Monday, December 18, 2006

The Big Sleep Thoughts

I was talking about The Big Sleep, and we noted that it's one of those movies that sort of seems to make sense right up until you're finished watching it, at which point you realize that there were a million things that went unexplained.

It's not just the famous story (mentioned in the Wikipedia article above) about how neither Howard Hawks nor Raymond Chandler knew who committed one of the murders; it's that the movie builds toward a big revelation -- who killed Sean Regan -- that never really comes, at least not in a satisfying way. The way the final scene is played, the murderer could have been one of two people, and I've gotten into arguments about who the killer was supposed to be. (The obscurity of the final scene may derive partly from Production Code requirements: murderers had to be punished, so it had to be said that Eddie Mars, the villain, was the murderer, even if we were left free to believe that he wasn't. A lot of the obscurity in the film comes from the convoluted ways in which the filmmakers have to imply drug dealing, or nymphomania, or a lot of other stuff, without actually saying the words.)

But the other thing that has always struck me about The Big Sleep, and which I haven't seen a lot of other people mention, is that the whole movie comes off as Hawks's excuse to feature as many beautiful women as possible; not until the James Bond movies would an action-adventure movie lean so heavily on eye candy. The first scene is primarily focused on how good Martha Vickers looks in shorts. (The original script called for Bacall to show off her legs in her first scene, too, but either it was changed or she didn't want to do the scene that way.) Then there's the famous bookstore scene with Dorothy Malone, where Hawks turned a bit part into a long -- and mostly pointless -- scene because, by his own admission, he thought Malone was hot and he wanted to give her more to do.

I've always thought the iconic scene of The Big Sleep is the one where Marlowe gets into a cab to do the follow-that-car scene, but his driver is a good-looking woman. Obviously women are an important part of the Raymond Chandler world, but Hawks overdoes it to an extent that we wouldn't see again until Frank Tashlin came along. I'm still not sure what possessed him to do the movie that way, though of course I am grateful for Vickers and Malone.

3 comments:

Chuck said...

The obscurity of the final scene may derive partly from Production Code requirements: murderers had to be punished...

Interestingly enough, the Code never specifically forbade filmmakers from showing murderers getting away with it.

I looked it up after waking up one night after watching Vertigo, certain that I'd stumbled across a hitherto undiscovered footnote in movie history: "Hey! Whatsisname...the guy who pushed his wife off the tower! He got away with it scot-free!"

True, the Code was crumbling by 1958, but I thought it still had enough clout back then that my fellow no-lifers on the imdb chat boards would be awed to hear that Hitch had successfully flouted it. A quick search of the internet soon disabused me, however.

On the other hand, I can't think of a single killer who went unpunished in any other Hollywood film of the Code era -- or for quite a few years afterward...can you?

Jaime J. Weinman said...


On the other hand, I can't think of a single killer who went unpunished in any other Hollywood film of the Code era -- or for quite a few years afterward...can you?


No, and a lot of movies had to change the source material in order to make sure that murder didn't go unpunished, whether it was the ending of The Letter or saying that Maxim didn't kill his wife in Rebecca. Whether or not the Production Code office would have refused its seal of approval to a movie that let murderers (or any criminals) get away with it, it's pretty clear that no studio would have dared to try. Even as late as 1958, Hitchcock shot a scene for the end of Vertigo where we would learn that the murderer had been arrested; it was cut, but he did shoot it.

Chuck said...

The one that really makes me grind my teeth is the ridiculous "vaporized by lightning" ending they tacked onto The Bad Seed. Just about ruined all the good stuff that went before...