The Big Sleep is a Philip Marlowe film. As a novice film noir fan, I was excited for my first foray into the film output surrounding the hard boiled icon, hoping for the ideal film noir. Closing in on seventy years removed from the genre’s hay day, much of the cream that has risen to the top is subversive, influential, and great, but perhaps too much so to itch a specific, pulpy scratch. While not as stylistically creative as Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep is a convoluted downward spiral through gambling houses, midnight stakeouts, hidden intentions, and off-road repair shops that must be cut through to enable the romantic conclusion.
The logistics of the investigation become confusing as Marlowe begins to unravel the web that the Sternwood sisters have become entwined in. At points it shifts from beguiling and mysterious to incomprehensible, but expository dumps via Marlowe’s verbal theories keep the plot somewhat traceable. The “Bogie and Bacall” pairing is the saving grace of the film in this regard. When the cognition required to follow the constantly emerging motivations and secret allegiances is so high, though there is a greater mystery than there would be otherwise, the tension that arises from wanting to know what happens next paradoxically dissipates when it is too hard to even know what just happened. Instead, a romantic tension develops between Marlowe and the older, more cunning Sternwood sister, Vivian. Though physical attraction is mutual – and it explicitly is between Marlowe and almost every woman he interacts with in the film – their places within this criminal conspiracy force their romance to stew underneath more immediate obligations.
When the investigation and shootouts have finally ceased, the actual criminal web is somewhat unsatisfying to behold as a finished product. The poisoning of Elisha Cook Jr.’s Harry Jones, a desperate criminal who was helpful to Marlowe, is one of the best scenes in the film. Marlowe hides behind boxes and a muddled glass wall while expressionistic shadows and Cook’s wary, yet powerless face conclude a minute story beat in heartbreaking fashion. The film’s treatment of the lowest of crooks is dripping with sympathy, despite – or because of – the fact that the world it depicts is completely lacking in it. When it is revealed that Eddie Mars’ wife did not run off with Sean Regan, but was instead a decoy to make it seem unlikely that Regan had been killed, the news of the murder is barely climactic, in no small part due to the numerous pieces that must be put together to ascertain that there was a climax at all. The reveal that Vivian has been working with Mars to protect her sister Carmen, who Mars claims killed Regan, is far more impactful on the personal level, as Vivian’s attempts at stopping the investigation are reinterpreted with a compassionate motivation. Mars is gunned down by his own men in an appropriate miscommunication, and Marlowe tells the cops that Mars, not Carmen, killed Regan in an action that finally ties a knot in this web and lets his affection for Vivian seep into his work. The film ends by knowing where it works, as Bacall tells Bogart that of her own problems, there’s “nothing you can’t fix.”