In many ways, The Big Sleep resembles the novel only by name. Thematically, tonally and considering plot and character it is only a shadow of Chandler’s original novel.
I’ve heard some say Marlowe is not a true noir hero, because his character is never drawn mentally, or emotionally into the mysteries and convulsion that surrounds him except on a rather shallow level. He is the rock that the audience latches onto, a guide through the world of noir. I think there is something to be said for his onscreen persona, where he matched with beautiful women and his victories are sweet rather than bitter. In the novel though, I don’t think this is a fair argument as Marlowe is more than just a cynical and disillusioned figure, he also inexplicably finds himself drawn in every time by the world that presents itself. The Big Sleep especially leaves a sour taste in his mouth as he grapples with trying to find something, anything that makes his job worthwhile, and really life worth living. I only say all this because it’s my favourite book, and has nothing to do with the film. Especially looking at this incarnation, and that of Montgomery in Lady in the Lake, there is very little of Marlowe of the page present. For such a huge fan this saddens me, but in this case does little to prevent my adoration of the film.
In a typical Hawksian fashion, The Big Sleep presents all the archetypes of the genre but in a thrilling almost anti-genre like way. IT has the detective; the dark shadows, the femme fatale, the violence, but thematically strays very far from the noir. I think a strong argument could be made for the film being thematically shallow, although this would understate its structural and deconstructive implications. The film, like the novel, leaves coherency at the door. The film is famously impossible to decipher, the plot actually doesn’t make sense. This is not the excuse of a lazy viewer; trust me… the film relies purely on state of mind and a certain aspect of dream logic to move forward. It structurally replicates the mental state of the character and viewer as they try to decipher the indecipherable. The film is propelled by the intentions of characters rather than a traditional unraveling of plot which typical are journeys from point a to point b, etc.
Hawks atmosphere also works against the original material and the noir genre, as it’s surprisingly light and inconsequential. Again I’m not trying to undermine the film, but rather attempt to understand it within the confines of the genre as well as a successful film. Marlowe is almost hyper-sexualized in this film and he seems to have every woman he meets (except one). While the Marlowe of fiction is highly desirable, his disdain for the fairer sex prevents him from actually initiating or reciprocating any relationships, even brief flings. I’d even compare his character to that of Irena in Cat People, as someone so afraid of their own sexual pleasure and power that it often exposes itself as self-hatred or violence. This however doesn’t fit into Hawks’ view of the ideal male and is therefore irrelevant to his vision. Hawks is uninterested in the Marlowe of the page, especially his misogyny and self-hatred because it goes against his own interests and motifs in terms of gender politics. For Hawks, the ideal man and woman embrace their sexuality and are not afraid to let it all lose with an equal. They don’t show anxiety or fear, even in light threatening situations and emotions are suppressed or driven away through what can only be called “fraternal bonding”, even if it is a woman.
The Big Sleep is also an excuse for Hawks to explore the gender politics of the power of male and female sexuality, and this is demonstrated in a number of scenes. The interplay between Bacall and Bogart play up questions of which gender is in control of these kind of relationships, sexual or otherwise. This one is particularly evident:
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.
The entire interplay follows a clear and rather egalitarian pattern of shared speech and power, and in the end Vivian questions who is in the saddle. While this does suggest and point to Hawks view of the equality that could be present between man and woman it also seems to want to know who is ever really in control? Every encounter in the film is presented in a similar fashion, which suggests both equality and struggle between genders for sexual control. This decisive battle of the sexes is present in nearly every one of Hawks’ films, and if it isn’t he’s still usually exploring some facet of female or male sexuality or identity.
I don’t know if I would call this Hawks’ greatest triumph, but it’s certainly up there. He was a filmmaker who was unafraid to say that making his films entertaining was more important than anything else, although oftentimes the lengths he went to transform material to suit his own thematic interests. This is one case, and perhaps the most definite example of his overall style, but his treatments of other texts like that of His Girl Friday and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes suggest a stronger desire as an artist to explore these common themes and aesthetic ideas.