sincerely wants for Marlowe’s investigations to not be of any stress to him in his health state. She is loyal to her family, as well as Sean Regan, and in the end chooses to stand by Marlowe.
Sean Regan’s loyalty to General Sternwood is also spoken about.
Loyalty is valued in the text and those who don’t show loyalty are undervalued. They are corrupt. Corruption is all over the place in ‘The Big Sleep’. Agnes is one of those girls that chews up her men and spit’s them out. One of these men was loyal to his death, Jones.
Corruption and money go hand in hand. The gambling sector is run by Eddy Mars, although Mars did say ‘You take chances, Marlowe.’
How It Adheres to the Conventions of Crime Fiction:
‘The big sleep’ is a hard-boiled, or ‘Black Mask’ text.
As he is described above, Marlowe fits all the stereotypical characteristics of the hard boiled detective. He is tough, coping, keeps distant, witty sense of humor and is not corrupted by the corruption around him. The story is plausible yet confusing.
Marlowe Is a loner. He is struggling and he has a friend on the force who exchanges information with him.
The setting, let’s take Mars’s office as described above, Are important and establish the corruption within the location.
Coincidence is an important part in the plot, like when Marlowe finds Geiger. The detective Marlow stumbles across a dead body. The victim has connections with the criminal underground and the action is fast paced as is the dialogue.
The case was not originally a murder case. It was blackmail. It led to a series of murders and a web of events that Marlowe had to unravel on the streets.
Gunplay and violence is typical of Hard-boiled texts. Marlowe was beaten up which also happens. The femme fatale in this movie is both Carman and Viviane before she shifts her position.
Corruption isn’t conquered in the end, as Marlowe and Viviane look off into the distance with sirens heard in the background.
How It Diverts from the Conventions of Crime Fiction:
There are conventions used that are of other school of Crime fiction, one of which being Marlowe’s master of persona disguise.
There is a hint of love as Marlowe warms up to his equal, Viviane. They look off past the camera lens in the last scene together, suggesting that society has not been restored, nor will it ever be. It also mean that they will never be together.