Hawks, Chandler and The Big Sleep

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful is most probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)

Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate.In a curiously distanced remark, Chandler once noted that Hawks’ movie version of The Big Sleep shows “what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism.” That “requisite touch” seems to have been overlooked or ignored by most Hawks enthusiasts, but what is of special interest here is that Chandler sees Hawks’ efforts exclusively in terms of the atmosphere and violence that “this sort of story” calls for. Hawks’ rendition does draw heavily on the novel, and what admirers of the movie might think of as moments of Hawksian (or Bogartian) professionalism and humor often are actually part of Chandler’s original. But the Big Sleep that Hawks made with Bogart and Bacall is, in some important respects, a separate work in which Hawks and company develop some significant variations of their own on Chandler’s territory.

Lauren Bacall as as more sympathetic Vivian, with Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall as a more sympathetic Vivian, with Humphrey Bogart

A major difference between the novel and the film has, of course, to do with the character of General Sternwood’s elder daughter Vivian, who becomes more important and more sympathetic in the film version. Though such changes may have been necessitated by the casting of Lauren Bacall as Vivian, the alterations in her role are also very much a part of the film’s larger tendency toward more sympathetic treatment of female characters. But there are also a number of other significant additions that have been made for the film version: The famous double-entendre dialogue about horseracing between Bogart and Bacall does not exist in the book, nor does the final confrontation with Eddie Mars which is the film’s climax. Marlowe’s contact with the police (and with political corruption) is greatly reduced in the film. The missing Rusty Regan (married to Vivian in the book) becomes an old friend of Marlowe’s and is renamed Sean Regan (not married to Vivian) in the film. The movie converts a helpful taxi driver into a feisty female and a helpful bookstore girl into one who is also sexually aggressive. And the death of Harry Jones is given a very special extra dimension in the film version. The film also adds a pair of additional “couples”: twin “hostesses” at Mars’ nightclub and two darkly comical hoodlums named Sidney and Pete—who belong to a long line of peculiarly Hawksian pairs and couples. There are noteworthy omissions as well: Norris, the Sternwood butler, is nobler and less a figure of fun in the book; Carmen Sternwood’s attempt to kill Marlowe is left out of the film, as is any clear sign of her guilt in the Regan murder; the homosexuality, nudity, and pornography encountered in the book are predictably toned down or eliminated in the film; some of the book’s policemen don’t appear at all in the film*; and Mona Mars’ character is greatly reduced, mostly for the sake of Bacall’s Vivian.

In general, these changes and omissions make the movie less misogynistic, less socially aware, and less despairing than the novel. Whereas the book’s Marlowe gets sick with disgust over the women he’s encountered, the movie Marlowe works his comparatively happy way through a town which seems rich in smart, independent, worldly women. Chandler not only gives strong glimpses of police corruption, but also presents the Sternwoods’ oil properties in “waste land” imagery of the T.S. Eliot variety; Hawks’ film not only eases up on the police, it totally disregards the visual possibilities of the Sternwood oil works. And although Bogart’s battle-scarred stoicism seems perfect for the role of Marlowe, the movie’s Marlowe has a resiliency and self-assurance which stand somewhat in contrast to the Marlowe who feels, in the novel, that he has become part of the corruption around him. At the end, the movie’s Marlowe has the prospect of a relationship with a Vivian who looks “good—real good” in a dangerous situation, while the book’s Marlowe is left alone with bad memories and two belts of scotch that “didn’t do me any good.”

The Hawks/Bogart Marlowe is less of a solitary than Chandler’s, though both play the lone-wolf adventurer on more than one occasion. The movie Marlowe has more pals: Vivian and Regan, with the latter converted into another of Hawks’ professionals. In the Hawks version, Marlowe is not only an ex-cop who “rated high on insubordination,” he’s also an ex-revenuer who “traded shots between drinks, or drinks between shots” when the bootlegging Regan was “on the other side.” With the missing Regan as an old and partly forgotten friend, the movie’s Marlowe has one more reason for persisting on the case when the Sternwoods and the police tell him to stop. But the changes in Vivian and Regan also enhance themes of personal integrity and mutual respect that seem a little closer to Hawks than to Chandler. And so while Chandler’s Marlowe feels himself sinking deeper into the corruption, the Hawks/Bogart Marlowe clings assuredly to a personal code for which evil may simply be “the other side.”

For the movie’s Marlowe, morality has less to do with the book’s wasteland of corruption than with the way people behave under the pressure of threatening events. Thus, amid the deceptions that are essential to film noir, the movie’s Marlowe makes strong distinctions between kinds of people, regardless of whether or not they are “on the other side.” In the film, when little Harry Jones comes to Marlowe to sell information, “one right guy to another,” Marlowe’s growing respect is based not only on Jones’ insistence on his own individual dignity, but also on his detached admiration for the beating that two professional thugs administer to Marlowe in an alley (as Jones watches from a distance). And the movie Marlowe views both Jones and the killer Canino with that detached professional respect; both are “good,” even though Marlowe takes special relish in killing Canino (after the latter murders Jones while Marlowe, not fully grasping the situation, stands by). Marlowe’s contempt is reserved for Harry’s acquisitive “lover” Agnes (“Wish me luck, copper—I got a raw deal.” “Your kind always does.”), and for Eddie Mars. Canino and Mars are both very definitely “on the other side,” but Marlowe despises Mars because he puts people in danger but rarely puts his own neck on the line. Agnes has similar failings, though on a smaller scale. Chandler’s book offers no climactic confrontation with Mars because there Carmen is clearly the murderer of Regan. The film is rather ambiguous about who killed Regan: the likeliest possibility seems to be that Carmen is guilty there too, but that Marlowe will try to pin the killing on the now-dead Mars and have Carmen “sent away” by Vivian. But in any event, the film’s climax—with Mars being sent to death in a trap of his own setting—makes the question of personal risk-taking a far greater moral issue than it was in the book. Indeed, the almost exclusive importance of that issue in the violent final scene of the film seems an especially disturbing example of what Andrew Sarris has called Hawks’ “distinctly bitter view of life.”

Of course, Chandler’s “view of life” is also “distinctly bitter”; but whereas the novelist gives us a man of comparatively noble instincts caught in a whirlpool of corruption, the filmmaker gives us a man of comparatively noble instincts struggling to maintain his self-respect in a fog of ambiguous events. With the erosion of Chandler’s explicit references to homosexuality, nudity, perversion, and pornography, the movie’s plot is even more irrational and mysterious than the genre requires. And with murder and motives complicated by plot adjustments surrounding Lauren Bacall’s more sympathetic Vivian, the film’s narrative more than lives up to its legendary incomprehensibility. But if the movie’s plot is even more of a labyrinth than the book’s, the Hawks version has made the confusion into a virtue through an abstraction process on the one hand and through delicate changes in Marlowe’s angle of approach on the other. The movie’s elimination of the book’s more explicit and critical social awareness nudges the story much closer to nightmare and myth. Hawks minimizes the realism in a way that makes the tale less a darkly realistic vision of the Los Angeles underworld than an existential vision grounded in the myths of big-city crime. Consequently, the tangled plot serves the film’s vision in much the same way that bad weather serves the vision of Only Angels Have Wings: as a metaphor, let’s say, for a killingly indifferent universe.

Elisha Cook Jr. with Humphrey Bogart
Elisha Cook Jr. with Humphrey Bogart

The film comes closest to an existential view of things in Harry Jones’ death scene. In both the book and the film, Jones dies when he takes cyanide in a drink which Canino has humbled him into accepting. In both works, Canino challenges Jones in macho terms, needling Jones with the speculation that his “girl friend” wouldn’t be afraid to take the drink. And in both cases, Jones announces that he must be “yellow” and accepts the drink. But in the book the cyanide kills Jones before he can say anything else, while in the film Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) laughs as he chokes to death. “What’s funny?” asks Canino. “Nothing’s funny,” says Jones, choking, and he drops dead. No movie death that I know of speaks more eloquently of death as an absolute end which is at once horrifying and absurd. That moment—together with the dull, dead click we hear when Marlowe jostles Geiger’s corpse—makes the film’s response to its own title desolatingly succinct.

Chandler’s fiction and Hawks’ films share this agnostic view of death, and it is just one of the points they have in common with a post-World War I phenomenon that includes Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Hecht and MacArthur; such lesser lights as John MacGavock Grider, Elliott White Springs, and John Monk Saunders; and, to a modest extent, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Seen in these terms, Chandler and Hawks are part of a generation of storytellers whose works reflect the disillusionment of World War I and the cynicism of Prohibition while dramatizing a very modern and perhaps unprecedented reliance on personal style and integrity. Theirs is a personal ethics cut loose from traditional American optimism, but not from the American faith in the dignity of the individual. It is an individualism which mixes the hardboiled wisecracking of the common man with an aristocratic code of behavior and an emphasis on manners that has nothing to do with drawingrooms. At its most simplistic, it is part of the tough-but-sensitive syndrome; at its best, it includes the varieties of hard-pressed integrity embodied by Philip Marlowe in both version of The Big Sleep. And, as it happens, this individualism is also reflected in the stoical aesthetics that both Chandler and Hawks brought to the popular artforms which they have done so much to enliven.

* There may once have been more made of cops and their ironies in the film version. A still in Clifford McCarty’s Bogey shows Marlowe and D.A.’s-man Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey)—who appears in the film—in conference with “Captain Cronjager” (James Flavin) and “District Attorney Wilde” (Thomas E. Jackson). The still does not come from any scene presently in the film. —Ed.

2010 afterword: In the late Nineties an earlier, alternate version of the Hawks film was rediscovered, given limited arthouse run, and made available on DVD. Though never released to theaters in its day, this version was seen by U.S. Armed Forces personnel in 1945. Among other things, it lacks the famous horserace dialogue, and boasts a godawful “Here’s what may have happened” conversation among Marlowe, Ohls, and the two missing municipal officials. —Ed.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
Direction: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, after the novel by Raymond Chandler. Cinematography: Sid Hickox. Art direction: Carl Weyl. Editing: Christian Nyby. Music: Max Steiner. Production: Hawks. Warner Brothers.
The players: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Elisha Cook Jr., Sonia Darrin, Louis Jean Heydt, Dorothy Malone, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Peggy Knudsen, Ben Welden, Tom Fadden, Trevor Bardette.

© 1978 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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