During a recent meeting at a local bookstore, one concerning music, I happened upon the above book while waiting for a songwriter to pull up his song on the Internet.
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
I am an admirer of Phillip Marlowe, the main character and narrator of the book. Like most people, I first came across Marlowe in the guise of Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell, so my understanding of Marlowe and Chandler’s stories were framed by Hollywood standards and norms of the late 30’s, early 40’s. Bogart’s Marlowe, as well as his Sam Spade, are the indirect inspirations for my own pressed upon detective, Monk Buttman. I say indirect because unlike Marlowe and Spade, Monk is not a detective by either desire or trade.
Intrigued by the happenstance of finding the book, having it drop in my lap as it were, I felt duty bound to divine the differences between the book and film. I suppose I could have simply Googled that, but Google wasn’t going to inform me as Chandler would.
The best Google offered is here.
The obvious differences between the book and film are in plot and atmosphere.
Unlike the film, who killed whom and why, with the possible exception of Owen Taylor, the chauffeur who kills the closeted pornographer-blackmailer Geiger and then ends up dead off the Lido pier, who was either murdered by Brody, an associate of Geiger’s assistant, Agnes, or committed suicide, is resolved. Got all that? And that’s just one killing in the book! But they are all tied together in the end once we learn the truth about Carmen Sternwood, the childlike younger daughter of the crippled General Sternwood, who sets everything in motion by calling on Marlowe to help him deal with Geiger’s blackmailing of Carmen’s indiscretions, which in fact are simply her depravities. The blackmail inevitably leads to the missing husband of the elder Sternwood daughter, Vivian, a man named Rusty Regan, for whom the General has a strong affection, an affection he does not have for either of his daughters. This leads to the unraveling of the killings and the secrets they expose.
The other big difference is in tone. Chandler’s book is very dark, set in small town LA before it morphed into the megalopolis it is today. It is a corrupt venal place filled with the vapid dyspeptic rich and the hustlers, grifters, and enablers that feed off them. It’s rarely sunny in Chandler’s LA. Rather, it is wet and slick, darkly cast through broken derricks, grimy buildings, homes set back from the road with barely any light, and the unchanging hills surrounding them. Everyone has an angle to play. It is nothing if not an evocative vision of an inward dystopic America mired in the nihilism of the depression and the failures of the first world war. Marlowe, our moral center, is disgusted, but not shocked or surprised by what he finds. It is what we get in a world of haves and have nots. There are no love interests to cling to, other than a mild infatuation with Mona Mars, the missing wife of gangster Eddies Mars who is not really missing.
Life does not get better at the end, it merely moves on.
The movie is a different dog. Some of that is relevant to the time it was made. Chandler’s book was published in 1939, pre-war. Howard Hawks’ film is post-war, 1946. It is also a vehicle for Bogart and Bacall, which required an expanded and softened view of Vivian, as played by Bacall. Hawks’ film is lighter in tone, if not visually. There’s still the rain and the darkness, but Bogart’s Marlowe isn’t wallowing in the muck of human darkness; he’s solving a mystery, even though, as any commentary on the film will note, the convoluted plot required a certain amount of mental gymnastics to resolve. In the end, Carmen is hauled off to wherever they sent petulant young rich girls with problems, and we’re led to believe that Marlowe and Vivian will continue their romance as Bogart and Bacall do offscreen.
This is not a dig at the film, which I still enjoy, nor, necessarily, a complaint about the changes in plot from the book to the film. The idea that a film, held to the limits of the Hollywood Hayes Code, would seriously broach the subjects of homosexuality, pornography, among others encountered in the book, as a star vehicle for A-plus Hollywood actors wasn’t going to happen. It’s a fun movie to watch on its own merits.
But it’s not the book and it doesn’t share the book’s darker noir-ish character. The book is more elemental, more applicable to the sense of the time, certainly to Chandler’s thinking, and even to ours given it’s themes of, not only personal, but institutional corruption. The characters struggle to work a system where the grifter and the criminal are forever a part of the play and the cops deal for who has the influence and the money and that’s not the squares or the flunkies or the losers. The book’s coda is the book’s title, the long quiet at the end of a restless life chasing the ephemera of the American dream. A cloying unhinged rich daughter with a gun and anger issues. Beware the child with her thumb in her mouth.
Peace in the guise of a dirt nap, the big sleep.
©2018 David William Pearce