Movies about Life after Death

The movie Ghost (1990) is only one of umpteen movies I have seen that might have precipitated this essay, but this one is as good a place as any to start.  My objection to movies of this sort is that the discovery that there is life after death on the part of the protagonist fails to make the profound difference in his thoughts and feelings that one would expect.  The number of movies about life after death are far too numerous for an exhaustive survey, so only a few of the better known ones will be discussed as representative.

There are three ways in which the soul can survive the body:  (1) the soul goes to a place for the departed (Heaven or Hell, for example), (2) the soul is reincarnated in another body, or (3) the soul wanders the Earth as a ghost.  And for each of these ways, there are movies in which the protagonist discovers the reality of such.  The perplexing thing is the way in which the protagonist that makes the discovery is remarkably unaffected, except insofar as his knowledge of life after death helps him in matters that concerned him before the discovery.

As for movies in which the protagonist discovers that the soul goes to an afterworld when the body dies, I covered this subject at length in my essay, “Heaven in the Movies.”  In that essay, I noted that in the movies Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake Heaven Can Wait (1978), when the protagonist discovers that Heaven exists, he is unimpressed.  All he cares about are the worldly pursuits that mattered to him when he was alive.  He never takes a moment to reflect upon Eternity.

I suppose the idea is that they have believed in God and in Heaven all along, so it is no big deal to them to have the existence of God and Heaven confirmed.  In other words, whereas an atheist like me might be expected to stand there in astonishment and to say to himself, upon being sent back to
Earth, “I must change my life,” for ordinary people who already believe, it is no big deal.  But that is a facile view of human nature.  Religious people only half-believe what they hope is true, and it is this combination of half-belief and hope that constitutes the essence of faith.  A religious man would be just as impressed by the discovery that Heaven exists as any atheist, and upon being sent back to Earth to continue his life, as is the case in these two movies, this new knowledge would be just as life-transforming for him as for an atheist.

In reincarnation movies, the discovery by the protagonist that he has been reincarnated leaves him similarly unimpressed.  Of course, when people are reincarnated in the movies, they always manage to come back to life as white, middle-class Americans in good health, never as untouchables in India who are forced to rummage around in a garbage dump to find something to eat.  Be that as it may, in Chances Are (1989), all the protagonist cares about when he realizes he has lived a previous life is making the decision as to which woman he will hook up with, the woman to whom he was once married or his daughter.  Apparently, it is all right to commit incest with your daughter, provided you have been reincarnated into another body.  Or at least, that’s what this movie says.  But my main point is that the only effect the knowledge of reincarnation has on the protagonist is the way it complicates his sex life.

At this point, it might be noted that the movies I have presented as examples have all been comedies, and that I am taking things way too seriously.  Now, if I had laughed while watching these movies, that would be different.  But when a comedy fails to make me laugh, the absurd premises of such a movie become painfully obvious.  I have heard that some people actually did think these movies were funny, however, so I guess for them, these movies worked.  Perhaps the reason they were able to enjoy these movies is that they really do not believe in life after death themselves, and so they don’t expect the protagonist to take it seriously either.

Whereas movies about Heaven or reincarnation tend to be comedies, movies about ghosts tend to be taken more seriously, especially since ghosts take us into the genre of horror movies.  And this brings us to the movie that started this essay, which is Ghost.  In this movie, Sam (Patrick Swayze) is murdered and becomes a ghost.  He realizes his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) is in danger, and thus he does his utmost to keep her from being killed as well.  When he finally saves her from Carl (Tony Goldwyn) by fighting with him until Carl is accidentally killed (and dragged down to Hell by demons), he is then able to join the blessed in Heaven, his mission here on Earth having been accomplished.

At the expense of being once again admonished for taking these movies too seriously, I cannot help but wonder why he doesn’t just let Molly die so that she can join him in Heaven.  I mean, if there really is a Heaven in which we dwell in eternal bliss, who needs life on Earth?  Why drag out the misery of existence when the joys of Paradise await?  There are good things about life, to be sure, but not even the best of life could possibly compete with the happiness that awaits.

There is one movie about ghosts, however, that has the transformative effect on a man that we would expect, and that is A Christmas Carol (1951).  A greedy miser is visited by three ghosts who show him the error of his ways.  Seeing his greed and selfishness from the aspect of eternity horrifies him.  From then on he wants to do whatever he can to help others, to bring a little happiness to his fellow man.  This is one movie about life after death that makes sense.


Night Moves (2013)

Three eco-terrorists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Saarsgaard), are tired of just talking about the environment, so they decide to blow up a dam in Oregon.  After they blow up the dam, it becomes clear that their idealistic act was naïve and worthless.  Their friends, unaware that Josh, Dena, and Harmon were the ones who blew the dam up, dismiss the whole thing as theater, because the river has twelve dams, so nothing has been accomplished.

As the movie progressed, it became clear that we would not see the dam being blown up.  This was probably for two reasons.  First, there are budgetary considerations.  One gets the feeling that this is a low-budget feature, and it is simply cheaper to let us hear the sound of the explosion as they drive away from the river rather than film a spectacle.  It reminded me of a guy I knew who was much younger than I and therefore used to modern movies.  He was complaining about an old movie he saw once, and I quickly realized he was talking about They Live by Night (1948).  He said, “These guys are planning a bank robbery, and the next thing you know, they are driving down the road listening to a news report of the bank robbery on the radio.  Today, the bank robbery would be the main part of the movie.”  But this was a low-budget film noir, and letting us hear about the bank robbery they just pulled off must have been cheaper than actually filming it.

However, there was something about the style and tone of the movie that also made one suspect there would be no grand, spectacular scene of the dam bursting, water pouring through the valley, tossing boats and cars every which way, and people screaming as they are pulled under the current.  In fact, it is part of the basic idea of this movie that Josh and Dena never really thought things through, that it would be impossible to blow up a dam without someone being killed.  They find out, as is appropriate for a story about guilt and paranoia, that someone has died when we do, when they read about it in the newspaper.  And the fact that it is just one person rather than several was good too.  One death is enough to cause Dena and Josh to become guilt ridden.  Less is more.

Unfortunately, on a couple of points, the movie could not resist a turn toward the melodramatic.  First, when they get in the truck to drive away from the river, they have trouble starting it.  That is such a cliché that I was hoping that wouldn’t happen before they even got in the truck.  Oh well, at least they got it over with quickly.

A second point, however, was most unfortunate.  Dena becomes so guilt ridden that it becomes clear that it is just a matter of time before she turns herself into the police and confesses everything.  To stop her from doing this, Josh murders her.  Josh tells Harmon over the phone that it was an accident, which would have been fine, if he had pushed her and she fell down and struck her head.  But he strangled her, and that is not something one does accidentally.  In any event, this murder accomplishes nothing.  The fact that Dena has been strangled coupled with the fact that Josh has to take it on the lam will make it obvious to the police that Dena and Josh are the eco-terrorists they are looking for.  If Josh is going to have to flee the area and go into hiding anyway, then what is the point of the murder?  Better would be to simply disappear without killing Dena.  In that case, whether she talked or not would not have made much difference.

Just as a melodramatic spectacle of a dam blowing up would not have been in keeping with the style and tone of this movie, so too was Dena’s murder out of place.  But maybe the difference was budgetary after all:  it doesn’t cost much to film a man strangling a woman.

Arrival (2016)

Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has a baby girl, raises her through her childhood, and then suffers through the heartbreak of finding out that her daughter will die of an incurable disease at a young age.

Then twelve flying saucers land in different parts of the world.  People start panicking and governments begin mobilizing, which I suppose is only natural.  But let’s face it.  If they wanted to kill us, then given their advanced technology, there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it.  Be that as it may, because of Banks’ language skills, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up in her office to enlist her in translating the language of the aliens.  Weber plays her a snippet of the aliens talking, which lasts just a few seconds, and he asks her what she makes of it, as if anyone could translate a completely alien language from such a small sample.  I was hoping her reply would be, “He said, ‘Take me to your leader.’”

Banks says she would have to interact with the aliens in person to be able to communicate with them.  Weber refuses and says he is going to Berkeley to see if Dr. Danvers will work for them instead.  Banks says, “Before you commit to him, ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation.”  Is this a trick question?  The translation of the Sanskrit word for war has to be “war”; otherwise, it’s not the Sanskrit word for war.  Presumably, she is talking about the etymology of that word, which is “gavisti,” rather than its translation.  In that sense, I suppose you could say that the “translation” of the Spanish word for pregnant is “embarrassed,” for example.  Anyway, the whole point of this is Banks’ way of letting them know that Danvers is second rate.  When Weber finds out that Danvers thinks the translation of “gavisti” is “an argument,” whereas Banks knows that it is actually “a desire for more cows,” Weber knows that he must give in to her demands to meet with the aliens.  Thank goodness Weber didn’t enlist Danvers for the job!  With his second-rate language skills, he might have caused an intergalactic incident.

On her way to the aliens in Montana, she meets Dr. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist.  He quotes from the preface of one of her books, “Language is the foundation of civilization,” and then tells her she is wrong, because, as he puts it, “The cornerstone of civilization isn’t language, it’s science.”  I guess this is the movie’s way of introducing some kind of science-versus-the-humanities conflict into the story, but we cannot help but feel we are being manipulated into being on Banks’ side, for it is beyond obvious that you can have language without science, but you cannot have science without language.  And just in case we missed it, the point is further driven home when they arrive at the place where Banks is going to get some facetime with the aliens so she can learn how to speak Alienish.  Donnelly asks if the aliens have responded to things like Fibonacci numbers.  Weber has to point out to him that they are still working on the responses to the word “Hello.”

However, even Weber seems a little obtuse on this point.  He later complains that the vocabulary list that Banks has constructed has words like “eat” and “walk,” which he calls grade school words.  Didn’t he take a foreign language course when he was in school?  We all know that you have to start off with common words like “eat” and “walk” in the beginning, that you have to learn how to say things like, “Where is the library?” before you can start having complicated discussions about whether the aliens intend to kill us.  Once again, the movie forces us to identify with Banks, because everyone else in the movie seems to be a little bit thick.

Now, it seems to me that if the aliens have the technology to travel light-years across space, they have the technology to receive our television broadcasts, by which they could have learned to speak English before they ever got here.  But the problem with that, according to the movie’s version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if the aliens learned to speak English it would rewire their brains, and the next thing you know, they would become rational like us.  That would never do.  So, Banks has to learn Alienish, which will rewire her brain so that she can grasp the mystical premise of this movie, which has something to do with the Eternal-Now and the Oneness-of-Allness.  This is why, presumably, their written sentences are basically circles with curlicues.  Our sentences have a beginning and an end, but the circular expressions of their thoughts defy such a linear manner of thinking.  The practical consequence of this mystical premise is that the future has already happened.  In fact, the aliens are helping us now to become One with each other so that three thousand years later, we will help them.

Furthermore, what we saw at the beginning of the movie is actually what will happen later after she marries Donnelly, and all the flashbacks she was having about her daughter were really flashforwards.  In one of those flashforwards, she tells her daughter that Daddy became angry and said she made the wrong choice, after which he divorced her.  The choice in question had to do with her deciding to have a child even though she knew the child would die from a rare, incurable disease.  My guess is that he said something like, “Why the hell didn’t we go to a fertility clinic and get the bad gene removed?”  But that would just be the same old, rational, scientific, linear way of thinking that comes from speaking English.

When Is a Good Man not a Good Man? When He Is a Family Man.

It sometimes happens in watching a movie that one will be struck by something that others may not even notice, something that had it been edited out and left on the cutting-room floor would never have been missed. So it is with the movie 99 Homes (2014).

The movie is set sometime after the bursting of the housing bubble.  It is a time when there is more money to be made evicting people from their homes than building new ones.  In particular, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who can no longer find work building homes, and as a result, he and his family are evicted from theirs for failure to make mortgage payments.  On the day of their eviction, Nash tells Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real-estate broker in charge, that he was born in that house. This being said by a man in his twenties, such a house would normally be paid off by that time, which means he probably refinanced the house along the way to help pay the bills.

The Nash family, consisting of Nash, his mother, and his son, quickly put as much of their stuff as they can into their pickup truck and wind up at a cheap motel in the bad part of town.  When he realizes his tools were stolen by the crew that moved his stuff out to the curb, he goes back to his house and gets in a fight. Because Carver needs someone with Nash’s fierce determination to assist him in evicting people, he offers him a job.

At first we believe that Nash will simply be helping Carver do stuff that is legal, however unsavory it may be.  But soon we find that his job also involves scamming the banks and the government, stealing appliances and air conditioners so that Fannie Mae will give them a check to put the stuff back in the house they took it out of.  This makes Nash a little uneasy, as it does us, but bankers have always been fair game in fiction. The idea of the banker foreclosing on the widow with a baby because she is late with her last mortgage payment has been the stuff of melodrama since the nineteenth century, and those who rob banks to get even are romanticized. Nevertheless, when Nash’s mother finds out what he has been doing, she takes his son and goes to stay with her brother, “Uncle Jimmy.”

Eventually, it becomes more than just cheating the banks and the government. When Frank Greene, a homeowner whose family is about to be evicted, threatens to foul up a multimillion dollar deal for Carver by contesting his eviction, Carver gives Nash a forged, backdated document to take to court. Nash really becomes conflicted by this, because this is cheating a family just like his own.  He decides not to deliver the document, but the court clerk, who is in on the deal, snatches it out of his hand and gives it to the judge, who approves the eviction.

This leads to an armed standoff, where Greene fires warning shots from inside his house.  Nash steps out from behind a car and walks onto the grass with his hands up and tells Greene that he cheated him with a forged document. Greene surrenders, and we get the sense that with Nash providing evidence, Carver will soon be heading to prison.

That is the movie in a nutshell.  But an offhand comment made in the middle of the movie caught my attention.  Carver asks Nash why he isn’t married, to which Nash responds that he doesn’t have time for it.  “I don’t trust a man who’s not married,” Carver says.  “Nobody does.”  At first, that would seem to be a preposterous contradiction.  Carver, as we have seen, is not only ruthless in evicting people from their homes, but he is also willing to break the law to do so. He also cheats on his wife.  But then we realize there is no contradiction here. He is not saying that married men are more trustworthy than single men, but rather that they are so regarded.  In other words, a single man might be just as trustworthy as any married man, but it is a fact of human nature that people are more likely to trust a man who is married than one who is not. Carver would prefer that Nash be married, because it is easier for a married man to cheat people than it is for a single man, owing to this prejudice in favor of the trustworthiness of the former over the latter, however misguided that may be.

Well, that would account for the rest of mankind, but why would Carver be more likely to trust a married man when he knows from the example of himself just how misplaced such trust can be?  That leads to a paradoxical distinction between two different kinds of trustworthiness.  Some men can be trusted because they are basically good, and some men can be trusted because they cannot afford to be good.  As Tallyrand said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.”

If this is what Carver has in mind, that a married man burdened by the responsibilities of a family will not be able to afford the luxury of doing the right thing and therefore can be trusted to do the wrong thing when necessary, then Nash actually is effectively more like a married man than a single one, in that he has his mother and son to support.  (We gather that when Nash was young, his girlfriend got pregnant, had a baby, and then took off, leaving the child with him.) In fact, it is only after his mother and his son go to live with Uncle Jimmy, where they will have food and shelter no matter what happens to him, that Nash is free to do what is right.

In general, whether one is married or has a family without actually being married like Nash, one is not as free as a single, unattached person to do all the things he or she would like, whether for good or ill.  We tend to think of the bachelor as someone who is more likely to indulge his vices or commit crimes, with good reason, I fear, but it is also true that anyone who aspires to be a saint will find family life to be a hindrance.

This is undoubtedly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). You are not supposed to divorce your wife, of course (Matthew 19:19), but you are supposed to hate her.  That might be said of a lot of married men, unfortunately, but I doubt if for religious reasons.  In the parable of the Great Banquet, a rich man invites a lot of people to have dinner with him, which I suppose is analogous to Jesus inviting people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with him. An excuse offered by one man for declining the invitation was, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:20).  In a pinch, a man might be better off castrating himself:  “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).

Obviously, Jesus was addressing his remarks to men rather than to women, not only because women cannot be eunuchs, but also because he says that a man must hate his wife, not that a woman must hate her husband. Notwithstanding this oversight, women are capable of becoming saints just like men, though there are more officially recognized male saints than female.  On the other hand, from a casual perusal of the movies, it would seem that women make better movie saints than do men.  St. Joan of Arc, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Bernadette get lots of screen time, whereas the only male saint to get that much attention from movie producers is St. Francis of Assisi.  They all pretty much have in common the fact that they are single.  Elizabeth Bayley Seton had been a wife and mother, but one suspects that she would never have made it to sainthood had she not been widowed.

Traditionally, bachelors have always been looked upon as being of doubtful character, in part because they were suspected of homosexuality.  Even when that was not the issue, however, there was the sense that there was something wrong with them.  Of course, by “bachelor” I mean a man who not only has never married but has never lived with a woman as well.  I once knew a couple that had been living together for seven years and had a three-year-old child, but they still counted themselves as being single.  If possession is nine-tenths of the law, cohabitation is nine-tenths of being married, even when common-law status is not invoked.  With women, on the other hand, it has traditionally been different, as if they were more to be pitied than censured.  The “old maid” was usually thought of as a woman unable to attract a man, and the “spinster” was a woman forced to support herself for want of a husband.

The idea of a man being so spiritual that he rises above his sexuality is part of the awe afforded to priests.  The Protestant version of the priest, who likely is married, may strike us as more dependable and down to earth, but he no longer seems special the way a Catholic priest does.  However, it is the entanglements of marriage that really get in the way of one’s spiritual aspirations.  So, what does a man or woman do who wishes to become a saint only after having become married? As a rule, I suppose one gives up the dream of becoming a saint owing to one’s family obligations.  But there are a couple of movies that suggest that abandoning or neglecting one’s family is permissible and even laudable.

In the movie The Boy with Green Hair (1948), Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell) is a war orphan because his parents died during the London blitz of World War II trying to help war orphans.   This is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite irritating. When Peter was very young, his parents left him with an aunt so that they could help the war orphans in London. Even if one of his parents felt the need to participate in the war effort, say, the father, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him; but they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child. When the aunt gets word that Peter’s parents are dead, she passes him on to other relatives who don’t want him either. This continues until he ends up with his grandfather (Pat O’Brien).

We are supposed to think of those relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child. It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family. Without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, they just dumped him on his aunt and took off.

There is one moment in the movie when Peter concludes, correctly in my opinion, that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.

Another movie along these lines is Magnificent Obsession (1954).  The movie is based on a karmic principle explained by analogy with electricity.  The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation.

The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Wayne Phillips, a man who had been initiated into the secret karmic principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing.  You might be appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death, that he was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family, grabbing up all the good karma for himself while his wife and daughter are left destitute. And yet, the movie insists that we are to admire Dr. Phillips.

Being a good man and being a good family man may be two different things.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The twentieth century is when art became ugly.  Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of art that philistines like me enjoy.  I’m talking about that highbrow, elitist art consisting of ridiculous paintings, nonsense novels, discordant music, and weird foreign films.  By the twenty-first century, the novelty of ugliness had begun to wear off a bit, but it can still be counted on to appeal to those who believe that an appreciation of ugliness is the mark of refinement.

Nocturnal Animals is not a weird foreign film, of course, but it could pass for one.  Right off the bat, the movie presents its highbrow bona fides by displaying disgustingly obese, naked women, dancing in place, in what turns out to be an art exhibit.  The woman who has arranged all this is Susan (Amy Adams).  Her life is as ugly as her art show, notwithstanding all the opulence in which she dwells.  Her husband cheats on her.  She can’t sleep.

She receives in the mail an unpublished novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that it is an ugly novel.  It is about a man named Tony, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Susan’s mind as she reads the novel.  Just in case we might wonder if she is projecting by making this identification between the author and the protagonist, there is an earlier discussion between Susan and Edward when they were married, presented in a flashback.  She criticized something he wrote, telling him he needs to write about someone other than himself.  He says all authors do that.  They don’t, of course.  As Nietzsche once said, “Homer would never have created an Achilles or Goethe a Faust, had Homer been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust.”  But in this case, Edward has created a Tony because he is a Tony.

Anyway, in this novel, Tony, his wife, and his daughter are traveling across west Texas when they are waylaid by a bunch of psychopathic punks.  The movie wallows in the misery of a family being brutalized, resulting in the rape and murder of the two females.  With the aid of a lawman named Andes, who is dying of lung cancer, Tony is able to track down the killers.  Andes kills one of them, and Tony kills the other.  However, the one Tony kills lives just long enough to hit Tony in the head with a poker, blinding him.  Tony staggers outside, falls, and accidentally shoots himself, resulting in his death.

In reading the novel, Susan is deeply moved, even more than she was moved by watching a bunch of naked, four-hundred-pound women jiggle their decaying flesh.  Why is she moved?  Well, it probably has to do with the abortion she had after Edward got her pregnant.  She never meant for Edward to find out, but for some reason he just happens to show up at the abortion clinic just as she finished having it done.  So, you see, the death of Tony’s daughter corresponds to the death of Edward’s aborted child.  And the rape and murder of Tony’s wife corresponds to Susan’s infidelity, because turning Susan’s voluntary lust and betrayal into a gangbang rape is Edward’s imaginary revenge against her.  And just as Edward knows that he is weak, Tony is too weak to save his wife and child.

The death of Tony in the novel corresponds to Edward’s suicide, the novel being one long suicide note, which basically says, “You ruined my life by rejecting my love.”  This is not made explicit, but it is obvious.  When Susan emails Edward, saying she wants to see him, he emails her back, agreeing to meet.  She goes to a restaurant, but Edward never shows up.  Of course not.  He’s dead.

For people like me, this is an ugly novel within an ugly movie.  No wonder it got rave reviews.

The Big Sleep: The Book and the Adaptations

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.

Farewell, My Lovely:  The Book and the Adaptations

If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black and white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.  Begin with Murder, My Sweet (1944).  This movie not only follows the novel’s plot reasonably well, but it also has the same tone.  More to the point, it is as good an example of film noir as one might want.

An earlier version of this novel is The Falcon Takes Over (1942).  Even though it is a black-and-white detective movie from the 1940s, it absolutely does not qualify as film noir.  The detective is Gay Lawrence, known as “the Falcon,” rather than the novel’s Philip Marlowe.  The Falcon is an English gentleman who is an amateur sleuth, whereas Philip Marlowe is a hard-boiled, American, professional private eye. Moreover, the Falcon has a sidekick who is supposed to provide comic relief, whereas Marlowe works alone, the only humor being his wisecracks.  As a result, the tone of this version is most decidedly not film noir.

The third adaptation, made in 1975, is the only one to take its title from the novel. The movie has elements of the noir style, unlike The Falcon Takes Over, but it does not qualify as film noir primarily because there is a self-conscious aspect to it, which is what distinguishes neo-noir from film noir proper.  Unlike the traditional film noir, this version was made in color.  But it would not have helped if it had been made in black and white, because the day had passed when studios made black and white movies to hold down the cost.  By the 1970s, movies that were made in black and white were done so for artistic reasons.  So, we would have been saying to ourselves, “Oh, it’s in black and white, just like a film noir.

Then there is the setting.  Just as a choice had to be made about color versus black and white, so too did a conscious choice have to be made between the original setting and a contemporary one.  The 1970s just do not have the same cultural feel as the 1940s.  For example, if a private detective in the 1970s wore a trench coat and a fedora, we would think he was some kind of Don Quixote who had seen too many films noir and was trying to be like those romanticized detectives of fiction.  For that reason, perhaps, the movie was set in the 1940s.  But now when we see the trench coat and the fedora, we check them off, as if they were items on a list of things that every film noir private detective must have.  Furthermore, there are a few elements from the 1970s that work their way into this movie, and those too we know to be a self-conscious choice.  And so, the self-conscious choices that must be made by producers and are recognized as such by the audience are what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.