Watching a film like The Big Sleep in 2020 it’s almost impossible to see past its mythology. This was a movie founded on mythic archetypes—those modern, anomic archetypes of urban America that Hollywood had been instrumental in establishing as the twentieth century’s leading pantheon. But the mythic figures portrayed by its stars are now mediated by the mythic status of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall themselves, and the film’s status as a vessel for those archetypes is eclipsed by its own legend. The Big Sleep. The entire edifice is so impossibly stylish, so insouciant, so cool.
However, many of the assumptions and the glamours on which it was founded are inaccessible to a modern audience, leaving its glossy surface with a patina of humour, of the unexpected and inexplicable. Its protagonist’s superpowers operate in ways that no longer feel at home in the mythic landscape of the Hollywood hero—I mean, Bogart only has to walk into a bookshop and inform its proprietor that he has a bottle of whisky in his pocket for her to lock the door and make herself sexually available to him (in the coded ways necessitated by the 1940s censorship regime). The same goes for every unfeasibly pretty librarian, hat-check girl or taxi driver: given sufficient screen time they all frankly announce their intentions, in coded but transparent language.
Bogart does not similarly dominate all of his male antagonists, in the way that was required by the legendary appurtenances of, say, John Wayne. He takes a couple of beatings in this film, as befits the hero of a gritty, urban crime thriller—but he’s only vulnerable to such setbacks when someone gets the jump on him. Man to man, mano a mano, he’s the alpha every time. This is noir, not neo-noir, and so it gives its audience what it wants—a two-fisted hero who comes out on top, and a narrative that arrives at some kind of recognisable conclusion, but it does play with those expectations. Roger Ebert famously characterised it as a story ‘about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results’, but even that doesn’t quite convey the ambiguity of the plotting.
Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s most famous creation. He’s hired by a wealthy old man to resolve a scandalous situation involving one of his two hell-raising daughters. The situation that Marlowe is specifically paid to clear up is dealt with in the first scene of the investigation, but he continues to dig away, for reasons that are neither singular nor explicitly stated. He has a personal sense of justice, and he lusts after the other sister, but these motivations alone don’t seem to fully necessitate his continued investment in the case. The resolution to which he brings it by the close of the movie, demonstrating his superior intelligence, resourcefulness, courage and manliness along the way, is one in which he abets the continued liberty of a murderer, and organises (indirectly) the murder of his primary antagonist.
The plot which connects his hiring to the denouement is convoluted in the extreme, not in such a way as to produce an intricate and beautifully polished narrative, but in such a way as to confuse the majority of first-time viewers. At one point during production, Bogart asked director Howard Hawks who’d committed one of the film’s five murders, and Hawks didn’t know: they wired Raymond Chandler, to whose novel the film is broadly faithful, and asked him. He didn’t know either. The plot seems to serve largely to represent the complicated and arbitrary kinds of experience that people have when they’re not the characters in a crime movie, using rather more exciting events to stand in for the minor betrayals and confrontations of an ordinary urban life.
But this is not what the plot is for, and it’s really irrelevant whether the audience recognises their own life experiences in it or not. The plot’s purpose is to occasion scenes, and that’s basically what this film is about. It’s a sequence of tableaux in which Bogart, Bacall, and members of the extremely strong supporting cast are able to perform their mythic urban identities before the camera, with style, charisma and unfeasible verbal dexterity. It presents a way of living in the atomised conditions of American modernity, a personal aesthetic that imposes meaning on a social world from which it has been systematically stripped.
The Big Sleep’s aesthetic materials are the ‘hip’ and the ‘cool’, the social armour which any number of marginalised groups have worn, in their speech, their clothing and their personal style, as a defence against exclusion. That most of the characters in this film are ostensibly possessed of privilege and social validation simply serves to emphasise the extent to which meaning-imparting occupations and communities are absent from the experience of the modern, in all strata of society. The characters portrayed by Bogie and Bacall have formed their own exclusive club, to which admission will only be granted to those that can match their stylish attire, their unflappable body-language, and their unceasing verbal wit.