These late November days are miserable: cold and foggy. Folks are huddling by their stoves trying to escape the filthy sleet. You wouldn’t chase a dog out in this weather – but some haven’t got a choice, and so Philip Marlowe takes his post across the street from the so-called antiquarian bookshop that fronts for Geiger’s blackmailing racket …
The Big Sleep never fails to set me daydreaming. Not only is Bogart’s Marlowe about as irresistible as a man can get, but the whole atmosphere is so excellently conveyed that it sticks with you like cigarette smoke in your hair. Never mind the impossible plot: the dialog sparkles so brightly that the tangled tale becomes secondary.
This remarkable feat for a detective story is only possible, because The Big Sleep is strictly character based. Hence the murders remain as unexplained as the entanglement of Bacall’s character in the whole mess. At the end of the film I am just happy that Marlow gets his girl and dispatches the bad guys (at least I think they are the bad guys), but what exactly happened and why beats me every time. The Big Sleep shows that you do not need to tie up all loose plots to create an all time classic: conveying a mood rather than a cohesive narrative is as justifiable a cinematic concern as the telling of a story, behind which may, in a best case scenario, stand a well-argued philosophical argument.
The disregarding of plot is characteristic of many genre pictures. You only need to think of the classic comedies, musicals and horrors to see that the movie’s mood or set sequences are often favored over the story. The writers of the Marx Brother movies noted that each is approximately ninety minutes long, of which ten minutes is allocated to the story. Musicals function the same way. In the golden era of Hollywood a studio would acquire the rights to a selection of songs, some new, though many of the songs had been in and out of fashion since the days of Vaudeville and were already twenty or thirty years old. A producer would be presented these songs and he would then hire in screenwriters to fashion some kind of story around the dance or song numbers. ‘Story’ often served as the mere aspic around the main ingredient.
The additional entanglement of plot is synonymous with noirs, The Big Sleep being a classic example. What mattered was that something happened in the plot, that questions were posed; the reasons weren’t so important. The same goes for the philosophical aspect, or ‘controlling idea’ as screenwriters like to call it. Larger truths are more important than simple facts. Famously, when director Howard Hawks contacted The Big Sleep’s author to confirm who had killed one of the characters he admitted that he had no idea.
A: So what is the larger truth of The Big Sleep?
R: Like in so many noirs, simply the profound inability to distinguish between good and bad of something that had really happened before.
Convoluted noir plots have evolved with the form into their contemporary offspring. One only needs to view David Lynch’s impressive neo-noirs, Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway, to discover similar labyrinthine plotting. However, what defines the confusion in neo-noir is not the complexity of the external world but the knotty twists of the unreliable protagonist’s psyche.
Nevertheless, The Big Sleep’s disregard of lucid plot and hence argument is astounding, because we tend to rank a philosophically critical narrative higher than one that aims at “mood”: Rakolnikov’s tale may serve as a case in point. Yet this film ranks among the best ever made. If the two – lucid plot and creation of mood – were to be well-mixed, the resulting noir would have to be spectacular. This was obviously what the recent film The Good German attempted to do with its impressive cast, perfect photography, excellent director, and a genuinely honorable intention.
George Clooney looks mighty fine smoking his cigarettes in black and white, Cate Blanchett’s bad German dame is perhaps a tad overt, but acceptable (although her accent is lousy). The supporting performances particularly of the German actors are great with the exception of the horribly miscast Toby MacGuire, who just can’t pull off a tough guy.
R: He’s about as believable as a Disney character in The Godfather.
The film’s setting of 1945 Berlin is as ingenious as it is compelling: the admix of original footage gives not only the appropriate miserable background for a noir the way The Third Man did with Vienna, but it also squares the audience with one of the 20th century’s most iconic ground zeros. The lighting is authentic to both the great noir tradition and, of course, expressionist filmmaking which was born in
The intent of the film is, of course, its most admirable asset: it was here in
It should have worked; everything pointed to it working, but it didn’t. I imagine the pitch meeting; the project described briefly over lunch. It’s a no-brainer: A cross between The Third Man and
I agree. I think the film got caught up in its mission and forgot to add the magic noir ingredient of The Big Sleep.
As much as I wholeheartedly agree with the political message of the film, I might be more inclined to talk about it over dinner than hi-jack a movie for it. I felt the same after Clooney’s other project Good night and Good Luck. Both films smack of left wing agitprop and seem a little patronizing, as if the filmmakers felt that they had to hide their message in a movie like so many pills crushed into a child’s favorite food. Maybe its use is only jarring because the message of these pictures is so pertinent; it draws attention to itself like an actor trying too hard. I almost expect Clooney to stop in some scenes and turn to the camera and say “you see, folks, how this situation is so similar to the problems we have today?” Laboring the films’ message like this takes you out of the picture, whereas a film such as The Big Sleep brings you in.
The problem is that we aren’t close enough to any one character to really care. In fact we get three different voiceovers which itself already has us meandering between the characters. There is no punch behind Clooney’s journalist/detective – all he has to do to find his clues is smoke a cigarette in the parking lot.
Moreover, the dame’s sex appeal is not strong enough to make Clooney’s obsession with her believable, and ultimately the dialogue between them is where it really falls down – no real tension, no sharpness, just a bit of whining for the good old days. Although many complain about the romantic ‘Paris flashbacks’ in Casablanca, perhaps Curtiz and his colleagues understood that it was necessary to create the unique bond between the two principles, something that is lacking between Clooney and Blanchett. She is cold and dangerous behind her mask of the suffering war survivor, but we don’t really see enough of the deadly mix to get drawn in.
The Good German lacked focus and we don’t buy the relationships between the characters or to themselves. It’s as if the characters remain strangely passive and distant because they themselves know that they are mere characters serving a political message. It’s a classic screenwriting error – because the author knows the final fates of his characters they merely drift along for the ride (in a big sleep of their own) rather than struggling like real people in real situations.
The film constantly draws attention to its genre and bares its devices, so I wonder why Soderbergh shied away from centralizing the fatal attraction between the detective and his femme fatale. He did not have to go as far as The Big Sleep and make the viewer forget about the plot altogether, but he should have given us a way into the situation, allowed us to care. Instead we get thrown in with MacGuire’s “buffoon” and his racket wondering why we should give a hoot about him being shot…
We’re not supposed to give a hoot!
But then why does Clooney’s journalist give a hoot, seeing that the buffoon not only screwed his dame, but also gave him a good beating? The characters completely lose credibility here and with that the whole movie turns into cumbersome work.
What we are left with is the impression that no self-respecting film wants to be reduced to: “It looks good”. That is such a shame, because it should have been possible to unite the “mood” creating magic of The Big Sleep with the tremendous ethic concern of The Good German. Indeed, the most frustrating effect of watching Soderbergh’s film is that it is such a waste of a great opportunity.