All right, we’ve all heard the story about how The Big Sleep (1946) has the most complicated and confusing plot of any film noir ever made; and so much so that when the director, Howard Hawks, and the screenwriters could not figure out what caused the death of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, they cabled Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel that the movie was based on, and asked him about it, and he confessed that he did not know either. This is not to say that one cannot come up with a reasonable explanation for Taylor’s death, for more than one is possible, but it is the mere fact that Chandler so confused himself with his convoluted plot that he neglected to account for Taylor’s death that makes the anecdote forever an essential part of the movie. No critic can now discuss The Big Sleep without mentioning it. Just for the fun of it, then, let us examine the matter in more detail. We will begin with the movie and summarize only that part of the plot that concerns the death of the Sternwood chauffeur.
Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood, because he is being blackmailed by a man named Arthur Geiger, after having previously been blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody. Ostensibly, General Sternwood has merely been presented with gambling debts in the form of markers signed by his daughter Carmen, but he suspects something more scandalous may be involved, otherwise he would simply pay off the debts. He wants Marlowe to take care of Geiger permanently.
It turns out that Geiger runs a bookstore that is a front for pornography. Marlowe follows him to a house, where soon after Carmen drives up and enters the house too. The purpose of their meeting is so that she can pose for some pornographic pictures in exchange for a fix. After sitting outside in his car for a while, Marlowe hears shots being fired, after which two cars drive off, one right behind the other. Marlowe enters to find Geiger dead in front of some surreptitious camera equipment while Carmen is all doped up, sitting on some special chair for picture taking. She is fully dressed, but given the Production Code at the time, we can hardly have expected otherwise. In the novel, she is naked. Marlowe discovers that the film has been removed from the camera.
Later that night, Bernie, a homicide detective who recommended Marlowe to General Sternwood, shows up at Marlowe’s apartment. He tells him that a Packard belonging to the Sternwood family is in the surf right off Lido Pier. Inside the Packard is Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, who, we find out, was in love with Carmen. The doctor at the pier says Taylor was hit with something. When Marlowe suggests a blackjack, the doctor says that is a possibility. When Bernie wonders aloud if the death of Taylor was a suicide or an accident, Marlowe says it was neither, which means it was murder. And that seems to square with the fact that the throttle was set halfway down, indicating that someone besides Taylor set the car in motion.
The next morning, Carmen’s sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall) comes to Marlowe’s office to show him a picture that was sent to her, presumably one that was taken the night before, with a blackmail demand for five thousand dollars. We don’t get to see the picture, but the novel refers to it as a nude photo.
Marlowe manages to figure out that Joe Brody is the one now blackmailing the Sternwood family. He confronts Brody, who finally admits that he was sitting in a car in back of Geiger’s house the previous night, hoping to get something on him. He saw the Packard and found out it was registered to the Sternwoods. Brody says he got tired of waiting, and so he went home.
Marlowe knows that Brody is lying. He tells Brody that the Packard was fished out of the water with the body of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, in it. He goes on to say that Taylor went over to Geiger’s house because he was in love with Carmen, and because he didn’t like what Geiger was doing with her. He jimmied his way in through the back door and shot Geiger. Then he grabbed the film, got in the Packard, and drove off.
Brody then admits that he followed Taylor, and when the car slid off the road, he went up to it and played copper. Taylor pulled his gun, so Brody says he sapped him. Then he saw the film and took it. That was the last he saw him, Brody concludes. Marlowe doesn’t buy it, because, he points out, that would mean someone else came along later, drove the car to the pier, and sent it into the water.
Someone rings the doorbell, and when Brody answers it, he is shot by Carol Lundgren, who the novel indicates is Geiger’s homosexual lover. He thought Brody killed Geiger and was seeking revenge. If he had known Taylor killed Geiger, he would have gone after him instead of Brody. In other words, it is not Lundgren who killed Taylor.
This is as far as the movie goes regarding the death of Taylor. The important thing about Marlowe’s statement that his death was the result neither of an accident nor suicide is that he speaks with an authoritative voice. In other words, in real life, we would say that Marlowe’s assertion is just his opinion. But in a movie like this, if Marlowe says it’s murder, then it’s murder. Given that it is murder, then the most reasonable suspect is Brody. He admits everything else: he followed the Packard until it slid off the road, and he hit Taylor with a blackjack.
Being hit with a blackjack is not necessarily fatal, but it certainly could be. In real life, that is. But there is a convention in the movies that when a man is hit in the head, it typically only knocks him out temporarily. In Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on another Chandler novel, a man named Marriott is killed when someone hits him with sap several times, but that is an exception. In fact, in the same movie, Marlowe is hit hard enough to knock him out a couple of times, but in each case, the only effect is a temporary loss of consciousness. In other words, when Brody says he only hit Taylor with a blackjack and did not kill him, it is this movie convention that allows us to believe him. In real life, we would suspect that the blow to the head killed Taylor, and Brody decided to put the car in the drink to make it look like an accident. And we have no reason to believe Brody, for being the seedy blackmailer that he is, he would hardly flinch from lying about the matter. Besides, are we to believe that while Brody was following Taylor, someone else was following Brody, even though Marlowe was parked outside Geiger’s house and saw no third car in pursuit. And if no one followed Brody, are we to believe that some perfect stranger came along, found an unconscious man in the Packard, drove it to the pier, set the throttle halfway down, and sent it through the railing, just because he could?
Now, most of us, when watching the movie the first time, forget all about Owen Taylor just as Chandler apparently did in writing the novel. But even after repeated viewings, especially after having been made aware of the anecdote that began this essay, we are still reluctant to conclude that it is Brody. In real life, we would have no such reticence. But this is a movie, and what we lack is someone’s authoritative voice on the subject. Just as we believe Taylor was murdered on account of Marlowe’s authoritative voice, so too does the lack of that voice leave us without a solution. That is to say, another convention of a murder mystery is that someone with authority must make a pronouncement as to who done it. It might be in the form of a pronouncement by a private eye or a cop, or it might be a confession by one of the suspects. But someone has to say something, by jingo! Because the movie lacks such a declaration, by Marlowe or anyone else, we just do not feel right about drawing the conclusion all on our own that Brody killed Taylor.
With the movie, it is only the absence of an authoritative voice that makes us shy away from accusing Brody of the murder. In the novel, however, Marlowe lends his authoritative voice to making an affirmative case that Brody did not do it. Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney, suggests that Brody might have killed both Geiger and Taylor, but Marlowe makes short work of that argument:
“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.”
In real life, this argument would not stop us for a moment. Even if Brody is not the killer type, if he hit Taylor with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, then he hit him hard enough to kill him. And while Brody might not have intended to kill him, he would certainly rise to the occasion if he accidentally did so and send Taylor and the car off the pier. But Marlowe’s authoritative voice in the novel trumps any reasonable conclusion that we might have in real life. No wonder Chandler didn’t know who killed Taylor. He really boxed himself in with Marlowe’s asseverations.
But let’s back up for a minute. In the movie, Marlowe’s authoritative voice makes it certain that Taylor was murdered. In the novel, however, there are three different opinions as to the cause of Taylor’s death, none of them Marlowe’s:
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.”
So, in the novel, if no sense can be made out of Taylor’s being murdered, there seems to be room for either an accident or suicide. A man just having been sapped might be so groggy as to accidentally drive off a pier. And Taylor might have been so despondent when Brody took the film, that he decided to commit suicide by driving off the pier, though why he wouldn’t use the gun he had on him at the time would be a mystery all by itself, especially when you consider that driving off a pier might not be successful, and he could have ended up in an Ethan Frome situation.
In the novel, the newspaper states that Taylor’s death was a suicide, but we gather that this is the result either of journalistic incompetence or of a cover story put forward by the Sternwood family to avoid a scandal, not to mention Carmen’s complicity in a murder of her own.
And for what it is worth, in the remake of this movie in 1978, a detective asks Marlowe, when things are being wrapped up, if Taylor’s death was a suicide, and Marlowe says that he thinks so. Well, Marlowe’s authoritative voice may suffice for that movie, but it carries no retroactive weight for the 1946 version, which is the only one that matters.
Ultimately, however, we love the story that not even Chandler knew who killed Owen Taylor so much that we really don’t want a definitive answer.