Archive for August 14, 2017

The Plot Coagulates

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.

Advertisements