Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946)

  Before the arrival of the internet and specifically Wikipedia a common stock character in film was the private investigator. The P.I. was such an important staple in genre cinema that a whole slew of colorful words were invented to elevate this most humble occupation into a racket bursting with private eyes, gumshoes, shamuses, snoops, and flatfoots. During a time when anonymity was neither a coy concept or something tantamount to social suicide a shamus was employed to unearth buried secrets and, if necessary, keep those secrets away from prying hands and eyes.
  Raymond Chandler started his writing career by publishing a slew of poetry, book reviews, and even a short story. His work was not met with any excitement and he retreated to menial jobs to make a living. One important career move he made was as a bookkeeper for a oil company in southern California. Although he had a distaste for the way his corrupt employers did business that did not prevent Chandler from advancing to the position of vice-president. It would not be till the Great Depression though when his alcoholism and dalliances with office secretaries would cost him his job. With no other way to make money Chandler returned to writing.
  In the 1930's the best place for hungry writers to go and earn some sort of living were the pulp magazines. Chandler spent an entire year studying the in's and out's of detective fiction before finally putting pen to paper to create Blackmailers Don't Shoot. The 18,000 word short story took him five months to write and Black Mask magazine paid him $180 for it. Chandler's most famous creation though would be private detective Philip Marlowe.
  Chandler infused the typical street tough detective with a chivalric code and turned the shamus into a knight errant for the twentieth century. Or as Chandler put it so eloquently "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid...he must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." Philip Marlowe was an incorruptible man in a corrupt world where people oftentimes sell their souls for easy comfort.
  Marlowe would make his first appearance in 1939 when Chandler published The Big Sleep, a novel based on several short stories that Chandler had written for Black Mask magazine. The simple story has Marlowe tracking down a blackmailer for General Sternwood, an elderly millionaire who has been relegated to enjoying all his vices by proxy. Marlowe must navigate the prickly world of killers, gangsters, pornographers, and making his job even more difficult are the General's daughters, Carmen and Vivian, who are wary of all the attention he is paying on the sudden disappearance of Rusty Regan, a man whose disappearance will ultimately lead to several deaths. The labyrinthine plot structure offered Chandler the opportunity to tackle one of his favorite themes which is the clash between idealistic values/beliefs and the stark reality of living in a compromised society. This book not only guaranteed Chandler a place in the literary community, but he also managed to create the template from whence other detective fiction would spring forth from.
  Seven years after the publication of Chandler's novel Warner Bros. would theatrically release the film adaptation. Directed by silver foxed filmmaker Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. The film garnered attention due to the pairing together of Bogart and Bacall and also because of the hard to follow plot. Yet there is more going on in the film once you take a closer look at it.
  One important issue to consider when discussing The Big Sleep is the fact that the film exists in two versions, a pre-release cut which included several scenes that elucidated several hanging plot threads and the theatrical cut which put a spotlight on the Bogart and Bacall on-screen/off-screen romance. The existence of these two versions highlights an issue that the film constantly raises, which is the intangibility of the truth.
  As Marlowe digs for answers to who is blackmailing the Sternwoods and how Rusty Regan's disappearance fits into all of it he finds that nothing is as it seems. Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) sells rare books, but underneath all that respectability he is really a pornographer. Sternwood's daughters dress and act like respectable society women, but Carmen is a nymphomaniac and Vivian, although showing genuine concern for Marlowe, is more than willing to let a murderer go free to keep her family's name out of the press. And then there is Eddie Mars, a gangster racketeer, who pretends to be a cuckolded husband to divert attention from the fact that he is the one blackmailing the Sternwoods. Wherever Marlowe turns he is met with lies or half-truths; one can't simply rely on the surface value of what we see and hear; just because the truth may be unpleasant to face we must still demand answers and not be complacent.
  Underlying the film's main storyline is the pervasiveness of sex and the treatment of the story's protagonist, Philip Marlowe, as a sex object. From the very first scene of the film to right before the fade out women can't seem to stop flirting with Marlowe and/or falling right into his arms. Though unlike the typical female characters you might find in standard Hollywood fare the women in The Big Sleep are assertive and have no qualms about taking what they want. In fact the women in the story, at times, are more masculine than the men. This gender inversion can be read as a comment on society as a whole. The industrialized world we live in is a much more dangerous world than we can ever realize. There is no room for damsels in distress when Armageddon is no longer biblical hearsay, but rather a frightening possibility.
  For Humphrey Bogart playing a detective would be nothing new. He had portrayed Sam Spade in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon several years earlier; though audiences coming to either films for the very first time should not make the mistake in believing that just because in both films Bogart is playing the detective protagonist that Spade and Marlowe are cut from the same cloth. Nothing could be further from the truth. While both men do share a quick wit and have an innate knack for attracting the opposite sex Spade is rather quite cold and cruel when compared to Marlowe. When faced with a comely young female Marlowe denies himself, and by proxy the audience, the pleasure of her company. Spade on the other hand beds his partner's wife before the start of the story and then after his partner's death he takes up with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a liar and manipulator. Also there is an ambiguity about where Spade's loyalty lies till the very last scene of the film. This contrasts with Bogart's portrayal of Marlowe which is that of a man above reproach; of the seven murders in The Big Sleep Marlowe is responsible only for one and even then his actions were in self defense. Spade relies on his ability to think and act as a criminal so that he can win their trust and later arrest them, but you never forget while watching the movie that Marlowe is one of the good guys.
  Unlike Huston's film Hawks ends his movie on an upbeat note. When you take away all the death and sordid details of the story you find that Hawks was really telling a love story. In the film as in real life Bogart seems fated to end up with Bacall. In the very first scene of the film we find out that before his disappearance Rusty Regan handled the first blackmail attempt on the Sternwoods. Regan, a surrogate son to General Sternwood, is replaced with Marlowe who drinks brandy, chats with the General as Regan used to, and is employed to take care of sensitive family business just as Regan had done before him. Of course as Marlowe proceeds with his investigation he must deal with Vivian, the General's oldest daughter, and although turned off at first by her spoiled nature he is quickly intrigued after several verbal sparring matches with her. The great obstacle in their not getting together is the issue of trust. Only after Marlowe has put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and in turn offered Regan some semblance of justice can Marlowe finally be with Vivian. By the end of the film this knight errant for the twentieth century not only blurred the lines between star and character mythology, but the entire story itself is one of the most romantic courtships ever put on film.