“The Big Sleep” is a masterpiece of film noir, albeit a confusing one (if I were going to write a blog exclusively on film noir, I would call it Who Killed Owen Taylor?). The film opens with Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) arriving at the home of his client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). The General wants to hire him to investigate a shady operator of a ‘bookstore’ named Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz) who is claiming the General’s youngest daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) owes him gambling debts. General Sternwood explains that he would have had his trusted friend Sean Regan look into it but he has disappeared. The General doesn’t really think Carmen owes him money; he believes Geiger is blackmailing him. Although Marlowe advises Sternwood to pay the money, he agrees to investigate, acknowledging that he had once known Regan. As he is leaving, the General’s oldest daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall) wants to speak to him, assuming that her father had hired Marlowe to find Regan. She presses him for information but Marlowe is close-mouthed. He proceeds next to Geiger’s bookstore; before he enters he dons a pair of glasses and turns the brim of his fedora up. He goes in pretending to be interested in rare books and encounters Agnes (Sonia Darrin) of whom he asks questions she cannot answer; she brushes him off as a customer enters and is admitted to a back room by Agnes. Marlowe goes across the street to another bookstore where he questions the owner (Dorothy Malone) about Geiger. He asks her if he can wait there until Geiger arrives so she can identify him. She agrees and closes the shop just as a thundershower offers her the opportunity to get to know Marlowe. Later Geiger shows up accompanied by his chauffeur Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). When they leave, Marlowe follows them to Geiger’s home; Marlowe stakes the place out from his car across the street. Hours pass when Marlowe hears a scream and a gunshot. He bounds across the street and enters the house only to find Carmen in a drugged state, oblivious to Geiger’s body lying at her feet. Marlowe finds a hidden camera without film and Geiger’s blackmail notebook. He takes Carmen home and then returns to Geiger’s house only to find that the body has been removed. Later, a car is found off Lido pier with the body of the Sternwood chauffeur in it. Vivian appears in Marlowe’s office the next morning to inform him she is being blackmailed with scandalous photographs of Carmen. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s store only to find that it is being closed and packed up. Marlowe follows a car to the apartment of Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). Brody is a gambler who had once blackmailed General Sternwood. When Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house he finds Carmen who claims to know nothing about the murder of Geiger but asserts that Brody killed him. Just then gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) appears. Later Marlowe follows Vivian to Brody’s apartment where they find Brody and Agnes; Carmen appears demanding her pornographic photos. Marlowe takes the pictures and sends Vivian and Carmen home. Brody admits he was blackmailing both Sternwood and Vivian; when he answers a knock at the door he is shot and killed. Marlowe pursues the killer and overtakes Carol Lundgren, who says he killed Brody for murdering Geiger. Marlowe goes to the casino of Eddie Mars and asks about Regan who reportedly ran off with Mars’ wife; Mars puts Marlowe off, telling him Vivian is running up debts at his casino. Vivian later asks Marlowe to take her home; in the parking lot a Mars henchman tries to rob Vivian. Marlowe knocks him out and drives Vivian home. While en route Marlowe inquires about Vivian’s relationship to Mars and tells her he knows the holdup was a put-up job meant to convince Marlowe that Vivian and Mars were on the outs; Vivian is coy. When Marlowe returns home he finds Carmen waiting for him; she admits she didn’t like Regan and tries to seduce Marlowe. He throws her out. The next morning Vivian calls Marlowe and tells him Regan has been found in Mexico and that she is going to him. Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who is Agnes’ lover, later claims Agnes will tell Marlowe where Mars’ wife is for $200, but when Marlowe goes to meet Jones he overhears a thug named Canino (Bob Steele) forcing a drink on Jones, asking for the location of Mars’ wife. Jones misleads him and then dies from poison in the drink, just as Marlowe enters. The phone rings; it’s Agnes, offering to reveal the location to Marlowe. When he meets her she tells him she saw Mona Mars at a garage in Realito. When Marlowe arrives there he is overpowered by Canino; when he wakes, he is tied up and being watched by Mona. Vivian appears and Mona leaves after Marlowe tells her that her husband is a killer. Vivian fears for Marlowe’s life and releases him; during their escape Marlowe engages in a gun battle with Canino, killing him. During the drive back to Geiger’s house, Vivian (unconvincingly) tries to tell Marlowe that she killed Regan. When they get to Geiger’s house Marlowe calls Eddie Mars and says he is still in Realito and asks him to meet at Geiger’s house. Mars shows up with his gunsels who set up an ambush outside. When Mars enters Marlowe has him at gunpoint and reveals that he knows Mars blackmailed Vivian, saying Carmen had killed Regan. Mars threatens Marlowe about his gunmen outside and Marlowe forces him out of the house at gunpoint; Mars is shot and killed by his own men. Marlowe calls the police, telling them that Mars killed Regan and that Vivian helped him with Eddie Mars. Marlowe advises Vivian to have Carmen committed rather than prosecuted for Regan’s murder. As the film ends, we hear police sirens and Marlowe and Vivian are in each others arms.
That was little more than a complex, thumbnail sketch of the plot of the film, which conveys little of the drama engendered by the script and the performances. For example, when Marlowe first arrives at the Sternwood mansion he encounters the coquettish Carmen. They check each other out and Carmen says, “You’re not very tall, are you?” to which Marlowe replies, “Well, I try to be.” She asks his name, to which he replies “Reilly, Doghouse Reilly.” Carmen laughs, all the while curling her hair with her finger. “What are you, a prizefighter?” she asks. Marlowe says, “No, I’m a shamus.” Then she falls backwards into his arms, saying “You’re cute.” When the butler Norris (Charles D. Brown) admits Marlowe to see the General, Marlowe asks him who she is. “That’s Carmen Sternwood, sir,” replies Norris. Marlowe says, “You ought to wean her, she’s old enough.” Marlowe is admitted to the greenhouse where the General sits in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket. He instructs Norris to pour his guest a brandy. “How do you like your brandy, sir?” asks the General. Marlowe says, “In a glass.” General Sternwood then delivers his soliloquy: “I used to like mine with champagne, champagne cold as Valley Forge, with three ponies of brandy under it. Oh, come, come, man, pour a decent one,” he admonishes Norris, telling Marlowe “I like to see people drink.” After permitting Marlowe to remove his coat, he says, “It’s too hot in here for any man who has blood in his veins.” Encouraging Marlowe to smoke, he resumes his dialogue: “I still enjoy the smell of it. Nice state of affairs, when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy. You’re looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life. Crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat and my sleep is so near waking it’s hardly worth the name. I seem largely to exist on heat, like a newborn spider.” He then explains to Marlowe that he is being blackmailed and that his right hand man Sean Regan cannot handle the matter for him as he has disappeared. Marlowe tells the General that he used to know Regan, when Regan was running rum out of Mexico and he was on the other side. “We used to exchange shots between drinks, or drinks between shots, whichever you prefer,” says Marlowe. The General then shows him the promissory notes signed by Carmen. “Did you ask her about them?” asks Marlowe. “No, she’d just suck her thumb and act coy,” the General replies. “Yeah, she did that to me,” remarks Marlowe, “then she tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”
It is of course unclear who wrote which dialogue but the screenplay credits go to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. But the screenplay is only one of several excellent elements of this picture. Max Steiner’s score contributes to the atmosphere of the film as well. But let’s return to the plot. After Marlowe’s dalliance in the Acme Book Store with the nameless proprietor (Dorothy Malone), Marlowe follows Geiger and his lover/bodyguard (the homosexual nature of their relationship was prohibited by the Hays Code) to Geiger’s house and stakes it out. Shortly after he arrives, Carmen shows up; hours later, when Marlowe hears the scream and two gunshots (and observes two cars drive away) and enters the house to find Geiger dead and Carmen stoned (and clothed- the Hays Code again), it should be mentioned that he also finds Geiger’s blackmail notebook- in code. When Marlowe brings Carmen home and deposits her on her bed, Vivian asks Marlowe if he’s responsible for her state. After Marlowe makes a sarcastic remark, she asks what really happened. Marlowe advises her to drop the whole thing, telling her not to even ask her sister. “She never remembers anyway,” says Vivian. “Just what did she forget about Sean Regan?” asks Marlowe- to which Vivian responds with a sharp look of reproof, and then smiles coyly. “What did she tell you?” “Not half as much as you just did,” remarks Marlowe. Later that night at his apartment Marlowe is trying to crack Geiger’s codebook when he receives a visit from Inspector Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) who tells him that there is a Packard belonging to the Sternwoods “washing around in the surf off Lido pier,” that contains the body of chauffeur Owen Taylor. The next morning Vivian is waiting for Marlowe in his office. “So you do get up,” she says. “I was beginning to think you worked in bed like Marcel Proust.” (You’ve got to wonder whose line that was.) After Vivian shows him the pictures and informs him of the blackmail threat, Marlowe asks her why she came to him instead of going to the police, suggesting that perhaps she knows more about Carmen and that there might be a scandal for the Sternwoods. At that, Vivian uses Marlowe’s phone to call the police- but he takes it out of her hand and a comic repartee goes on as Marlowe and Vivian play a prank call on the cops. When Vivian asks him why he took the phone away from her, Marlowe says he’s working for her father- and that he’s starting to like another one of the Sternwoods. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s shop to find Carol Lundgren and Joe Brody packing up the goods (what these things are is never mentioned- the Hays Code, remember?- but in those days pornography was illegal). Marlowe leaves the store and takes a cab around the corner, waiting to follow the station wagon to Brody’s apartment. When he pays the cabbie (Joy Barlow), she gives him her card if he ever needs her again. “Day or night?” asks Marlowe. “Night’s better; I work during the day,” she says. smiling. When Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house he finds Carmen hiding in the bushes and takes her into the house. When Eddie Mars arrives he allows Carmen to leave but wants to talk to Marlowe. Mars and Marlowe size one another up, exchanging hostile wisecracks; Eddie’s boys come in to frisk Marlowe. Later, Marlowe stakes out Brody’s apartment and observes Vivian enter the building. When Marlowe forces his way into Brody’s apartment, Brody pulls a gun on him. “My, my, my,” says Marlowe,”so many guns and so few brains. You know, you’re the second guy today who seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.” Marlowe tells Brody to invite Agnes and Vivian to come in from the other; when they enter, Brody asks Marlowe what he came there for. “To keep her [Vivian] from paying you off and to keep the cops off your neck,” he tells Brody. Then the doorbell rings; it’s Carmen holding a gun on Brody, wanting her picture. Marlowe disarms Agnes and Carmen, telling Carmen to get off the floor trying to retrieve her gun. “Get up, angel,” he says, “you look like a Pekingese.” Marlowe forces Brody to turn over the pictures and Vivian and Carmen leave. Brody admits to blackmailing both General Sternwood and Vivian. While Marlowe is grilling Brody (and Agnes complaining about her bad luck with men) the doorbell rings again. Brody opens the door unarmed and is shot and killed; Marlowe pursues the killer. Marlowe apprehends Carol Lundgren and forces him at gunpoint to drive to Geiger’s house. Lundgren takes a punch at Marlowe; Marlowe knocks him out and ties him up. Marlowe finds that Geiger’s body has reappeared and calls Bernie Ohls to come to Geiger’s house, identifying Owen Taylor as Geiger’s killer. When Bernie Ohls shows up he interrogates Carol Lundgren. Vivian meets Marlowe at a club and offers Marlowe a check, telling him that General Sternwood considers the case closed. Vivian asks Marlowe, “Tell me, what do you usually do when you’re not working?” “Play the horses, fool around,” replies Marlowe. “No women?” asks Vivian. “Well, I’m generally working on something most of the time.” Vivian: “Could that be stretched to include me?” Marlowe: “Well, I like you. I told you that before.” Vivian: “I like hearing you say it, but you didn’t do much about it.” Marlowe: “Neither did you.” Vivian: “Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself, but I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re frontrunners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.” Marlowe: “Find out mind?” 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 lead (here Marlowe cannot suppress a smile), take a little breather in the back stretch (Marlowe lights her cigarette), 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 ’til I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Vivian: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.” (I still can’t believe the Hays Code let that line in.) “Go ahead, Marlowe. I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.” Marlowe: “There’s one thing I can’t figure out.” Vivian: “What makes me run?” Marlowe: “Uh-huh.” Vivian: “I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work; it’s been tried.” (This preceding scene was added to the picture in the theatrical version to showcase the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall; it wasn’t in the prerelease version.) Marlowe then asks her if it was Eddie Mars who tried to put him off the case. He asks her if she knew it was Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen) Sean Regan was supposed to have run off with and if she knew Mars owned Geiger’s house and was involved in Geiger’s racket. Then he asks her what Mars has got on her; Vivian is visibly upset. As they part, Marlowe tugs on his right ear again- a recurring mannerism throughout the picture. He calls Eddie Mars to arrange a meeting and drives to Mars’ casino, only to find Vivian singing there. After a little cat and mouse conversation between Mars and Marlowe, Vivian asks Marlowe to drive her home- after she wins big at roulette. Marlowe goes out to his car to retrieve a gun from the glove compartment. When a thug tries to rob Vivian in the parking lot, Marlowe disarms him – “Somebody’s always giving me guns,” he says- and knocks the thug out. In the car, Marlowe finally gets around to kissing Vivian. Then he asks again what Eddie Mars has got on her- and explains that he knows the big win and the holdup were just a set-up to convince him that there was nothing between Vivian and Mars. Vivian gets sore and demands to be driven home. When Marlowe gets back he finds Carmen there; he asks her how she got in. “I bet I can guess,” he says, “you came in through the keyhole like Peter Pan.” (Who writes these lines?) Carmen tells Marlowe she didn’t like Regan because he didn’t pay any attention to her. Marlowe throws her out on her ear. Later Bernie Ohls calls, waking Marlowe from sleep- at 2:00 in the afternoon. When Marlowe shows up at Ohls’ office, Bernie tells him to lay off the Sternwood case, orders from the DA. It seems Vivian had talked to the DA to lean on Marlowe to drop it. Marlowe calls the Sternwood mansion to speak to the General; Norris says Vivian wants to talk to him. She tells Marlowe Regan has been located in Mexico and that she’s going to see him. When Marlowe is walking down the street in the fog he gets roughed up by a couple of goons, who leave him crumpled up in an alley- and Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who has been tailing Marlowe, enters the picture and helps Marlowe back to his office. Marlowe figures Jones must be one of Brody’s boys; Jones tells Marlowe he’s sweet on Agnes and offers to sell Marlowe information- $200 to tell him where Mona Mars is. Jones tells Marlowe to bring the dough and meet him at the Walgreen Insurance office in an hour. When Marlowe arrives he overhears Jones in conversation and listens from an adjoining room. Canino (Bob Steele), on of Eddie Mars’ thugs, is badgering Jones about where Agnes is- and pulls a gun on him. Jones gives him a false address and Canino forces a drink on the hapless guy. “There you are, pal,” Canino says, “drink her down. Whaddya think it is, poison?” And of course it is. Marlowe rushes into the room just as Canino leaves- and Jonesy falls dead at his feet. While still in the office the phone rings: it’s Agnes, who arranges to meet Marlowe. He pays her off and she tells him that Mona Mars is in Realito at a garage and paint shop owned by Art Huck (Trevor Bardette). Marlowe drives there and lets the air out of a tire to fake a flat. When he knocks on the door, Huck admits him at gunpoint. Marlowe gets knocked out by Canino and wakes up tied up, being watched by Mona Mars. When Vivian enters, Marlowe says, “Hello, angel, I thought I’d find you here.” “Yeah,” she says, “but you don’t seem to be running in front today.” Marlowe tells Mona the truth about her husband, that he hires killers to do his dirty work. She throws a drink in his face and runs upstairs leaving Marlowe and Vivian alone. She releases Marlowe and he tells her to scream to distract Huck and Canino while he runs to his car to get his gun. Marlowe scares Huck off with a gunshot but Canino is a hired killer. He comes out using Vivian as a hostage. She yells to Canino that Marlowe is “behind the wheel” of his car; Canino pumps a couple rounds through the windshield. Vivian breaks free and Marlowe shoots and kills Canino. When they’re driving to Geiger’s house Vivian offers to tell the police that she killed Regan. Marlowe tells her he has to get to Geiger’s before Mars does; they arrive and he calls him, pretending he’s still on his way there. When Mars arrives he positions his gunsels outside for an ambush. When Mars enters the house, Marlowe gets the drop on him. He tells Mars he knows Carmen killed Regan and that that’s what Mars had on Vivian. Marlowe shoots and wounds Mars who runs out the door and is gunned down by his own men. Marlowe calls Bernie and tells him that Mars is dead, killed by his own men, and that they’re still outside. He also tells him that Mars killed Regan. While waiting for the police to arrive, Marlowe tells Vivian she’ll have to send Carmen away. “They’ve got places for that,” he says. Marlowe tells her she’ll have to tell her father about Regan, he thinks he can take it. “You’ve forgotten one thing,” Vivian says. “What’s wrong with you?” Marlowe asks. “Nothing you can’t fix,” she says, as police sirens are heard arriving.