Big Sleep
The Big Sleep (1946)

© 2008 William Ahearn

After all the re-shooting, re-casting and re-editing of the 1945 version of “The Big Sleep,” it’s not surprising that nobody wondered who killed the chauffeur. While the 1946 release of “The Big Sleep” is arguably the best production of a movie based on the novels of Raymond Chandler, it’s more of a Bogie and Bacall film than anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that since it’s probably the best Bogie and Bacall film of the four they made together.

Even if it doesn’t make any sense and that the film betrays almost everything valuable in the novel, the movie becomes its own story and creates its own sense and other things of value are created and that is essential to what movies should do. (A perfect example of gutting a book and creating a different reality is another Bogart film, “In A Lonely Place.”)

Raymond Chandler wrote good things about Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” “Bogart,” Chandler wrote in a letter to Jamie Hamilton in 1946 and available in The Raymond Chandler Papers, “is also much better than any other tough-guy actor and he makes bums out of the Ladds and the Powells. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun.”

No doubt Chandler was ecstatic with the success of the film. In 1946, Raymond Chandler seemed to be a hot property in Hollywood. He had been nominated twice for Academy Awards (for the screenplays to “Double Indemnity” and “The Blue Dahlia”) and other novels and been bought for the movies but it was really the beginning of the end. In the next year he would quit working on “The Lady In The Lake” after a few weeks and didn’t work on another film until his ill-fated 1951 association with Alfred Hitchcock who had asked him to write the screenplay for “Strangers On A Train.” That was such an unmitigated disaster that Hitchcock tossed the script although Chandler’s name is still on the screen credits.

Moving past the unexplained deaths, bodies being moved and various other confusions – such as what happens to Geiger’s “sucker list” – we still come down to Philip Marlowe. William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman – the writing team behind “The Big Sleep” – weren’t concerned with some soon-to-be mythic detective as much as they were concerned with making a film. As a result, we don’t end up with Philip Marlowe; we end up with Sam Spade. And not Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade but the Sam Spade of John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.”

It’s all in the women. Sam Spade is the womanizer. Philip Marlowe’s attitude toward women is a lot more nuanced and somewhat ambiguous. In the film, Bogie is beating the frails off with a stick – to use the parlance of the time – in bookstores, taxi cabs, cafes, wherever.

Bogart as Marlowe is often calling women “sugar” or “angel.” He’s also puffing himself by sticking his thumbs in his belt and rubbing his ear to indicate that he’s musing on this or that hanging thread. In the novel, Marlowe never knew Rusty [Shawn in the film] Regan, never “saw him around” or traded gunshots with him as Regan bootlegged rum from Mexico across the California state line. It should be pointed out that the Marlowe of The Big Sleep is the toughest Marlowe in any of the books and that may be rooted in the short stories that originally appeared in the pulp magazines and that Chandler “cannibalized” (his word) for the novel. It is the only time in any of the novels that Marlowe shoots anyone. Even so, there is nothing in Bogart’s performance that implies any of the fatalism or philosophical detachment of Marlowe. There is just no place for Philip Marlowe in a Bogie and Bacall picture.

The difference in the Marlowe of the movie and the Marlowe of the novel is clearly drawn in the scene between Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood that takes place in Marlowe’s apartment.

In the film, when Carmen Sternwood sneaks into Marlowe’s apartment, Marlowe angrily and physically throws her out. Yet, we really don’t know why he’s angry. We can assume any number of things and any one of them could be correct.

In the book, there is little doubt. When Marlowe gets home, Carmen is in the bed naked. Marlowe pleads with her to leave thinking “It’s so hard for women – even nice women – to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.”

He finally gets her to leave – he threatens to physically throw her out but doesn’t – and then Chandler writes,

“I went back to the bed and looked down on it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. . . . I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.”

As the therapy bunch says these days, Marlowe is clearly a man with issues. We don’t know exactly what corruption he refers to. It might be sexual activity or drug use or that she was used for erotic photographs. Or Marlowe has already figured out what we will only learn later. In the book, all women are corrupt. All but one and it’s not the little filly that doesn’t have a problem that Marlowe can’t fix (that line only appears in the film because that relationship only appears in the film).

These are not the longings and musings of a womanizer. Marlowe is an almost pathological romantic in that no woman could possibly meet the high standards of love and friendship he demands. It might also explain why he doesn’t have any friends. Or even a cat.

For my dough, Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” is a fun flick, the best Bogie and Bacall matching, and a great example of 1940’s detective films.

But that isn’t Philip Marlowe up there on the big screen. It’s Sam Spade from John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.”

William Ahearn