Film Noir and the Bogart Style

David Bromwich

D. Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep (1946)

A DETECTIVE STORY begins with the discovery of a crime and ends with the exposure of the criminal. Film noir, even when it borrows a detective plot, is more entangled and confused. What looks like a soluble crime may turn out to be a thread in a complex web. Or there may be a puzzle — say a missing person — where the last piece somehow doesn’t fit. A legitimate culprit is known by the usual marks: witness, physical proof, the coordination of motive with action. But in film noir, respectable types are part of the rot, and the work a detective is supposed to do has become obscure and seemingly endless. General Sternwood in The Big Sleep wants Philip Marlowe to find out who keeps blackmailing him with demands to pay his daughter’s gambling debts. But there are two daughters: Vivian is elegant, sensible, and rigorously protective of her younger sister; Carmen is an adolescent in her mid-twenties, a compulsive flirt, prone to violent mood swings and spoilt-child rages. She is probably a drug addict.

From the opening minutes, we are sunk deep in a sordid milieu where the visibility is always low. The Big Sleep nonetheless has an exhilarating forward motion and carries some reassuring properties of standard melodrama: the romantic interest is never really in doubt, and the hero seems equipped to stay in command. Yet it is a film about social decay and the violence lurking in the rot. Because it is set in Los Angeles, the suggestion of something ominous and out-of-joint can emerge from a significant passing detail like the heavy rain in the early scenes. In the first pages of the novel, too, Raymond Chandler noticed the unnaturalness of the weather: ‘It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain.’ And it is on a night of driving rain that Marlowe—played by Humphrey Bogart—finally pieces together enough clues to stake out an address at Laverne Terrace, a slick bungalow in the foothills of Hollywood or the lower canyons. He catches a glimpse of Carmen hurrying inside with a man; later, his drowsy watch is broken by a flash from the house, a woman’s scream, the sound of gunshots and footsteps out a side door and two cars driving away. He parts a beaded curtain just inside the door and discovers Carmen, sitting rigid in a chair, opposite a hollow sculpture that conceals a flash camera with a spent bulb; she is giggling, in a drugged trance; a man lies dead on the rug beside her.

This room with the beaded curtain is a haunted place, as much as the house on the hill in Psycho or the darkened street alcove in The Third Man; and Marlowe, pocketing an address book he finds in a preliminary search, will come back twice to look for clues. On his first return the corpse has vanished, on his second it reappears, laid out on a bed in the nondescript bedroom on the other side of the curtain. But clues to what? The answer is everything: the identity of the murdered man, the murderer and the motive, what Carmen was doing there and what the flash and scream and the footsteps and getaway may have to do with the blackmail that has troubled General Sternwood.

Much of the plot, especially on a first viewing by someone who hasn’t read the novel, is as mystifying as that early scene. In a perceptive review, Manny Farber pointed out the accidental glamour generated by ‘the apparent lack of integration between crimes, the sudden appearances of bizarre underworld figures and their sudden startling disappearances into the murky environment’; but the result was oddly ‘a realistic portrayal of big-city life with “Arabian Nights” overtones.’ The atmosphere, in fact, has been sinister from Marlowe’s opening interview with General Sternwood about the blackmail letters. The old man sits in a wheelchair inside a hothouse. ‘I seem to exist largely on heat,’ he says, ‘like a newborn spider.’ Orchids are potted on every shelf and table, but they are just an excuse for the heat: when he asks Marlowe whether he likes orchids and the answer is no, the general agrees. ‘Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.’

The dialogue of The Big Sleep is a study in itself. Chandler once adapted a screenplay from a novel, Double Indemnity, by his only rival as a cult detective writer, James M. Cain; and the assignment led him to recognize ‘a curious matter,’ as he told Cain in a letter, about the difference between the apparent realism of dialogue on the page and the economy of the screen:

Nothing could be more natural and easy and to the point on paper, and yet it doesn’t quite play. We tried it out by having a couple of actors do a scene right out of the book. It had a sort of remote effect that I was at a loss to understand. It came to me then that the effect of your written dialogue is only partly sound and sense. The rest of the effect is the appearance on the page. These unevenly shaped hunks of quick-moving speech hit the eye with a sort of explosive effect. You read the stuff in batches, not in individual speech and counterspeech. On the screen this is all lost, and the essential mildness of the phrasing shows up as lacking in sharpness. They tell me that this is the difference between photographic dialogue and written dialogue.

He ends by assuring Cain that ‘of course you know far more about it than I do,’ but no one knew more about it than Chandler. In adapting The Big Sleep, the screenwriters, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, did what couldn’t be done with Double Indemnity. They took whole stretches of dialogue uncut from the book.

The characters of Hawks’s major films of the ’30s and ’40s—His Girl Friday above all—engage in rapid dry ‘speech and counterspeech.’ Should we call it realistic? Anyway it is direct, and it has to be, since ferreting out motives is what everyone is up to. Bogart handled this requirement with a mastery no other actor could approach. On his way out of the Sternwood house, Vivian summons Marlowe and tries to learn what he was hired for. He gives her nothing but dodging and repartee:

Vivian. I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe. Well I’m not crazy about yours — I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself, they’re pretty bad, I grieve over them long winter evenings.

It is the same when Eddie Mars, the owner of a gambling club and landlord at Laverne Terrace, catches him in an embarrassing contradiction:

Mars. Your story didn’t sound quite right.

Marlowe. Oh that’s too bad. You got a better one?

Or again, when he tests a mid-level thug named Joe Brody with an experimental accusation:

Brody. You take chances, Mister. It’s lucky for you I didn’t shoot Geiger.

Marlowe. Yeah, but you can step off for it just the same. You’re made to order for the rap.

Brody. You think you’ve got me framed.

Marlowe. Positive.

Brody. How come?

Marlowe. Because somebody will tell it that way.

Vivian is played by Lauren Bacall, very young and just married to Bogart. This was their second movie together; the first, To Have and Have Not, took much of its charm from the record of them falling in love. This can seem an extracurricular matter, yet it bears closely on the morale of The Big Sleep. Bacall is not quite a first-rate actress; her voice is low and seductive, as it wants to be, but she can’t vary her delivery much: too many shades of emotion are outside her bandwidth. Yet she brought a new quality to Hollywood movies. She is candid about sex — as direct as Bogart is direct about other things. Her looks confess her appeal and her open interest, without a secret come-hither smile. In The Big Sleep, this trait becomes a sign of the sincerity Marlowe hopes to find in her. The Bogart-Bacall relationship is thus a heartening promise of something better to come, under the involutions of the Marlowe-Vivian plot. And she never flirts with the camera; her looks are for him alone.

There is a touch of misanthropy in Bogart, as there is in Marlowe. He doesn’t need people’s approval, or especially want it. A certain downward look and his way of pulling back his upper lip (an animal tropism, almost a snarl) verges on ugliness; and strangely, this too may be part of his appeal. He isn’t wheedling with the audience for any reward. Hollywood scripts, before they are made into films, have a shorthand for the desired casting, by which one character may be marked a Ben Affleck type, another a Paul Giamatti type; earlier, of course, they would have said a Clark Gable type or a Dan Duryea type. For the decade after 1945, Bogart was the most sought-after leading man in Hollywood, but there was never a Bogart type. There was only Bogart. What gift did he have that was somehow denied to competent and appealing masculine types like Dick Powell and Ronald Reagan? One comes back to his attitude of not greatly caring — about money and worldly success; about what people think of him. Somewhere in it is an acceptance of the accidents of fate, a sense that such accidents belong to society as much as they belong to nature.

The prototype of the Bogart hero, it is widely believed, had been set five years earlier in The Maltese Falcon, where he played another detective already familiar in fiction, Sam Spade. It is true the voice and the physical presence are almost the same. Yet Bogart in the earlier film was all business, even when trading one-liners with the enemy. In The Big Sleep, his character has a curiosity separate from his profession, and a life outside hunting crooks and killers. What mattered most for his style, perhaps, was the simple confidence of the posture. Long before the young enthusiasts at Cahiers du Cinema expounded his art and mystique, the American critic Otis Ferguson had noticed how The Maltese Falcon gave Bogart ‘a steady outlet for that authority and decision and hard level talk of his. But he fills it without trying to and you’re with him.’ Ferguson came close to defining the magnetism of the Bogart hero when he reviewed High Sierra (like The Maltese Falcon a film of 1941): ‘Mr. Bogart is a very cool number at his job’; and though the protagonist in High Sierra was a robber and bound to die, ‘There is not one minute of this picture when the intensity of his presence is not felt, or when he is false or foolish. He is a man you are gradually allowed to hear tick, and would not monkey with, a man you feel must be obeyed instinctively, and remembered.’

Very likely, Chandler had Bogart in mind when in 1944 he published ‘The Simple Art of Murder,’ an essay that would pick up the cadence and almost the words of Ferguson’s description of Bogart as the chivalric modern hero:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story...must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it....He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job....He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

‘The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter’ — a line thrown off by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—must have stuck in Chandler’s mind; and both his novel and the respectful adaptation of The Big Sleep by Faulkner and Brackett made sure that Bogart’s side of the talk would be hard and level.

When Chandler saw a rough cut of the movie, he praised it overall but with particular stress on one detail: ‘Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.’ (Contains, in the sense of tamps down, but also keeps in reserve.) The first two-thirds of the film may often have the quality of a diversion. In the last 40 minutes, the stakes are suddenly high and the pace is relentless. What accounts for the change? The central encounter of the film — really a scene of self-recognition — is Marlowe’s meeting with Harry Jones, a small-time operative in the twilight world between freelance protection and the police. Jones, played with grave dignity and pathos by Elisha Cook, is a version of Marlowe lower down the social ladder, and his terrible death in a darkened office building, which Marlowe accidentally witnesses ‘like a sap’ in silhouette from the other side of an indoor window, is the event that turns him from problem-solving to retribution.

Marlowe talked with Jones not long before his death; and after learning that the ‘little man’ was the latest catch for Agnes (the dark-haired counterpart of Vivian and a woman who turns up in every bad place), he mocked him cruelly and then backed off ashamed:

Jones. She’s a nice girl. We’re thinking about getting married.

Marlowe. She’s too big for you. Jones. That’s a dirty crack, brother.

Marlowe. Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Maybe I’ve been running around with the wrong people.

It is a quiet reversal but an extraordinary one. Marlowe catches himself putting on a superior air, and the straightforward rebuke by Jones moves him to apologize.

At the center of the criminal web—the focus that every thread leads to—is the elusive character of Eddie Mars. Bound by a rope and handcuffs in Mars’s out-of-the-county hideaway, Marlowe says what he knows to Mars’ wife: ‘You think he’s just a gambler, don’t you. Well, I think he’s a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, he’s anything that looks good to him, anything with money pinned to it, anything rotten.’ In a story with multiple murders, with bribery and blackmail oozing from every pore of every witness or passerby, why is one man the object of so much indignation? The only crime we know for sure to come from Mars is his blackmail of the Sternwood sisters, and his only offense to Marlowe is having him roughed up when he came too close to finding a secret Mars told him to stay away from. But it was Mars’s sadistic hired gun who killed the unimportant Harry Jones.

A common detective movie could easily pass by the relevant death; with so many corpses, who is counting? The Big Sleep surprises most when it elects instead to look hard at this death. What was done to Jones lies at a far edge of the plot, and yet it comes to define the purpose of Marlowe’s hunt. For corruption is the true subject of The Big Sleep, not the catching of a criminal. The vanished Sternwood family chauffeur whom Marlowe is chasing is already dead; all of the actual murderers are caught or killed. But he goes after Mars with the anger of wild justice because his coolness has turned to revenge. This is a man he would rather not give up to the law.

The 1945 version of the film, shown only to soldiers overseas, had Marlowe give an explanation of each of the killings. This was dropped in 1946 for a longer scene, filmed separately, which played up the romantic interest even as it signaled his refusal to be paid off. The tense concluding scene, however, is the same in the two versions. As Marlowe loads his gun in the dingy house on Laverne Terrace, Vivian tells him ‘You’re the one who’s shaking now,’ and he replies, ‘I’m scared, angel. I’m sore, too.’ And when Mars enters, he works himself into a deliberate fury; how it will close is never in doubt. As for the ordinary justice of the police: ‘I don’t know yet what I’m going to tell them, but it’ll be pretty close to the truth.’ Getting close to the truth, against the odds of convention and genre, was a miracle that Hollywood movies performed a few dozen times in the mid-century decades, and there were always people besides the director and actors who made it possible. Max Steiner, who composed the music for Dark Victory and Gone with the Wind, held back his predilection for heavy scoring and here gave just the necessary recurrent themes for suspense, romance, and propulsion. The photographer Sidney Hickox knew how to make indoor scenes as hollow and forbidding as a rainy night in Los Angeles. Christian Nyby, the film editor, would go on to work with Hawks on Red River and The Thing.

Why does The Big Sleep carry so memorable a cumulative power? Hawks was admired for his ability to juggle scenes of maximum tension and maximum release and keep all eyes off the discordant parts; Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not were the previous films in which he performed that trick to superlative effect.

He had shown his presence of mind in the woodland chase of Bringing Up Baby when Katharine Hepburn broke a heel but he kept the cameras rolling and let her say: ‘I was born on the side of a hill!’ Hawks was always up for such opportunities, and his writers had to be skilled at plotting casual asides like the moment of To Have and Have Not where a beautiful woman faints, Bogart picks her up and looks at his load and Bacall says to him coolly, ‘What are you trying to do, guess her weight?’ Yet The Big Sleep went one step further. It took improvisation from the occasional detail to the structure of the film. The lovers measure, prod, and surprise each other without any letup, and though Bogart at last is roughly on the side of the law, we know he will tell the police only what the police needs to hear.