The Big Sleep (1946): Love’s Vengeance Lost

The Big Sleep 1946

Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is one of the truly great Hollywood pictures: the Raymond Chandler novel is brought to the screen with panache and authority, and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is unsurpassed.

While the protagonist lovers are good guys and there is no femme-fatale, the movie has a strong noir aura. The darkly lit atmosphere and strong sexual tension shape our response to a grim and dissolute nether world where PI Philip Marlowe doggedly solves an enigma within a mystery, in a plot so convoluted not even the film-makers fully understood it.

The picture is essentially a love story where the lovers must overcome mutual distrust and risk all to escape a brutal nightmare of betrayal and death. The Big Sleep is a lot darker than the earlier Murder, My Sweet (aka Farwell, My Lovely – 1944). The Marlowe of The Big Sleep is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.

I find the actions of Marlowe in the final reel disturbing. He is almost a proto-Dirty Harry. Clearly shaken by the death by poisoning while he stood by of the small-time hood who leads Marlowe to the final showdown, Marlowe responds with vengeful brutality in the shootout with the goon, Canino, and then in the final scene when he confronts the crooked casino-operater, Eddie Mars.

While the killing of Canino at a stretch can be put down to self-defense, there is no moral justification apart from vengeance in the way Marlowe engineers the death of Eddie Mars – the killing is gratuitous and was not the only way out for Marlowe and Vivian. It is this final scene that marks The Big Sleep as a film noir. Marlowe has survived and got the girl – but at what cost?

9 thoughts on “The Big Sleep (1946): Love’s Vengeance Lost”

  1. It’s easy to separate in one’s mind the final scene from the rest of the film, because of their dissonance. Marlowe really is a “good guy” throughout the film, as is confirmed by moments of brief weakness. When he takes a jab at Harry Jones, Jones points out that Marlowe took a low blow. Marlowe immediately apologizes and says he’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd. This willingness to admit fault over a rather petty thing contrasts starkly with the final scene.

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  2. Thanks Zac for your comment. You’re right – the dissonance of the final scene is indeed stark, as is Marlowe’s savage contempt for Jones’ girlfriend when she blows. Jones’ death at the hands of Canino while Marlowe stands-by is pivotal.

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  3. Tony’s review is solid and gave a perspective on some elements of Marlowe’s psychology that I never considered. I always appreciated Chandlers’ protagonist as a good guy who has to do some bad things to survive; he does them reluctantly and with some regret.

    I respectfully disagree with Tony that there is no femme – fatale. Carmen Sternwood was lethal and psychotic. She was responsible for the death of chauffeur, Owen Taylor and carelessly ruined the lives of any man unlucky to fall for her. She was indirectly responsible for the murder of A.G. Geiger due to Taylors’ attempt to guard her “virtue”.
    Every other loss of life was due to Carmens’ self-absorbed approach to life. Though her direct murder of Sean Regan is not as clear in the book as it is in the novel, the last scene where Marlowe and Vivian are snuggled in the seat of the Plymouth gives a strong indication of her tendencies.

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  4. Great to have your view here Jon.

    Sticking to the movie 🙂 I can see how you can argue that Carmen Sternwood is a femme-fatale in the movie (and the case is even stronger in the book where she actually is a killer). But I can’t see how you can pin the murder of Taylor the chauffeur on her as not even Chandler knew who killed him! Geiger’s murder is an on-impulse honor killing without the connivance of Carmen, who was in a drug-induced stupor. Carmen is psychotic and probably a nymphomaniac, and while she tries twice to seduce Marlowe – and fails twice – she is propelled by desire not a calculated ulterior motive.

    For my money, the case for Vivian being a fem me-fatale is stronger. Her agenda is hidden until she admits to herself that she loves Marlowe, and her early lies and manipulation could have seen Marlowe killed…

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  5. As I see it, this film employs the two sisters, Vivian and Carmen, as a composite femme fatale. Vivian is cunning, ruthless, and can match wits all day and night with Marlowe. Carmen is deeply flawed and her weaknesses leads to tragedy. Vivian is beautiful, classy, and aloof. Carmen is a doll who has discovered sexual power but isn’t mature enough to control it. Combine the two halves and you have everything you could ever want in a femme fatale.

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