The Big Sleep (1946)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone
Release Date August 31st, 1946
Published February 21st, 2023
Who is Phillip Marlowe? He's a detective, of course, but beyond that. Who is he? He's a cynic, a loner, a veteran. He's seen just about everything. He's seen enough to know when he's being lied to. He's tired. As conceived by Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, he's weary, bone tired, and yet noble. He may no longer have time for joy in his life but he has purpose... and cigarettes... and booze. But Marlowe's true hallmark is weariness. He just seems as if the weight of the planet is pulling him into the ground and he's not all that interested in preventing this from happening.
Marlowe doesn't have a lot to lose and hasn't had a lot to lose in a long while. This bone deep weariness has settled in after years of providing witness to the ugly side of everyday life. Cheating spouses, murder, missing people, and the betrayal of friends, Marlowe's livelihood revolves around misery. It's natural that such a vocation would weigh on a man. In Humphrey Bogart, that weariness, that sense of being so incredibly worn down by life, has a physical form. The lines on Bogart's face seem to have been formed by the sheer force of emotional, physical, and intellectual labor.
It's odd to think, but in many ways, a man like Phillip Marlowe exists as a proxy for the pain of others. He's a trauma shield, a way to experience trauma through the filter of someone else. As a private detective, he's the one who will see the husband or the wife cheating or find that friend that has been stealing from you. He can then slightly soften the blow by providing the tools you need for the confrontation that must ensue and be resolved so life can go on. Strangely, I'm reminded of John Coffey from The Green Mile who sucks out the illness of others, into himself, and releases it to the world in a strange form of healing.
The main difference is that Marlowe does what he does for a significant price, and daily expense payments. For his latest effort, Marlowe finds himself in admiration of an elderly former General living out the last days of his life. General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) has called upon Marlowe because he is being blackmailed by some unknown person. A proxy for this unknown blackmailer has given the General gambling receipts indicating an unpaid debt that they claim belongs to Sternwood's youngest daughter, the coquettish Carmen Sternwood. Payment is demanded of General Sternwood or something will happen to Carmen.
For her part, Carmen appears unfazed by whatever is happening, perhaps even unaware. Not innocent, not by a longshot, but nevertheless unbothered by potential dangers too young and naive to have developed a sense of mortal danger. After meeting Marlowe, and immediately flirting with him in clumsy, heavy handed fashion, the next time we see her, Carmen is extremely drunk and sharing space with a recently dead man. Marlowe, having followed Carmen, assuming she would lead to the blackmailer, finds Carmen and the dead man and sets about getting her home safely while avoiding the obvious frame job.
Unable to frame Carmen for murder, we come to find the body of the dead man, the owner of a book store acting as a front for a criminal enterprise, has been taken. Oh, and there is another body as well, this the body of a Chauffeur for the Sternwood family. This man may have committed suicide after being rejected by Carmen or he may have been murdered while trying to protect her himself, regardless, the body count is rising and everyone's a suspect. This includes General Sternwood's older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) whose own ties to an illegal gambling operation operated by a dangerous gangster named Eddie Mars (John Ridgley) may be at the heart of the case and several more bodies that pile up.
Under the direction of Howard Hawks it doesn't really matter if you understand what this mystery is all about. The investigation is a hanger for observations of human behavior, criminal behavior, and the desire to find something to stave off the boredom of everyday life. Deeper still however, all of these characters exist to explain why a Phillip Marlowe exists. Each plays a part in revealing Marlowe who represents the weary soul of America itself. Put upon, struggling with the weight of crime and sorrow, struggling to understand what drives people toward crime and how to stop good people from being caught up in it, that's Marlowe, that's what he is here for.
We need Phillip Marlowe to question the evil of the world as much as we need someone to stand against the evil of the world. We are all fascinated by the mysterious motives of crime and how to avoid getting sucked into the orbit of criminality and Marlowe provides a window through which we can look at the underworld, the criminal world, and see its ugly side and answer our fears about its insidiousness, the way its corruption threads into everyday society. It comes dressed in genre and entertainment, stylish hats, suits, and dresses. It looks glamorous until it doesn't until the bodies pile up and the glamour curdles into something foul.
The Big Sleep is the classic on the newest edition of the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. Listen to the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. And check out our new spinoff of the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast, Everyone's a Critic 1993. Reflecting on movies released that weekend 30 years ago is very revealing as to how the world has changed so very much in such a short time. Our next episode covers the incredible Neil Jordan film, The Crying Game. And, something we didn't know before we recorded that, Neil Jordan is the director of a brand new Phillip Marlowe mystery called Marlowe starring Liam Neeson. Isn't coincidence fun?
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