Chandler’s admission relates to the demise of chauffeur Owen Taylor, whose death behind the wheel of a sinking car is never satisfactorily addressed by the film’s script. But it could just as easily describe any of a hundred little inconsistencies, intricacies, enigmas and moments of sheer, unapologetic weirdness that pepper this most displaced and dreamlike of wartime crime stories. The plot is tangled to a ludicrous degree. There’s a twist every five minutes, a murder every ten and a new dazzling dame in just about every scene. Humphrey Bogart plays private dick Philip Marlowe, assigned by crumbling aristocrat General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate a blackmail scam involving his daughters – off-the-rails baby doll Carmen (Martha Vickers) and louche, lounge-singing ice maiden Vivian (Lauren Bacall). But from this relatively simple set-up, Chandler and Hawks (plus a screenwriting team that included William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett) spin a web of fiendish complexity populated by gangsters, gamblers, pornographers and kidnappers, not to mention the smart-talking, staggeringly beautiful women who lure them in, love them and leave them hanging.
The portrayal of his female characters points the way towards Hawks’s intentions with ‘The Big Sleep’. Aware that his narrative was endlessly complicated but essentially meaningless, he opted, like many of his contemporaries, to use the film to explore other ideas, like masculine wish-fulfilment, female sexuality, an audience’s fascination with violence: the very lifeblood of the Hollywood dream factory. In casting a shuffling bulldog like Bogie in the lead then making every woman in Los Angeles fall for him on sight, Hawks plays not just with our expectations of what a hero should be but with the entire idea of screen romance and
But the real strength of ‘The Big Sleep’ is its dialogue. From Marlowe’s first exchange with Carmen (‘You’re not very tall, are you?’, ‘Well, I try to be’) through the still shocking innuendo of the racing-related flirtation between the leads (‘a lot depends on who’s in the saddle’) to scene after scene of crackling, hard-boiled trash-talk (‘Get up, angel, you look like a Pekinese’), this is arguably the high-water mark of Hollywood’s love affair with the infinitely slippery possibilities of the English language.
It’s easy but perhaps misleading to describe ‘The Big Sleep’ as film noir – sure, the morals are skewed, the bullets plentiful and the femmes most definitely fatales, but Bogart’s Marlowe is a decent, unconflicted hero, and most of the film takes place not in the shadowy urban streets but in a series of well-lit, beautifully decorated rooms. However, this only makes the film feel more subversive, as though the seedy criminal underworld were spilling over into real life, bringing with it the grim but thrilling aura of sexual abandon and sudden death.