Leigh Brackett was one of the screenwriters, along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, hired by Howard Hawks to help turn The Big Sleep into a movie, which is notorious for having the most convoluted plot in the film noir canon. In The Big Book of Noir, page 138, she makes the following comment:
True, the plot was so tangled and complicated that we all got more or less lost in it. But it only got that way if one paused to look too closely. Otherwise, the sheer momentum of the action carried one along, and why quibble? . . . I did witness the historic occasion upon which everybody began asking everybody else who killed Owen Taylor, and nobody knew. A wire was sent asking Chandler, and he sent one back saying, “I don’t know.” And really, who cared?
After the movie was made and shown to the public, Brackett says that the audiences had pretty much the same attitude:
Audiences came away feeling that they had seen the hell and all of a film even if they didn’t rightly know, in retrospect, what it was all about. Again, who cared?
She is right, of course. I shouldn’t care. But I do.
I first saw The Big Sleep on the late show, back when the late show was how most of us saw old movies fifty years ago. About forty years ago, I saw the 1978 remake. Sometime after that, I read the novel by Raymond Chandler. About twenty years ago, I saw the 1945 pre-release version. And off and on, through the years, I’ve seen the 1946 version about seven or eight more times. And yet, I still found myself wondering what really happened. And so, I set about the task of getting to the bottom of this mystery. I reread the novel, read the original screenplay, and watched every version of this story all over again. I think I may have hurt myself.
I suspect that most people would agree with Brackett. They enjoyed watching The Big Sleep and have no need of a thorough analysis of what happened, who did it, and why. But on the outside chance that there may be one or two others in the vicinity of my blog that might be interested in the results of my research, I am putting it all down on electronic paper.
Rather than give a synopsis of the novel, I think greater clarity can be achieved by approaching the story in a different manner.
The Dramatis Personae
First, let us consider the characters in this novel, organized into groups:
The Sternwood Household. General Guy Sternwood is a frail, old man with a sizable fortune. He has two daughters in their twenties: Vivian and Carmen. Vivian is married to Rusty Regan, but he has recently disappeared. There is also Vincent Norris, the butler, and Owen Taylor, the chauffeur.
Eddie Mars’ Casino. Eddie Mars runs a gambling casino. He has some hoodlums that work for him, the worst of which is Lash Canino, a killer. Eddie is married to a woman named Mona.
Geiger’s Bookstore. Arthur Gwynn Geiger owns a bookstore that pretends to sell rare books out front, but rents out illegal pornography in the back. He has an assistant, Carol Lundgren, who lives with him as his homosexual lover. Geiger has a secretary named Agnes Lozelle that waits on the customers. She has two boyfriends: Joe Brody and Harry Jones. General Sternwood had once paid Joe Brody $5,000 to leave Carmen alone. The general is under no illusions about the vices his daughters indulge in, so it is not clear what he thought Carmen was doing with Brody that she couldn’t do with someone else.
Philip Marlowe and the Law. Philip Marlowe is a private detective. He used to work for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator, under the supervision of Bernie Ohls.
The Ultimate Cause
By the time we get to the end of the novel, where Marlowe finally reveals the ultimate cause of the events that ensued, we are so worn out from it all that we are barely paying attention. We are just glad that things are being wrapped up at last. This is even more so in the 1946 adaptation, where Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is talking so fast and in reference to events not fully spelled out that we just assume he knows what he is talking about on account of his authoritative voice. Therefore, let us begin where the novel ends, so to speak, where we finally find out what started it all.
Owen Taylor Loves Carmen. Owen Taylor was in love with Carmen. They had run off together once, with him thinking they would get married, but with Carmen just out for a good time. Taylor got thrown in jail on charges of the Mann Act, but Vivian persuaded the police that he wanted to marry her, so they let him go. The Sternwoods kept him on as the chauffeur. He gave Carmen a little pearl-handled .22 caliber revolver as a present, with the engraving, “Carmen from Owen.”
Carmen Murders Rusty Regan. Vivian has been married three times, the last to Rusty Regan, who used to be a bootlegger. Carmen offered herself to Regan, but he declined. As a woman scorned, and a psychopath at that, she talked him into taking her to a secluded place and teaching her how to shoot the pistol Owen gave her. When he set up a target for her and walked back toward her, she shot and killed him.
Vivian Asks Eddie Mars to Help Cover Up the Crime. Carmen went home and told Vivian all about it, “just like a child,” as Vivian puts it. Carmen has epileptic seizures, and the novel seems to suggest that this is why she is crazy. Perhaps that was the thinking in those days. Anyway, in part to protect her sister from going to prison, but mostly to protect her father from having to live with the knowledge of what Carmen has done, especially since her father was quite fond of Regan, Vivian turns to Eddie Mars for help.
Vivian knows Eddie because she is a regular patron at his casino. Their spouses knew each other even better. Rusty was in love with Mona, but she married Eddie instead. So, Rusty ended up marrying Vivian on the rebound. But Mona didn’t care for Eddie’s illegal activities, the least concerning of which was operating the casino, so she left him. Eddie didn’t much care that she left, and they remained on good terms. Soon after, she and Rusty started having an affair.
Eddie Mars Plans to Blackmail the Sternwoods. When Vivian asked Eddie for help disposing of Rusty Regan’s body, he had Canino put it in the sump near where Regan was killed. Eddie figures he will be able to blackmail Vivian after that. She makes her payments to Eddie by losing at the roulette table. When General Sternwood dies, his daughters will inherit his millions, and that’s when Eddie really expects to cash in.
This is a cushy deal, but Eddie is worried. If Regan’s disappearance comes to the attention of the police, they might investigate, suspecting that Eddie had him killed for fooling around with his wife Mona. While carrying out that investigation, they might find out that Regan was murdered by Carmen. That would put an end to the whole blackmail scheme. Therefore, he asks Mona to go into hiding for a while so that the police will simply think she and Rusty ran off together. She still loves Eddie, so she agrees to stay in a house Eddie has in the hills.
That takes care of the police, but Eddie is in a hurry for the general’s money. He wants to know if the old man knows what Carmen did. If so, Eddie can blackmail him immediately without waiting for him to die.
Eddie Mars Uses Geiger as a Cat’s Paw. Geiger knows nothing about Regan’s murder, but goes along with what Eddie Mars asks of him. In exchange for supplying Carmen with drugs, Geiger gets her to sign some promissory notes, supposedly representing gambling debts, amounting to $3,000. The way Eddie figures it, if the general knows Carmen murdered Regan, he will suspect that Geiger’s demand for money is an indirect form of blackmail regarding the murder. In that case, he will pay up. And that will mean the serious blackmail of the general can begin immediately. But when General Sternwood refuses to pay, Eddie knows that the general is not aware that Carmen murdered Regan, and that he has to wait until the general dies, when the daughters will inherit all his millions.
Philip Marlowe Enters the Story
Upon receiving the notes from Geiger, General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe to deal with him. And that is where both the novel and the adaptations begin. My purpose here is not to give a complete synopsis, but only to explain what led up to this point, to give the ultimate causes while the mind is still fresh. From this point forward, the novel and the movie versions can be followed with a better understanding of what is going on. However, there are a few more plot points worth mentioning.
The Gang’s All Here. Several times when Marlowe goes somewhere, an amazing number of people show up at the same place. For example, Marlowe follows Geiger to his home and parks outside. But Joe Brody is parked down the street too. And so, apparently, is Owen Taylor. And then Carmen shows up. If Marlowe had followed Geiger the night before, Geiger would probably have just listened to the radio for a while and then gone to bed; if Marlowe had waited until the day after, Geiger would already be dead.
A couple of days later, Marlowe goes over to Brody’s apartment. Agnes is also there. In the 1946 movie, Vivian is there too. And then Carmen shows up. She has her .22 revolver with her, demanding the pictures that Geiger took of her naked. Marlowe takes the gun away from her and sends her home. Then Carol Lundgren shows up and shoots Brody. Once again, Marlowe’s ability to be at the right place at the right time is uncanny.
The Death of Owen Taylor. There are three opinions in the novel concerning the death of Owen Taylor, that it was an accident, suicide, or murder:
The uniformed man said: “Could have been drunk. Showing off all alone in the rain. Drunks will do anything.”
“Drunk, hell,” the plainclothesman said. “The hand throttle’s set halfway down and the guy’s been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I’ll call it murder.”
Ohls looked at the man with the towel. “What do you think, buddy?”
The man with the towel looked flattered. He grinned. “I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide. First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly. That puts it after the rain like the Sheriff said. Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square. That’s more than half-throttle. He could have done that with his hand falling and he could have hurt his head falling too.”
Ultimately, we have Marlowe’s authoritative voice to settle the issue, where he says Taylor was murdered: “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.” In the 1946 movie, Marlowe also dismisses both accident and suicide as the cause of death, leaving murder as the only possibility.
After Marlowe turns Lundgren in for killing Brody and reports the murder of Geiger, District Attorney Wilde suggests that Brody might be the one that killed Taylor, but Marlowe argues against it:
“What makes you so sure, Marlowe, that this Taylor boy shot Geiger? Even if the gun that killed Geiger was found on Taylor’s body or in the car, it doesn’t absolutely follow that he was the killer. The gun might have been planted—say by Brody, the actual killer.”
“It’s physically possible,” I said, “but morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that’s out of character for Brody and his girl, and out of character for what he was trying to do. I talked to Brody for a long time. He was a crook, but not a killer type. He had two guns, but he wasn’t wearing either of them. He was trying to find a way to cut in on Geiger’s racket, which naturally he knew all about from the girl. He says he was watching Geiger off and on to see if he had any tough backers. I believe him. To suppose he killed Geiger in order to get his books, then scrammed with the nude photo Geiger had just taken of Carmen Sternwood, then planted the gun on Owen Taylor and pushed Taylor into the ocean off Lido, is to suppose a hell of a lot too much. Taylor had the motive, jealous rage, and the opportunity to kill Geiger. He was out in one of the family cars without permission. He killed Geiger right in front of the girl, which Brody would never have done, even if he had been a killer. I can’t see anybody with a purely commercial interest in Geiger doing that. But Taylor would have done it. The nude photo business was just what would have made him do it.”
Marlowe seems to be denying that Brody killed Taylor, but what he is really denying is that Brody killed both Geiger and Taylor, for Marlowe believes Taylor killed Geiger. As for Brody, he previously admitted to Marlowe that he was the one that hit Taylor in the head with a blackjack. Let’s look at the line cited above: “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.” The natural way to read this is that the person that sapped Taylor is also the one that made his death look like an accident. As Brody has admitted to the former, then he is the one responsible for the latter.
Carmen Tries to Murder Marlowe. Finally, Marlowe gives Carmen her revolver back. She had once offered herself to Marlowe, but he had declined, so you know what that means. She asks him to teach her to shoot. They go to where she had previously killed Regan under the same pretense. But Marlowe has filled the pistol with blanks. She shoots at Marlowe again and again, emptying her gun, thereby confirming what he had suspected. She then has an epileptic seizure. He takes her home, telling Vivian to have her committed, or he will go to the police. As for Eddie Mars and the blackmail scheme, Marlowe says he’ll talk to him. Having recently killed Canino, Marlowe expects Eddie to be intimidated enough to leave the Sternwood family alone.
The 1944 Screenplay
The screenplay written in 1944 is in some ways different from both the novel and the movies. Regan’s first name is now Shawn, and Vivian was never his wife, for she is now referred to as Mrs. Rutledge, divorced, presumably to make her available to Marlowe as a love interest. It wouldn’t do to have Marlowe and Vivian be a romantic couple while she should be mourning her murdered husband. This was not important in the novel, where Marlowe has no interest in her romantically. In fact, the Marlowe of the novels never seems to be interested in women romantically, not even when he’s kissing them. Some critics have accused him of misogyny, but I think that is too harsh. Rather, he’s just so hardboiled that when he’s on a case, no womanly wiles can distract him from doing the job he was hired for.
But in the screenplay, not only is Vivian a woman that Marlowe shows an interest in sexually, he is also allowed a little nookie from the proprietress of the bookstore across from Geiger’s place. After he gets some information from her about Geiger, they have a few drinks and then have sex. Just before Marlowe leaves, she says, “A couple of hours, an empty bottle, and so long, pal,” her way of saying she knows this was just for the afternoon, not the beginning of anything more. Marlowe also says, “So long, pal.” It’s mutual. She’s just as hardboiled as he is.
In the 1946 movie, however, it is only Marlowe that uses the word “pal” in saying goodbye to her (Dorothy Malone), and when he does, her shoulders droop, for she realizes he has no intention of seeing her again. I always feel sorry for her when I see that scene.
Anyway, as Regan is no longer General Sternwood’s son-in-law in the screenplay, he is now just an employee. And from the way the general talks, he was employed as a paid companion.
After Raymond Chandler admitted to Howard Hawks that he didn’t know who killed Owen Taylor, the authors of the screenplay apparently cared a little more than Brackett would have us believe, because they decided to solve that murder for him, revealed in a conversation Marlowe has with the district attorney:
Wilde: So Taylor killed Geiger because he was in love with the Sternwood girl. And Brody followed Taylor, sapped him and took the photograph and pushed Taylor into the ocean. And the punk [Carol Lundgren] killed Brody because the punk thought he should have inherited Geiger’s business and Brody was throwing him out.
Marlowe: That’s how I figure it.
This is the simplest solution to the murder of Owen Taylor. Brody was not a killer, but he admits to hitting Taylor with a blackjack, knocking him out. If you hit someone with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, you’ve hit him hard enough to kill him. When Brody realized that Taylor was dead, he decided to make his death look like an accident. Then he quite naturally denied doing so when Marlowe questioned him.
Notice that Wilde gives ownership of Geiger’s business as the reason Lundgren killed Brody, whereas in the novel, Lundgren was in love with Geiger, and he mistakenly killed Brody for revenge, thinking Brody had killed Geiger. In 1946, the Production Code did not allow references to homosexuality, so a different motive was provided. There is no need to repeat the various homophobic remarks made by Marlowe in the novel, but there is one that is revealing as an apparent stereotype of homosexuals when the novel was written. At one point, Lundgren hits Marlowe on the chin. Marlowe says, “It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.”
The final scene in the screenplay takes place in Geiger’s house. After Carmen fires blanks at Marlowe, revealing that she murdered Regan as Marlowe suspected, Carmen says there is nothing he can do about it. If he goes to the cops, she will tell what happened, and it will be a big scandal in all the newspapers. Vivian will go to prison too for helping to cover it up. And her father will find out about it, which will make him miserable. Marlowe admits defeat, saying he wouldn’t want that to happen.
I wondered about that part in the novel where Marlowe tells Vivian to have Carmen committed. How exactly was Vivian supposed to have Carmen committed to an insane asylum against her will, without telling the police about the murder? This screenplay ending makes more sense.
Anyway, Carmen is triumphant. As she starts to leave, Marlowe gives her his hat and coat like a gentleman, even though she just tried to kill him, saying that she will need them because it is raining. But Marlowe knows that Eddie Mars is just outside the house, waiting to shoot him when he leaves. So, when Carmen leaves, Eddie mistakes her for Marlowe and shoots her. Then Marlowe shoots Eddie. With both Carmen and Eddie dead, the whole blackmail scheme has come to an end.
The 1946 Movie and the 1945 Pre-Release Version
As noted above, the screenplay has Marlowe agree that Joe Brody murdered Owen Taylor. In the movie, Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) merely says that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor does not make sense. Consider the discussion in the movie where Brody finally explains that he got the naked pictures of Carmen by taking them away from Taylor after hitting him with a blackjack:
“He [Taylor] skidded off the road and came to a stop. So I came up and played copper. He had a gun. He was rattled, so I sapped him down. I figured the film might be worth something, so I took it. That’s the last I saw of him.”
Marlowe is skeptical:
“So you left an unconscious man in a car way out near Beverly. And you want me to believe somebody came along, ran that car to the ocean, pushed it off the pier….”
In a movie, there is a world of difference between having Marlowe positively affirm that Brody killed Taylor, which is the original screenplay version, and having Marlowe say that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor doesn’t make sense, which is the movie version. In the absence of a confession on Brody’s part, we need to hear Marlowe’s authoritative voice assert that Brody killed Taylor. But we never quite get that. Therefore, there remains the sense that the death of Owen Taylor is never accounted for. For this reason, most people that have seen this movie will be resistant to the idea that Brody killed Taylor, if you suggest it to them. At least, that has been my experience.
Also noted above, the novel has Lundgren kill Brody because he was Geiger’s lover, and he thought Brody had killed Geiger, but the screenplay avoided this homosexual motive, giving control of Geiger’s pornography racket as the reason why Lundgren killed Brody. However, the movie drops this economic reason and returns to the novel’s homosexual motive, but only in the form of a queer flash. In the screenplay, when Marlowe takes Lundgren to Geiger’s house at gunpoint, he hands Lundgren the key to the house, which Marlowe had pocketed on the night of the shooting, and tells him to open the door with it. But in the movie, he does not give Lundgren the key. Instead, he tells Lundgren to use his own key to get in, implying that he lived with Geiger.
The 1945 pre-release version of this movie followed the screenplay in allowing Marlowe and Vivian (Lauren Bacall) to be a romantic couple, and the 1946 version went even further in establishing their relationship. In the novel, it is Mona, Eddie’s wife, that helps Marlowe escape; in the movie, Vivian is also at the house with Mona, and Vivian is the one that helps him escape from Canino (Bob Steele).
The movie follows the screenplay in killing off Eddie Mars at the end. Marlowe tells Bernie Ohls that Eddie killed Regan, even though he knows it was Carmen. Since Carmen is not killed off, the movie reverts to the questionable idea of having her committed.
The 1978 Remake
In 1978, the movie was remade by Michael Winner, in color and widescreen, set contemporaneously in England. Perhaps all these differences were meant to keep us from comparing it too closely with the original. But notwithstanding the fact that it is it is filled with good actors, it falls flat.
This remake more closely follows the novel in some ways, while departing from it in others. Vivian (Sarah Miles) is again Rusty Regan’s wife, and she has no romantic relationship with Marlowe (Robert Mitchum). It is Mona, not Vivian, that helps Marlowe escape from Canino (Richard Boone). And not only do we see Carmen, now going by the name of Camilla, firing her pistol with blanks at Marlowe, but we also see her shooting and killing Regan in an imagined flashback.
In the novel, Marlowe is still handcuffed behind his back when he shoots Canino. But in both movies, the handcuffs are in front when Marlowe shoots him. That’s too bad, because having Marlowe shoot Canino while his hands are cuffed behind him is quite an image. It was illustrated that way on the cover of the paperback I bought so I could read the novel.
One thing that amused me was the pornography angle. In the novel, Marlowe follows one of Geiger’s customers after he leaves the store with a package. The customer gets scared and drops the package. Marlowe opens it up, finding a book with both text and pictures. He characterizes it is as “indescribable filth,” for which reason he doesn’t describe it. Such a scene is not in the 1946 movie, but it is in the 1978 remake. Marlowe gives a similar characterization of the book: “indescribably filthy.” In this case, however, we get to see the pictures he is looking at when he says they cannot be described. They are nothing but pictures of naked women with their breasts exposed. The pictures are no more revealing than a Playboy centerfold from the 1960s. Later in the movie, Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find Camilla in his bed, completely naked. She throws back the covers, and we see full, frontal nudity, including her pubic hair. And so, if the book from Geiger’s bookstore has pictures that are indescribably filthy, then by its own standards, this movie is even filthier, even if it is only R-rated. Obviously, they should not have allowed us to see those harmless photos of naked women as Marlowe expresses his disgust with what he is looking at.
Finally, this version tries to justify its existence by directly addressing the death of Owen Taylor. Instead of availing itself of the screenplay solution, which was that he was killed by Joe Brody, this movie has Marlowe say that Taylor’s death was suicide. The idea is that Taylor wakes up after being sapped, realizes the naked pictures of Camilla have been taken from him, and drives his car off the pier at a high rate of speed. This contradicts what Marlowe said in the novel and in the 1946 movie. It is also not realistic. If Taylor wanted to commit suicide, it would have been simpler for him to shoot himself in the head with his revolver. Driving a car into the ocean may not quite do the trick, but I guess the Owen Taylor of this version had never read Ethan Frome.