I like impenetrability. Whether it’s Pynchon or Rivette or Grillet, sometimes there’s nothing better than trying to figure something out that has you utterly bamboozled. But I can safely say that nothing I’ve seen this year has been as head-scratchingly inscrutable or inexplicably incomprehensible as Bogart and Bacall in Howard Hawks’ ‘The Big Sleep’, a film I watched only last night, have read several synopses of this morning and I STILL don’t understand what was going on. Fortunately neither did the filmmakers or the Chandler himself as ‘The Big Sleep’ isn’t about figuring out what is going on but what goes on when figuring something out. What is the process of deduction and just how much fun you can have with it? Turns out, a lot.
So the ‘The Big Sleep’ follows private detective Philip Marlowe as he… er… yeah, and this is where things start getting complicated as Marlowe is taken into a house and hit with a barrage of innuendo from various quarters: a young daughter seduces him, another daughter almost threatens him after their father, a retired General, places Marlowe in a hot-house and vicariously gets off watching the detective indulge in earthly pleasures whilst making allusions to a possible homosexual relationship gone wrong as the pungent smell of orchids suffocates everything with their “rotten sweetness of corruption” although “their flesh is too much like the flesh of men,” the General observes with the acid tone of a jilted lover combined with possible overtones of the scent of murder. Is this why he “waited” so long to have children? It’s difficult enough to figure out what’s going on when what is being said can’t even be said out loud. No wonder Marlowe is sweating!
Marlowe is then thrust out into the world to figure out just what is going on (or what he has even been asked to do), and it is a world containing killers, pornography, drug abuse, black-mail and poisoned drinks. This is also where things start to get complicated.
I’m not going to explain the plot of ‘The Big Sleep’, mainly because I can’t but this film is one of the best examples of deliberate confusion going. The strengths of the film though are in the way it rewards us for our hard work and the irresistible effect of its seduction.
For example, the dialogue is stunning with lines, barbs, zingers, red-herrings, over-lapping dialogue and some incredibly filthy sex-talk involving horses delivered by two actors who can hardly keep their hands (or their eyes) off each other. Like Marlowe amongst the orchids, this film made me hot under the collar and, personally, I love the scent of orchids.
And Hawks’ direction is fantastic with a number of moments where (and I’m still not sure how he did this) he almost imperceptibly highlights certain objects to the viewer and then tells us — “Hey, you noticed that for a reason.” Two examples are the bust with the camera in it (the way it catches our eye even before Marlowe sees it) or the “hidden” door in Mars’ office, even though it never gets used. What this does is allow us to feel like a detective ourselves. We are investigating the picture along with Marlowe and are, occasionally, allowed to pat ourselves on the back, even if it is all being spoon-fed to us. We are being invited to take part and play in this game. It’s so well done.
The other surprising aspect of ‘The Big Sleep’ was just how much it reminded me of James Bond. Marlowe charms his way about the city, he picks up beautiful women who throw themselves at him as he goes about his, apparently, state-sanctioned mission where he can kill with impunity. Oh, and his car has got gadgets.
Add on top of all this a slew of references enough to boggle the mind and the effect of ‘The Big Sleep’ is overwhelming. There is some exotic obscurity at play here too, especially in the reference to Proust which, I guess, allows me to use the word “recherché” with twin justification here, so I will.
And names are constantly thrown at us, dozens of names (it seems). Even during the final act of the film more characters are introduced to disorientating effect. But isn’t that the point? After all, Marlowe loves Vivian (Bacall) but does Vivian love Marlowe? What is her angle? We, and Marlow, only find out at the end, as it should be. And maybe that is what Marlowe was looking for all this time — not Geiger or Regan but love. Will he get it in the end? I won’t say anything other than I wanted him to, I really did.
‘The Big Sleep’ isn’t a mystery to be solved. It’s more like a Buddhist exercise in contemplation with guns; a puzzle without a solution but a process instead. It’s less film noir and more a koan of crime.
Life, like ‘The Big Sleep, might not make sense all the time but sometimes it doesn’t matter if you have a beautiful dame in your arms.