Precious Bodily Fluids

The Big Sleep

Losing her cool

Losing her cool

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.

Unfiltered synecdoches

Unfiltered synecdoches

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…” (“One Right Guy to Another: Howard Hawks and Auteur Theory Revisited”, 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.

Suggestive mise-en-scene

Suggestive mise-en-scene

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.

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This entry was published on September 22, 2008 at 1:25 pm. It’s filed under 1940s Cinema, American film, Howard Hawks and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

11 thoughts on “The Big Sleep

  1. Before addressing specifics, your premise that film noir is a ‘genre’ is self-limiting and a view that has little serious currency. This is why you seem frustrated by the non-noir look of the film, which of itself is debatable, but not here.

    I think to fully comprehend the film you need to discuss the degree to which the Chandler’s novel informs the film.

    The scenes you highlight, the dalliance with the bookseller and the musical number in the casino, are not in the book and the homo-erotic subtext you identify in the movie, I believe does not exist in the book. I don’t see anything sexual in the hot-house scene, which is essentially as per the book. But the climax in the book is much much darker and (heter0) sexual and involves Vivian’s wanton younger sister.

    Your analysis of Hawks’ sexual hang-ups may be valid and if so add to the film’s noir credentials. But this hardly a major element.

    Chandler wrote in the first person, and this is why the film is a manifestation of Marlowe’s perspective, and this is critical to understanding The Big Sleep. In the book, Marlowe’s relationship with Vivien goes nowhere, and she is ‘masculine’ because she is hiding something much darker than in the movie.

    Perversely, the film’s ending makes Marlowe a darker character than in the book. While the killing of Canino at a stretch can be put down to self-defense, there is no moral justification apart from vengeance in the way Marlowe engineers the death of Eddie Mars – the killing is gratuitous and was not the only way out for Marlowe and Vivian. It is this final scene that marks The Big Sleep as a film noir. Marlowe has survived and got the girl – but at what cost?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Depending on what you mean by “fully comprehend[ing] the film,” I think that your opening statement about the necessity of Chandler’s book is…not quite right. It is an interesting and worthwhile exercise to compare/contrast Hawks’ film with Chandler’s book. But as Andre Bazin (among plenty of others) has made clear, with adaptation comes an ontologically different text, whether the text is artistic, literary, or otherwise. Even if Chandler himself had made the film, we would be dealing with a different thing from the book. They’re necessarily different by virtue of their different media and the enormous number of variations between novel and film. Because there isn’t (in your view) a homosexual/homoerotic element in the book tells us one thing: that there isn’t, in your view, a homosexual/homoerotic element in the book. My argument (and that of others that I cited) is that Hawks changed Chandler’s text. Citing Chandler as evidence that the film doesn’t have elements I’m arguing it has, begs the question. Now, I haven’t read the book. I’m interested in reading the book. And intertextuality is helpful in certain kinds of hermeneutics but only interesting in a case like this.

    Regarding the “sexual hang-ups” being “hardly a major element,” refer to my last paragraph. There, I confess that what I wrote may have skirted the main issues in the film. My argument isn’t that it’s the major point of the film, but that it’s still an interesting point. I think I acknowledged that I’m not sure what the main point of this film is.

    Your early comments regarding the nature of the film noir genre and what I may have missed sound quite interesting.

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  4. Ontology, Brazin, intertextuality, and hermeneutics ? I suspect I am being patronized…

    By referring to the book, I was exploring whether there is any support there for your thesis, and I found none and simply said: “Your analysis of Hawks’ sexual hang-ups may be valid and if so add to the film’s noir credentials. But this [is] hardly a major element.”

  5. I apologize; I sincerely didn’t mean to patronize. By using certain terms, I only meant to be concise and specific. I’m also applying concepts from other fields (though some of them are film-studies concepts) to the “genre” of film noir, so there may be better words to describe what I’m getting at.

    Nowadays in cinema studies, there is a lot going on and being discussed with direct relation to Marx, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault, among others. I’ve found that reading the literature out there that’s a generation or two old doesn’t tap into these thinkers who are now having a major impact on the field. By choice and assignment, I’ve been exposed to these writings recently and I’m trying to apply them to film. So there’s my hand.

    In the Family Guy parody of Star Wars, Luke (Chris) says to Han Solo (Peter), “You don’t believe in the force, do you, Han?” And Han replies, “What, you mean that thing you just found out about, like, three hours ago, and are now judging me for not knowing about it?” I feel like Luke in this illustration.

  6. No offence taken Zac.

    But by deconstructing an artefact don’t we risk losing the gestalt. Is the average Joe’s experience of a film any less meaningful than that of an intellectual? If Gertrude Stein was right when she said, “You have to remember in writing film stories that it is not like writing for the theater – the film audience is not an audience that is awake, it is an audience that is dreaming”, then it is the subconscious that connects with archetypal motifs in the “dancing images”.

    As Nan-In said: “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

  7. In principle (and I don’t mean to lighten or qualify the statement by prefacing it this way), you’re totally right that the average Joe’s experience of a film is no less meaningful than that of an intellectual. In a sense, it’s “more” important, in that it usually gets at something a lot more key, by tuning into the subconscious thoughts and affections of the masses. My favorite filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, said that a film should be interesting to watch and easy to understand. Accessibility is important to any director worth his/her salt. It it’s not accessible, there’s a good chance it isn’t relevant, either. But as one of my other favorite filmmakers, Michelangelo Antonioni, pointed out, filmmakers need film critics and scholars. The idea is the same, I think, as Socrates’ connection between politicians and philosophers (although he thought those two roles should be absorbed into one another). The “intellectuals” of cinema are the ones that make sense of the whole dynamic. They, in theory, are the ones who make films more accessible, explain their meaning and significance, and applaud and correct the filmmakers and the masses when something isn’t right. I think that an example of the role of a film scholar/critic is to reveal a film’s deeper, richer meaning when society at large has liked or disliked it for more superficial reasons. Beyond that, the cultures of the world ought to have people whose work it is to hold a mirror up to them. Films are profoundly revealing of a society/culture, and sometimes society/culture misses important ways in which, for better or worse, films reflect their nature.

    I love music, but without people who know music well from an artistically knowledgeable standpoint, I feel rather lost. The namesake of this blog (Andrew) is my musical conscience, as I have other close friends to guide me in the ways of history, theology, business, literature, and biology.

    As I re-read your comment, I see how apropos your quote from Gertrude Stein is. In this metaphor, film critics and scholars exist to wake people up and help them realize what they’ve already seen. Or perhaps we are the dream weavers and are more oblivious than anyone else.

    By the by, there’s an “h” at the end of my name, but that’s of little consequence.

  8. Pingback: The Big Lebowski « Precious Bodily Fluids

  9. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you ought to publish more on this topic, it may not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t speak about these topics. To the next! All the best!!

  10. Pingback: #77 The Big Sleep – 1000 Films Blog

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