The Big Sleep (1946) is based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name. One of the common elements of Chandler's work is difference between facade and reality. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) journeys through the mysteries in The Big Sleep discerning between the appearance and the actuality. His job, as the detective, is to see through the facade. There is also a personal choice to be made, and that choice leads to a unsatisfied conclusion, from Marlowe's point of view.
The story begins in the mansion of General Sternwood. There's a coat of arms in the lobby that portrays a sense of dignity and honor. He's met by Carmen Sternwood, who "faints" into his arms, and the family butler. Once inside the greenhouse he meets the General, who is in poor health and in a wheelchair.
The character of General Sternwood is important in the development of the story. Despite the regal looking crest that welcomes a person to his home, he is candid about his poor health, his spoiled daughters, and his poor parenting skills. This honesty is what Marlowe admires about him. Many of the characters he will later meet in his journeys throughout the story will not have his honesty. The General explains that he has gotten gambling promissory notes signed by his youngest daughter, Carmen. The notes are made to a Mr. Geiger.
Marlowe agrees to help General Sternwood. Before he leaves, however, Sternwood's eldest daughter asks to see him. He obliges, and there is an instant attraction between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). She banters with Marlowe, trying to find out why her father hired him, hoping perhaps he is to find Sean Reagan. Reagan was an ex-bootlegger hired by Sternwood to do odd jobs. The attraction that builds between Vivian and Marlowe will have great repercussions later in the film.
Marlowe does a little research, and goes into the bookstore Geiger runs. He disguises himself by pushing sunglasses to the end of his nose and folding up the front of his hat. One of the reasons Marlowe is able to see through the facade is because he is able to do it well himself. He has an understanding of the setting he lives in and the machinations of that world. He asks the clerk about certain rare copies of book, of which the clerk is unfamiliar. During this a customer is buzzed into the rear of the store where the actual transactions transpire.
What is implied is that the bookstore is a front for an underground pornography bookstore. We never actually learn this from the movie itself, just as we never learn the meaning of the title of the movie. The filmmakers assume that we, the audience, have a basic understanding of Marlowe's world as well. We are similar to Marlowe, searching to find the truth in the events we witness transpiring. We become the detective.
Marlowe follows Gieger to his home. As he watches Gieger's house, we hear a gunshot and a scream. Marlowe rushes in, only to hear someone escaping through the back door of the house. He finds Carmen Sternwood, high or drunk and clothed in only a kimono, a hidden camera pointed at her and empty of film, and the corpse of Mr. Gieger.
What follows is the story of Marlowe trying to find out what exactly happened that night. Who killed Gieger? Why did Sean Reagan disappear? Why did Sternwood's car drive off a pier with the chauffeur still in it? What's the connection between Vivian and local thug Eddie Mars? What' the connection between Mars and Gieger? Why did Eddie's wife disappear? Is she really in Mexico as she rumored to be, or is she dead?
Marlowe must look through the lies, double talk, and deception to find the answers. Only once does anyone talk straight to him. That's when, after getting beaten by two of Eddie Mars' thugs, he's approached by Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.).
TO BE CONTINUED
Text (c) LCB 2000