The Plot Coagulates

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.

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18 Responses to “The Plot Coagulates”

  1. What you must always keep in mind is that Hawks made two versions of “The Big Sleep” One in 1935 and a heavily revised one in 1936. The 1936 is the one we know but a few years ago TCM screened the 1935. In that version the murder and the clls leading to its resolutionde perfect sense. It was screened to the G.I.’s (as always) and in a few markets. But Warners was so excited by Bogart ad Bacall tey asked Hawks to shoot more scenes with them. So he did — making hash of the plot. He later claimed he didn’t understand the plot.But as the 135 version shows that’sbullsit. Also in the 1935 Bcall wear a hat with an elaborate veilin one scen reminiscent of the outfit Juliet Berto first appears in in “Duelle.”

  2. The murder of the chauffeur is the big WTF in the book. It can’t plausibly be pinned on Eddie Mars or Carmen (as it is in the movie) but it gets everything moving. Long ago I read a novel– maybe a Donald Westlake? Or one of the 87th Precinct books? — which plays with this idea (if you want to call it an idea). An inexplicable murder kicks off the plot, the blind alleys lead to other sinister crimes which are eventually resolved, and the original murder turns out to be utterly unrelated, a crime of opportunity by a passing low life. I can’t remember the title or the author, but there were excellent parts for Elisha Cook Jr and Dorothy Malone.

  3. That would be 1945 and 46, yes.

    Thanks, guys.

    So, for all his claims that plot doesn’t matter, Hawks cleared up the puzzle in a satisfactory way. (Hmm, I wonder how much of Twin Peaks is going to be tidied away by the end?)

    What plot is really useful for, and what Hawks lacks in some later movies, is motivation to get the characters engaged in interesting avtivities which will reveal their strengths and weaknesses and humour. I’ll be looking at some less plotty later Hawks in the coming days.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    When I saw the rereleased 1945 version, the one with the explanatory epilogue, my impression was that Charles Feldman was a primary factor in the reshoots. What was he, Hawks’ agent? Feldman was certainly on-the-money, in any case. And I love the fact that the new cafe scene, the one with Bacall wearing a glam jacket, begins with a pianist playing “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans.”

  5. I thought Eddie Mars’ Casino provided an evening’s entertainment for a nearby dude ranch. (I’m not going to suggest the western costumes being an in-joke for Bob Steele’s prolific 30s B Western career)Anyway, character rather than a whodunnit plot distinguishes often the best crime fiction as Leonardo Padura’s atmospheric, historically contextual ,HAVANA QUARTET and other novels show.

  6. Dude ranch makes sense, but does that explain all the women dressed as cowboys? I suppose it might.

    Haven’t read Padura, sounds good.

    Feldman is an odd case: I guess Casino Royale testifies that his philosophy was to bundle a lot of things together than audiences like. Makes sense that he would approve a less coherent plot with more glam. At least this time he had one director to achieve it, not five!

  7. Great essay about a great movie. I must disagree about the climactic scene in Key Largo though. I love it! I get drawn into the suspense of it every time, and the resonance of Bogie shooting from on high, knowing his character’s tense vigil atop the hills of Monte Casino gets me in the gut.

    And I relish how Eddie G says, “Soldier! Soldier! I’m coming out. I’ve got no gun, and I’m coming out.”

  8. I always miss the supporting cast at that point, and the sense of claustrophobia that had been built up. But I guess relating it back to the war helps.

    Hmm, I’m not sure Fiona’s seen KL… might hav to run it sometime…

  9. I agree that the tense interaction among that magnificent cast in the hotel in Key Largo makes for great drama, but I have always seen the move out to sea as an ineviatble, almost Joseph Campbell-esque step in Bogie’s arc. He must go into the sea of his subconscious and defeat those cynical demons that are as much inside himself as on that boat. And when the music swells as this rootless wanderer heads for “home” and a waiting Betty Bacall, a tear always wells up in my eye.

  10. Glengarry Glen Ross has a lot of salesmen talking about othersalesmen and their unseen marks. Just sayin’.

  11. Fiona says she’s seen Key Largo, but we haven’t seen it TOGETHER.

    Mamet breaking his own rules makes him marginally more likeable. But, you know, only marginally.

  12. I had read a few months ago that Hunter S. Thompson and his son watched The Big Sleep together, the night before he took his own life.

    Nowadays, here in the States, we can only see a DVD with the early version of The Big Sleep. Followed by a docu that presents the scenes added for the later version. This later version was the only version of The Big Sleep that was shown for decades. And the only version of the film that was known to exist. But, ever since the earlier version was dusted off, I don’t think the later version is available any more?
    The docu points out that Hawks took out scenes to add the newer ones with Bogart and Bacall. Among those cut out was a scene with Thomas Jackson as the DA, who had fired Marlowe, where Marlowe explains what is going on. There is a similar scene in The Maltese Falcon, where Spade is assuring the DA that he’s handling the case properly and needs to be left alone. I think the removal of this scene and its explanations is the cause of much of the problems the later version has with the plot.

    I like both version, but each seems to be an incomplete movie when compared to the other. One explains everything but lacks the memorable exchanges between the two leads. The other has the snappy Bogart Bacall dialogue, but a lot of the movie makes no sense. So, I wonder if someone could merge the two versions? Hawks dropped the explanatory scenes to make room for the Betty and Bogie scenes back in a time when movies had to be kept to a set length so theaters could show them more than once an evening . So, could we just add the new scenes in place of ones they were improving and keep the other ones that were cut to keep the length down? So we could watch a super version of The Big Sleep, that combines the best of the two versions?

  13. The release version CERTAINLY ought to be available, and in preference to the DA version. Of course, there should be a set with both. A long version combining both would be interesting, but would lack legitimacy as it was never screened that way. I have no problem with the short explanation at the end, especially as it embodies Hawks’ view that these plot details aren’t important anyway.

  14. Doing an extra-long version should have been easily done by fans years ago. I have an at least 10 year old flippy DVD that had a version on each side. It was like Warner was inviting fans to do DIY edits. Note: the disk I have is a total pain since there’s only a tiny letter on the inner rim of the disk to tell you which film you’re going to see.

  15. Matthew Clark is wrong. Every US edition of The Big Sleep known to me, down to last year’s Blu-ray, includes the release version, usually with the DA version on the flipside.

  16. I don’t have any need to see a composite version, but I’m surprised nobody has assembled one. Unless it causes Marlowe to bilocate, like the impossible murder suspect in Hawks’ anecdote.

  17. […] by having everyone continuously falling in the water the moment a shark turns up.”), and the nonpareil master keeping the plot just out of viewer’s comprehension in The Big Sleep (“The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite […]

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