In The Big Sleep, published 75 years ago this week, the reading public met a very different kind of detective for the first time
Thursday 6 February 2014
What was so new? Almost everything in the first chapter, which introduces Philip Marlowe as he visits the Sternwood family mansion. Marlowe speaks to us. Whereas Holmes, Poirot, Maigret, Sam Spade are observed externally, Marlowe is the detective as autobiographer, starting three consecutive sentences in the first paragraph with "I" (ending with "I was calling on four million dollars").
He is a private detective, yet not patrician. By showing him meeting his social betters, Chandler's opening contrasts him as a man of the people (like a cop in this, but too nonconformist to be one) with the likes of Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, who don't need the money. Even calling on a potential client – Holmes waits for them to call on him, Poirot has agreeable invitations to country houses – sets him apart.
He is single, and attracted and attractive to women. The opening's flirtatious encounter with kittenish Carmen Sternwood differentiates him from his predecessors, who tend to be either sexless or married.
He is a dandy, as fond of fine clothes as he is of fine prose: the book's second sentence mentions his "powder-blue suit" and even describes his socks ("black wool … with dark blue clocks on them").
He is very literary. His first sentence – "It was about 11 o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills" – could be Scott Fitzgerald. In The Big Sleep the initial nexus of crime is … a bookshop.
He should not be confused with Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, 47 when he played the 38-year-old sleuth in Howard Hawks's film version, tellingly wore a dark suit and made Marlowe more of a gruff 30s tough guy (like Dashiell Hammett's Spade, whom he had played in The Maltese Falcon).
Marlowe makes jokes. Witty crime fiction existed before, but those allowed to be droll usually belonged to the leisure classes – noir's earlier hardboiled heroes were merely blunt. Made to the Sternwoods' butler, the wisecrack with which the chapter ends (told Carmen's name, Marlowe says "you ought to wean her. She looks old enough") is poking fun at toffs instead of toffs poking fun.
Over the 75 years since The Big Sleep appeared, the Chandler formula has been continually mimicked by detective writers looking for more class and literary novelists (including Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis and Roberto Bolaño) looking for a plot. Oddly, though, it's recently fallen out of fashion: in today's TV series and novels, the protagonists are either police detectives or eccentric geniuses like the modern-day Holmeses or Lisbeth Salander, not smart, self-employed regular guys. Only the humour is still there – from Sherlock to Saga Noren, today's sleuths have to be funny.
Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe is tough without a gun and lethal with a wisecrack in this irresistible rerelease
First released in 1946, The Big Sleep is a film of infinite interest. In its famously knowing trailer, Humphrey Bogart walks into the Hollywood Public Library and asks for "a good mystery like The Maltese Falcon". A librarian gives him a copy of what is misleadingly described as "Raymond Chandler's latest", adding: "What a picture that'll make!" Well, it did, and the result can be approached from a number of distinct and complementary directions.
First, it's a Warner Brothers production, made at the height of Hollywood's big studio era and announced by Warner's logo, which looks like a federal badge of social responsibility. Jack L Warner, who'd headed the studio since the early 1920s, determined what films were made, how and by whom, their cost and which contract performers appeared in them; their smart, stocky, wisecracking heroes looked a lot like Warner himself.
Second, The Big Sleep is a tough, sophisticated crime picture built around Bogart as LA private eye Philip Marlowe. All but two of his best films were made at Warners. After some years as a secondary figure on different sides of the law, he'd become a true star in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and an enduringly major one in Casablanca (1943). To Have and Have Not teamed him with his future wife, the newcomer Lauren Bacall, 25 years his junior, in a second world war drama that set out to imitate Casablanca. When in late 1944 early screenings for American forces found its successor, The Big Sleep, too dark, the opening of the film was delayed as lighter, sexier sequences were shot.
Together, Bogart and Bacall became iconic figures, sharing cigarettes and exchanging wisecracks on and off screen.
Third, The Big Sleep is being shown at the NFT in a two-part season of films directed by Howard Hawks (1896-1977), a spiky figure who could turn his talent to every genre while imposing himself stylistically and thematically on whatever he made. Camera movements were functional; his rapid dialogue challenged industry practice; a casually understated professional respect existed between his heroes; his confident heroines demanded and were accorded equality.
The Cahiers du cinéma critic- film-makers proclaimed him an auteur. But he was a hard-headed film-maker and, deep in debt as a result of his grand lifestyle and gambling, he had to make concessions in production costs on The Big Sleep. He engaged major writing talents such as his old friend William Faulkner and his personal discovery, Leigh Brackett, a Hawksian woman with a great ear for dialogue who went on to write Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back.
Fourth, The Big Sleep is based on Chandler's first novel. Educated, like PG Wodehouse, at Dulwich College in London, he'd settled in Los Angeles before Cecil B DeMille arrived there to shoot The Squaw Man in 1914, and he became a defining chronicler of the city. He coined the term "the big sleep" to describe death: two years later it was quoted as the last words of a notorious gangster.
A dozen actors have impersonated Marlowe on film, radio and TV, and Chandler, whose ideal exponent would have been Cary Grant, thought Bogart the best. In a 1946 letter to his British publisher, he said: "Bogart is so much better than any other tough-guy actor. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt."
Finally, The Big Sleep is invariably described as a film noir, a term coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1945 when a flood of dark Hollywood thrillers made during the war eventually arrived on Parisian screens after the four years of German occupation. Nearly 40 years passed before the term became current in the English-speaking world. The time of day in The Big Sleep is appropriately night, with rain and fog the dominant climatic conditions. But the influence of German expressionism is absent, there's no hard-boiled narration, no angst-ridden hero, no distorted camera angles, no nightmares, no ominous shadows, no flashbacks. Bogart and Bacall's exchanges are wittily playful, and the only femme fatale is a minor though crucial figure who destroys that perennial noir fall-guy, Elisha Cook Jr. But it's unmissable, irresistible.