The Big Sleep

(Howard Hawks, USA, 1946)


The American filmmaker Howard Hawks has dominated my life of late, following a recent small retrospective of his work, plus a British documentary called Howard Hawks: American Artist, and an exciting wave of re-releases in our repertory cinemas, including The Big Sleep (1946), which we saw in a pre-release version unearthed from a vault.

On a more personal level, even before all this revival activity began, I found myself re-watching on video Hawks movies like Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Monkey Business (1952), To Have and Have Not (1944), and especially Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the numbers and songs of which I watched over and over in quite an obsessive way.

For everyone who has mainly savoured their Hawks movies on video, or in murky 16 millimetre prints, the beautiful 35mm print of The Big Sleep, a film noir classic, is a real treat. The faces, the shadows, the rooms, have never looked this good, this bright, or this crisp and textured.

Whilst watching this print I realised with a jolt how not-noir this supposed film noir really is. Hawks' film has a strange and eccentric place inside this famous genre or grouping of films called film noir. Adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel, starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, Hawks' The Big Sleep is recognisably in the 1940s tradition of tough, hardboiled private detective fiction. It has a laconic hero who makes his way calmly through a labyrinth of intrigue and murder, and through an underworld of corruption, drugs and pornography. Around this hero, we have a universe of women. Sassy, sexy, smart-talking women are everywhere, at the centre of the plot and all around it, serving in bookstores and driving cabs, "women as insolent as the man is", as Hawks liked to say, which is an aspect of the film discussed well in David Thomson's small volume on The Big Sleep.

Like some of Raymond Chandler's other novels, and like Hawks' previous film with Bogart, To Have and Have Not, the story of The Big Sleep is on one level a moral journey: our hero starts out adopting a certain detached, unengaged perspective upon the dirty world he moves in; but finally, inexorably, he takes sides, he commits himself. Sometimes this can mean committing himself to another person – a friend in a jam, or a woman in love – as well as to a cause or a side, and to a definite act of forceful violence. It is easy to see today what once gave such hardboiled stories their resonance with the existentialist philosophy of Sartre or the novels of Camus: it was precisely this cynical gaze of a social outcast or outsider, finally forged, in the fires of action, into a political and personal commitment.

The most famous legend or myth about the film of The Big Sleep is that it is supposed to be completely incomprehensible on the plot level. I am not sure that this is true; many people who are used to following detective-mystery plots have no trouble with it. I personally have trouble following it, but that is because The Big Sleep is the kind of film where characters keep reeling off great lists of names at each other – Was Geiger with Mars? Was Brody there when you entered the cellar? I cannot keep up with names when the characters they belong to are nowhere in sight. The pre-release version of the film shows that Hawks originally intended the plot to be clearer than it now is; for slow-pokes like me, there was even a scene mid-way where everyone sat around and recapped the action logically, step by step.

Why did Hawks and his studio masters withdraw this first version of The Big Sleep and redo the film? This had nothing to do with the clarity or obscurity of the plot, and everything to do with Lauren Bacall. The studio felt there should be more of the Bacall-Bogart chemistry in the film, as there was in To Have and Have Not, made the previous year. Therefore, in came more dialogue scenes between them; snappier, saucier exchanges, like the famous one where they discuss each other's personal styles in terms of horse racing metaphors. These extra bits with Bogey and Bacall add nothing to the plot, strictly speaking, but they add plenty to the film, as they are what we most vividly remember and celebrate of the movie today. The fact that Hawks was so willing to accommodate these changes says much about his sensibility as a filmmaker.

In his own, quiet way, Hawks was a bit like Hitchcock: he wanted good scenes, set-pieces, diversions, attractions. If you could get enough good individual bits, and string them together with enough pace and energy, you would have a good movie on your hands. Larger issues of the deeper logic of a story, or its consistent, systematic meaning could be easily sacrificed to an ancient showbiz principle: make sure it plays well. The big, crucial difference between Hawks and Hitchcock is that, where Hitchcock played the registers of suspense and fear, Hawks was all for fun. In the British documentary on him, and in his published interviews, this is about all Hawks ever says concerning the way he worked out a script or staged a scene: "This was fun" and "We had some fun with it".

Sometimes, I have wondered whether there is just too much damn fun in the cinema of Howard Hawks. I have sometimes missed the dimension of a dark side, a poignancy or a melancholy, or indeed, a really biting or tough sense of drama in his films. Even when he did dramas, Hawks played them in a light way. He kept angling the nasty, knotty bits towards moments of comic release. In fact, what I think makes Hawks an incredibly modern or at least contemporary director for us now is this: he is like so many current mainstream directors – like Ron Howard or John Hughes – who skim brilliantly over the surface of everything.

Hawks never let the shadows of pain, doubt or complexity interfere with the high-spirited forward flow of the action and the repartee. We see this kind of dazzling skim time and again in Hawks' movies: in the great His Girl Friday (1940), for instance, where a desperate woman at a tense moment throws herself out of a window, and is almost instantly forgotten by the rest of the characters, by Hawks and by us. Hawks was the cinema's first master of a 'flip' sensibility. In one of the only vigorous attacks on Hawks in the history of film criticism, Raymond Durgnat took issue with this flipness. "Hawks works to a throwaway speed", Durgnat wrote. "When Hawks bats it and runs, it's out of sight and out of mind".

As noted earlier, The Big Sleep is a film noir without much noir. Not only in terms of dark shadows or wet city streets, but The Big Sleep also completely lacks that sense of menacing spaces, of dark passages, tunnels and hidden places opening up at every turn. The plot may be a labyrinth, but not the visual world of the film. Hawks never uses the kind of camera work which prowls into this kind of world and slowly uncovers its treacherous mysteries or penetrates its shadows. The Big Sleep is, for the most part, filmed like every other Hawks movie; it is filmed like a screwball comedy, with people standing around in rooms, filmed from the knees up, exchanging smart quips, and cutting a fine figure as they enter or exit the frame.

Yet, I know and feel there is a magic in this movie that is eluding what I have had to say about it so far. This is a common paradox with Hawks: his style is so simple, so unadorned, and the fun of the movies is so evidently on the surface that the formula of his cinema should be completely transparent. This was the message of one of the early, important essays on Hawks written by Jacques Rivette in 1953. It is called, categorically, The Genius of Howard Hawks, and it begins: "The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks' genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film".

The problem is almost no critic since then has got anywhere near pinpointing just how these movies work, and why they have lasted so well. And of course, no filmmaker who has come after Hawks, and who has tried to emulate him, has ever really succeeded in that either – not John Carpenter or Walter Hill or Quentin Tarantino, or any of the pretenders to the Hawks crown. So there must be a hidden trick to Hawks after all; surely some kind of secret, not-so-evident logic animating all this surface fun, and giving it a special, magic tension.

Something I read in an article on The Big Sleep had me thinking again about Hawks. It is a piece by a British critic, Michael Walker, in The Movie Book of Film Noir, which is the best book on that genre I have ever come across. There is so much in The Big Sleep which is light, bright, cheery and easy-going: the smart lines, the casual moves, the leisurely way we get from scene to scene. But Michael Walker rightly points out that, of all Hawks films, this is the one where everything which is outside the film frame, everything that is invisible, has a particular tinge of menace and danger to it.

In particular, what is immediately outside the door is particularly scary, and twice in the film Bogart forces bad guys out the door, and they are instantly killed. It is as if Bogart, in a displaced way, did the killing, which is an intriguing moral complexity, attached to his hard-boiled heroic character. Walker argues that, in its deepest logic, The Big Sleep centres round Philip Marlowe's anxious control of his world, of his immediate space. When the borders of that space are threatened, he starts to go to pieces, and something a bit darker or a bit evil starts to emerge in him.

Taking a psychoanalytic angle on the film, as Walker does, we can see this anxiety over control, and this nervousness about physical, spatial borders, as relating to all kinds of fundamental human anxieties: anxieties over keeping one's identity together, or one's sexuality, or perhaps one's family – and remember, the plot of The Big Sleep is kick-started by an old man, once wild and decadent, who is now desperately trying to hold together his family, and especially trying to rein in his wayward, doped, nymphomaniac daughter (not the Lauren Bacall character, God forbid, but her sister, played with wonderful little-girl tipsiness by Martha Vickers).

Michael Walker's essay also made me understand the classic final shot of the film better: it is Bogart and Bacall, united and looking super-sultry, but the whole heightened mood of the image comes from the fact that they are not completely safe yet. As the music swells, there is also the prominent sound of police sirens, the help they need to shepherd them away from this dangerous, surprising locale of intrigue.

We can take what goes on in the depths of The Big Sleep as the model for what Walter Hill solemnly calls, in that British documentary, "the Hawksian cinema". That flip, bat-it-and-run quality in Hawks mentioned earlier, works to create a kind of comfort-zone for his characters, and for us. It is the comfort zone of the film frame and everything that is perfectly visible within it, as well as everything that is on the surface of human behaviour. That is all play, fun. This fun principle reaches its perfect height in the songs of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where space is so fluid, where Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell keep attracting bodies to them and sweeping through rooms and levels, opening up vistas, with each bold new, uplifting stanza.

But when it comes to what you cannot immediately see in people, and what you cannot yet see coming from outside the frame, that is where the darkness and the trouble lie – and that is where the tension of his cinema comes from. Hawks was not particularly a Freudian, even intuitively or instinctively, and he did not much enter into the repressed emotions and symptomatic behaviours in his characters. But when he did allow himself this unconscious level – like in The Big Sleep, Red River (1948) and Scarface (1932) – his dramas were richer and had a bite. Even without the unconscious, Hawks' films are strong when they posit this menacing outside, this unknown – like the darkness that the pilots constantly fly off into, in Only Angels Have Wings.

And suddenly, for the first time in my cinephile life, I understand my favourite moment in my favourite Howard Hawks film, To Have and Have Not. At the high point of the action and the tension in this movie, Humphrey Bogart cagily manoeuvres himself into a position where he can shoot a hidden gun through the drawer where it is sitting, the bullet blasting out of the wood and into a bad guy. Suddenly, in this movie where everything is so supremely light and romantic, something draws itself up and explodes: inside the frame, but still invisible. As Jean-Luc Godard once said of a Hitchcock movie: "It's a lesson in cinema every inch of the way".

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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