by Elizabeth Cantwell
Before I got into grad school a few years back, I spent a year living in Los Angeles without any real, steady job. My daily schedule went something like: sit at my desk while listening to the blues, especially Billie Holiday; stare out the window of my Koreatown apartment building at the crazy old WWII vet who wore a full military outfit and “smoked” a pipe which never appeared to be actually functional; attempt to write poems while consuming large amounts of coffee; sleep. About six months of that, and I was well on my way to at least half-crazy.
So I started taking afternoon trips to the Beverly Hills Public Library, where I’d station myself in a comfortable chair on the second level, armed with a notebook and whatever volume I happened to pick up on my way upstairs. One week in the summer (I remember it being very hot), I stumbled across the Raymond Chandler shelf. I’d never read Chandler. I realized there would never be a better time. And I instantly fell in love. With his characters, his wit, his timing, his dark strain of near-fatalism.
The Big Sleep is certainly one of Chandler’s most iconic novels, and the 1946 film, directed by Howard Hawks, is likewise championed as a classic film noir. The producers had the perfect formula: cast Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as the leads, use the King of Noir Detective Writing’s novel as a source, and let William Faulkner lead the screenwriting team. So, watching this movie, the question bouncing around in my head was not is this a good film, but rather, why is this a good film, and how?
Discussions of The Big Sleep’s charm often revolve around the film’s notoriously confusing (and even opaque) plot. Chandler’s plots are often convoluted to begin with, and the film underwent a serious re-write and re-shoot (there are actually two cuts of the movie) that eliminated a few key exposition scenes. There’s a famous story that in the middle of filming, Bogart asked Hawks who pushed Owen Taylor—the chauffeur who meets an untimely death—off the pier; no one knew, and a telegram was immediately sent to Chandler, who responded with frustration that he realized he didn’t know either.
Roger Ebert’s write-up of The Big Sleep comes to the (not unsurprising) conclusion that these confusions don’t matter. After all, you don’t watch this movie for the plot. You watch it for the thrill and the atmosphere and the acting and, in the end, the love story.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Watching The Big Sleep, I found myself amazed and entranced by the way the film translates Chandler’s words into images. I don’t love Chandler for his stories, even the love story parts of his stories—I love Chandler for the way he manipulates words. His stunning, weird analogies and metaphors. The way he sees the world—through a lens of contradictions, juxtapositions, and death. Take, for example, a description from the beginning of the novel of the greenhouse in which Philip Marlowe first encounters the old Mr. Sternwood:
"The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket."
Stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. Now that’s an image. And somehow, Hawks and Faulkner and the others working on this film manage to convey that. As Marlowe (Bogart) walks out of the Sternwood’s greenhouse in the opening scene, we see a large patch of sweat soaking through his shirt. Sure, this may be a quick film, a rapid film (it feels almost like shotgunning Chandler at times), but it’s not a clean film at all. Marlowe lives in a dirty world. And we feel that right from the start.
In fact, I’d say that this isn’t so much a love story at all, but a death story. A story of mortality, of the ways passion can end up in a pool of blood on an oriental carpet. A story of decay. Decline. An L.A. story. The Sternwood family (the center of Marlowe’s investigations) is dying out—the patriarch is confined to a wheelchair and can experience pleasure only vicariously; his two daughters have both become entangled in an underworld of gambling, alcohol, and prostitution; and he has no male heirs. We are witnessing the end of a family line. Even Marlowe himself is not immune; if we believe him to have truly fallen for Vivian Sternwood (Bacall), then his entire image and personality are on the verge of becoming obscure. Who would Marlowe be if he wasn’t free to sweet-talk a bookstore owner into drinking whiskey with him, temporarily closing up shop, drawing the blinds, letting her hair down—if he instead had to go home to his wife and child and maybe pick up some milk on the way home?
It’s this threat of obscurity, of everything fading to black, that really drives the film for me. It rushes, sinister but quiet, beneath every scene: an undertow. In that sense, Faulkner’s the perfect man to adapt this novel. His own obsessions with the death and decay of families and communities come through loud and clear; a line Mr. Sternwood speaks about his daughters struck me as particularly, beautifully Faulknerian:
“They’re only alike in having the same corrupt blood.”
It’s that corrupt blood—running through the veins of every shot in this film—that thrills, that terrifies, that intoxicates, that makes us keep watching. The decay of the organism is inevitable. How long will it be before we, too, are sleeping “the big sleep”? And who will be there after us to clean up the mess?
Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.