Despite Script Issues, The Big Sleep is Essential Film Noir




Directed by Howard Hawks

Warner Brothers, 114 minutes, Not-rated.




Raymond Chandler is among the most famous hardboiled detective fiction authors in American history. It was either his good fortune or curse–depending on your point of view–to have his 1939 debut novel made into a Hollywood movie. From the moment The Big Sleep hit the screen, Humphrey Bogart owned the role of private detective Philip Marlowe. This film is now regarded as both a film noir classic and one of the very best within that genre.


I’m not sure that I buy that assessment–the film version of Chandler’s novel was both tamed to comply with Hays Office censors and is often hard to follow–but there’s no denying its grit or the chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who plays the role of Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. Speaking of the Hays Office, her sister and father bear the surname Sternwood. Vivian is divorced, but that’s scarcely mentioned as the subject was semi-taboo, so Hawks and a scriptwriting crew that included William Faulkner, simply wrote around it.


The Big Sleep is labyrinthian at times in part because it’s as much a pastiche of character studies as a murder mystery. Marlowe first appears at the Sternwood mansion to visit General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants Marlowe to intervene in a mess involving his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). She has racked up considerable gambling debts with a bookseller named Geiger and there are also some incriminating photos of her being used by another lowlife, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) to extort money from the general. (In the novel, Brody’s a porn dealer and Carmen has been photographed nude.) Oddly, though, General Sternwood seems more interested in the whereabouts of Sean Regan, a missing associate he’s been grooming. (Regan’s storyline lacks depth in the movie.)


Again, The Big Sleep is more about characters than linear plotlines, but what a collection of on-the-razor’s-edge toughs and wannabe toughs they are. Carmen is a piece of work to say the least. She cavorts with gangsters, parties hard, and is as moral as a rabbit in mating season. The first time she sees Marlowe she does everything except rip his pants off, though Marlowe sees her as the bad news she is and has eyes for her older sister Vivian. It seems our surly detective finds Vivian’s tart tongue and bad attitude a much more seductive form of foreplay than short skirts, home-hither glances, and sex kitten purring that would make Lolita blush.


What’s going on? Don’t ask the dame who runs Geiger’s bookstore/front (Dorothy Malone). She’s furtive, and she too likes the cut of Marlowe’s jib. The plot thickens when Geiger is murdered and Marlowe pulls a drugged Carmen from Geiger’s home just before the cops arrive. Liberties are taken with details, but in any Chandler novel the corpses tend to pile up. Carmen’s driver also meets him maker and it seems that all of the lowlife punks have connections to a bigger one, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Eddie has other axes to grind. His wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) ran off with Regan. Somehow everything connects, though the only one that you can follow without your note cards is the connection forged between Marlowe and Vivian. As in all the best screen romances, though, theirs is a series of attract-repel dances.


Bogart and Bacall redeem what might otherwise have been a head-scratching film. As you might have inferred, the script is often muddier than a mutt rolling on a riverbank, but it’s easy to overlook in a film in which Bogart defined Philip Marlowe and Bacall embodied steaminess and exhaled cool air. As in most noir films, certain outcomes are dictated by the production code enforced by the Hays Office. Nonetheless, there is a rather surprise turnabout as the film draws to a close.


Even though I’d judge The Big Sleep as a cut below a masterpiece, it is essential viewing for anyone interested in film noir. It certainly looks the part in that it’s a lot more shadow than sunlight. You’ll also see how strong leads can compensate for script inconsistencies. And maybe you’ll learn that a big literary reputation (Faulkner) doesn’t always trump a great pulp writer (Chandler).


Rob Weir





The Glass Kingdom: Intrigue in Bangkok




By Lawrence Osborne

Random House, 304 pages




Tales of Westerners out of their depth in foreign climes spark comparisons to Graham Greene. That's unfair, given Greene’s exalted standing in the literary canon, but inevitable. The Glass Kingdom is a psychological mystery set in Thailand, presumably in recent times, though author Lawrence Osborne prefers inner histories to collective ones.


Because of its strategic importance during the Cold War, Westerners like to pretend that Thailand is a benevolent monarchy. That’s not true, but the romance of Bangkok and the pristine beaches of Phuket add to the tendency to ignore Thailand’s kleptocratic royals, the military’s iron grip upon the populace, and its seedy underbelly. The latter quality is why the novel’s thieving central character Sarah Mullins, finds it a good place to hide out as she plots her next move. The title derives its name from a once-posh-now-fading apartment tower complex. The fragility of glass is, of course, an obvious metaphor for things that easily shatter. Another is that what is seen clearly is often out of synch with what goes on behind drawn shades or in the shadows in the streets.


Sarah is a con artist who won the trust of April Laverty, an august but ageing novelist. Mullins forges documents, disguises herself, and absconds to Bangkok with a suitcase filled with an ill-begotten $200,000 from fake Laverty papers she sold to collectors. In Thailand, Sarah spends a lot of time on her own and it would have been better had she kept things that way. Instead, Sarah befriends several other women: Ximena, a Chilean-born chef; Mali, a Thai woman of uncertain virtue whose current beau is a Japanese businessman named Ryo; and Natalie, a British manager of Marriot properties married to Roland, a womanizer who might be some sort of diplomat. Several other characters come into Sarah’s orbit: the widowed Mrs. Lim, who owns the Glass Kingdom; Pop, the Kingdom’s Mr. Fix-it; a (maybe) blind woman who might or might not own a dog Mali claims is hers; and Goi, a local maid who also dabbles as a spy for anyone who wants to pay for information.


The strength of Osborne’s novel lies with his vivid descriptions of Thai society, Bangkok’s various pulses, and smoldering political intrigue. He also makes us see what Sarah, Ximena, and Natalie only glimpse: smiling exteriors of locals masking deep disdain for privileged, clueless Westerners who somehow believe money insulates them. I imagined parallels between Osborne’s Bangkok and Casablanca during World War II. Let us simply observe that morality, loyalty, and unimpeachable “official” reports were not the principal products of either locale.


All four women are imperiled, though not all realize it. Do we care? Not always. Sarah is very difficult to like. As if being a thief isn’t enough, she’s also vain and incredibly oblivious. On the last score, she’s an out-of-touch mammothrept that some readers may not find a credible character. That’s one reading; another is that she’s the Ugly American in heels; that is, an archetype of a Westerner who thinks she understands more than she does and desperately needs a weatherman to tell her which way the wind is blowing.


Osborne gives us numerous reminders that most of the book’s non-Thai characters are at sea, though their interactions with each are equally murky. In essence, Osborne surrounds shady people with shadier ones. The novel erodes with the monsoon floods when The Glass Kingdom ventures into things­ such as murder, disappearances, blackmail, multiple double crosses, and a gathering coup. As the Thai heat and sunshine begin to yield to torrential rain, are we to infer that glass kingdoms will be washed away? There is a stochastic quality to the last quarter of The Glass Kingdom because Osborne doesn’t close enough of the gap between the psychological interiority of his characters and the external capers, mysteries, and dangers into which they are immersed.


Call this one three-quarters Graham Greene. This makes it a very good effort, even though The Glass Kingdom doesn’t rise to penthouse level.


Rob Weir