Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the big sleep, by howard hawks

So last week, after a brief holiday hiatus, Skunkcabbage and I returned to the business of Film Club. The last film we looked at, The Maltese Falcon, featured Humphrey Bogart playing private detective Sam Spade, and we decided to carry on in that vein this week, taking a look at Bogart playing private detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep.

I often think of a movie's plot as consisting of all the narrative "questions" that are unanswered at any given moment. In order for a film to be plot-driven, it needs to have at least a few questions "open" (unanswered) at each moment of its run-time; that's what keeps viewers curious and invested in seeing how the story turns out. Watching The Big Sleep, however, is like seeing this principle in total overdrive. The film dumps so many questions in your lap, and has so many of these questions "open" at any given moment, that to even try to hold them all in your head is nearly impossible without a notepad.

The film opens with Marlowe being called to the home of one General Sternwood, who wants him to investigate a scheme in which someone is blackmailing one of his daughters, Carmen. This leads to some obvious questions: Who is blackmailing Carmen? Why? What do they have on her? Before Marlowe leaves, the film throws a few more in our direction: What's the deal with Sean Regan, Sternwood's companion, who has mysteriously vanished? Why does Vivian, Sternwood's other daughter, seem to take such an interest in trying to figure out why Marlowe's been hired?

Once the investigation begins, the questions really begin piling up. Who killed this guy?

Or this guy?

What's gangster Eddie Mars' relationship to all of this? What about Joe Brody, another blackmailer? What about Mars' wife, who appears to also be missing? By midway through the film has so many "open" questions that its plot begins to resemble a kind of porous texture, shaped almost entirely by the narrative gaps that its puzzles define.

Most of these questions, although not all of them, do eventually end up answered, although the answers aren't particularly satisfying or memorable. (I watched the film twice this month, and even with it fresh in my memory I'd still struggle to answer all of the questions I listed above.) But the film is still totally enjoyable and entertaining, and this led me to realize that The Big Sleep is not actually plot-driven, but rather character-driven. The real pleasure is not in navigating and decoding the puzzle-structure but rather in watching Philip Marlowe, as embodied by Bogart.

When writing on The Maltese Falcon, I wrote that male viewers watching the film are likely to have the experience of wanting to be Sam Spade. That experience is redoubled here: watching The Big Sleep is like browsing through a primer on how to perform the codes of masculinity. (In this way, they can be seen as forerunners of the Bond films, which serve something of the same cultural purpose.) The Big Sleep teaches men how to dress, drink, and smoke, how to remain cool under pressure, how to be funny, and how to gather and synthesize information. It teaches men how to throw a punch:

...as well as how to take one:

Above all, it teaches men how to flirt. Director Hawks stacks the deck a bit in this regard, placing Bogart / Marlowe in a universe pretty much universally inhabited by charismatic (and receptive) women. To close, then, here's a brief gallery of some of the women Bogart encounters, opening with the most notable of the batch, the stunning Lauren Bacall:

And now the rest:

Whew. OK, so, next? Next we're sticking with noir, but we're leaving the 1930s and 40s (where we've been parked since, wow, October!). We'll be checking out the 1981 version The Postman Always Rings Twice, featuring David Mamet's adaptation of the James M. Cain novel.

Want more on Big Sleep director Howard Hawks? Film blog Only the Cinema is currently doing an "Early Hawks Blog-A-Thon," devoted to writing on Hawks films that predate Bringing Up Baby (1938). Check it out!

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