Recently made the effort to indulge in another pleasure of the film noir variety, only to be challenged as to the nature of that very unique genre. Right up front, it’s worth acknowledging the obvious: there is such a thing as “film noir.” Indubitably. However, it’s fascinating to see the diversity within the genre as well as aspects of a film like The Big Sleep that step outside of the classical boundaries of this quintessentially Golden-Age Hollywood category of movies. And as with nearly anything, the interesting stuff lies at the blurry boundaries rather than the obvious middle. Such was the case with Mildred Pierce and the same goes for Howard Hawks’ famous film.
From a strictly subjective point of view, The Big Sleep is very confusing. Of course, the film is notorious for its nay-incomprehensible plot, including plot holes that Raymond Chandler and Hawks himself acknowledged – including the unanswered question as to who killed the family chauffeur. But on another level, it can be tempting to think that this film gained the reputation it now has based on what might be superficialities. For one, it was a star vehicle for Bogart and Bacall, their first pairing after their meeting (and meetings) on (and off) the set of To Have And Have Not. Bogart was on fire at this point, Bacall was his new flame, and Howard Hawks was as much of a moneymaking studio director as there has ever been, albeit a very good one. He never shied away from racy or violent films and only tamed his material when the censors forced him to. Chandler was a popular novelist, and William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay. The movie had everything going for it. But when one watches it, one finds that it is exceedingly difficult to read. The camera work is anything but polished. Cuts exist where they shouldn’t, and directional shots are at times awkward and superfluous. Hawks did not shoot the film as one expects film noir stuff to be shot. There are certainly the token shadows and curling smoke, not to mention some low shots and close-ups. But that Expressionistic element borrowed from German cinema in the previous decades is near-absent. While there are shadows, characters are not generally dwarfed by them. The contrast is rather minimal – this is less a “black-and-white” film than a “gray” film. That dreamlike geometric incongruity that was so marvelously caricatured in the “Tracer Bullet” sequences of Calvin and Hobbes is hard to find in The Big Sleep. Look earlier at John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, however, and it’s hard to miss.
In “Romance and Paranoia in The Big Sleep (1946)”, Wendy Haslem suggests that The Big Sleep was less a “film noir” and more a “hardboiled romance” (Australian Screen Education, Winter2002 Issue 29, p164). There seems to be a scholarly consensus that the film’s narrative incoherence and Hawks’ broad style of filming (unrestricted to film noir conventions) imply that the film is primarily about the romance. At this stage of cinema history, a nihilistic ending for its own sake hadn’t been done before; there had to be a moral to the story. (Think again to the counterfeit falcon in The Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams are made of.” It may as well be Shakespeare.) Haslem acknowledges aspects of The Big Sleep that adhere to genre conventions: there is no scene in the film where Marlowe is not present; he is nocturnal, transient, and solitary; and cigarettes function as “synecdoches” for lust and passion.
Noting the paternalistic nature of auteur theory (which lingers on, of course), Varun Begley cites Hawks as both an example of the notion of auteur as well as an exception to the rule. He argues, “Hawks’s films are dangerously plural and promiscuous from the standpoint of genre and are lacking in the kind of distinctive visual or stylistic flourishes that might serve as visible evidence of paternity. To the extent that ‘Howard Hawks’ exists as an authorial presence, he is at best a leaky vessel, a structure defined as much by fluidity as by coherence…” (, in Camera Obscura Jan2007, Vol. 22 Issue 64, p43-75). While this sort of exception might be noted in many directors in any period, Begley point to gender issues as a prime example of Hawks’ “leaky vessel” genre-ship. He notes the hypermasculinity of Hawks’ films, which leads to a sort of homosexuality, or at least a distrust of heterosexuality. Even the heterosexual relationships contain highly homoerotic interactions. For a quick example outside of The Big Sleep, think of His Girl Friday. The lead female character almost completely de-feminizes herself in order to re-enter the man’s world of newspaper reporting. Once she changes character, she can compete with the best of them. In this way, His Girl Friday is almost counterproductive in whatever progress it allegedly made for the cause of feminism. A woman can compete with men, sure, but first she has to become a man.
With regard to The Big Sleep, Bacall’s character normally competes well with Bogart’s because of her somewhat aloof, masculine persona. At times she slips into a more feminine role, as when, in mid-conversation with Marlowe, he exposes his knowledge of a fact that she has attempted to keep secret. Losing her cool momentarily, her mouth opens and her mood becomes urgent, only to catch herself once Marlowe chuckles and return to her previous character. Specifically, Begley notes the scene when Marlowe sees Vivian singing in the lounge, surrounded by men. Not only is Vivian’s return gaze anything but feminine, but once a scantily-clad waitress walks between them, Marlowe and Vivian cast knowing glances to one another. The visual exchange is masculine at every level, except that Vivian is a woman. Begley refers to Laura Mulvey’s famous description of spectatorship of a showgirl, in which the male sees the woman-as-object but the woman identifies with the male subject in her return of the desiring gaze.
One of the earliest scenes of the film features the most overt example of this strangely homosexual subtext. Marlowe enters the General’s hothouse, an environment completely removed even from the house to which it is attached. Humidified like a sauna and filled with tropical plants, Marlowe begins sweating the moment he enters. The General encourages Marlowe to remove his outer coat, loosen his tie, and drink and smoke to his heart’s delight. The General confesses a vicarious pleasure he receives simply from watching Marlowe indulge in the vices that he can no longer enjoy due to his health. As Marlowe leaves, the General tells him that he enjoyed Marlowe’s drink more than Marlowe himself. Throughout the scene, Marlowe is more than glad to humor the General, enough that the General’s last statement is doubtful. This contrasts sharply with Marlowe’s encounter with the General’s daughter upon entering the foyer of the house. She throws herself into Marlowe’s arms and tells him that he is “cute.” Marlowe is only slightly amused, rather more determined to let go of this young woman and go talk with the General.
Begley goes so far as to say that, “even to register on the erotic radar screen, women must first show masculine attributes.” He cites Vivian, the female cab driver, and the bookstore woman as examples. The last of these characters may be problematic to Begley. Begley observes that she has her hair back and glasses on when Marlowe first enters and begins flirting with her. Once she closes up shop so that they can enjoy one another’s company, Marlowe asks her to remove her glasses before they continue. She does so, also letting down her hair. (The scene should remind one of GOB and Kitty in the copy room.) Begley argues that Marlowe’s request for femininity comes at the last moment, almost as a throwaway gesture, after Marlowe was attracted to the woman’s more manly characteristics. Certainly, the woman serves to distinguish between these two kinds of women being discussed: the more classically feminine and the masculine persona. However, it’s the woman’s very feminine kind of flirting that first excites Marlowe. And though his request seems to come at the last second, Marlowe is delighted at the result. Further, Hawks stated in an interview that the whole episode was inserted into the film “because the girl was so damn good-looking” (“Adaptation and ontology: The impulse towards closure in Howard Hawk’s version of The Big Sleep“. Ronald S. Librach, Literature Film Quarterly, 1991, Vol. 19, Issue 3). While this is extra-cinematic information, and though it is stated with the kind of hypermasculinity that has been described, it seems that Hawks intention was that the woman appear truly feminine. Still, this could serve to confirm Begley’s point that women must first show masculine attributes before becoming objects of desire (i.e., becoming feminine).
The above has skirted what may be the main issues in The Big Sleep because of a lack of understanding as to just what those issues might be. That and, gender issues are usually interesting. On the other hand, perhaps Hawks got a kick out of making a film with a story that had no closure as an excuse to display provocative and interesting characters.