Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Sunday, September 30, 2012

I can explain everything: THE BIG SLEEPS


There's a guy whose name I never remember amidst the mostly blogging dames (Kim and other LA denizens) on the Eddie Mueller 'what is noir" TCM spot, who says "No one can tell you the plot of the  BIG SLEEP" well, now I can tell YOU. And if you're in LA, let Co. Rutledge know he can roll over and go back to bed. That old Irish 'legger Rutledge hired to his drinkin' for him had nothing to do with it, oh (SPOILER) except his murder sets it all on motion. See in the book (SPOLER!) the wild nympho alcoholic Carmen murdered Sean when he wouldn't sleep with her, just laughed at her, but also went on giving her pistol lessons. He was changing the targets and well, you know Carmen - no impulse control.

Never one to miss an opportunity for blackmail, capable Eddie Mars -- the facilitator of all the Rutledge sisters high-end illegal needs--gambling, drugs, etc.--already jealous of Reagan because he was friends with Eddies' wife, convinces the wife to shack up somewhere south of Rio Lido for awhile, so it looks like she and Sean ran off to Mexico together. In the end both sisters end up needing to pay blackmail money to make this happen, so Eddie will just whisk the problem away.

One of the payments on Carmen's end, clearly, is posing for pictures for the 'books' peddled by Mars' store, operated by Geiger - and -as usual--hot addict girls get their fixes and just pose for payment, with prostitution just around the corner (if they're not rich enough to stay out of it)

In Carmen's case they were apparently just getting started but the idea is clear that this would be how Mars could easily hang a blackmail angle if say there was a photo taken of Carmen high as a kite next to Regan's dead body.

This is where Marlowe comes in.

Meanwhile young dumb idiot chauffeurs with romantic ideals don't know what hit them when they fall for a fledgling fatale thrill seeker like Carmen. So he follows her, sure she's up to no good (and wants to marry her). He sees the lurid shit going on (Laudanum cocktails to put Carmen in the mood). So he shoots him. Seeing the camera, grabs the film out of it, intending to burn it at the first opportunity.

But not just Marlowe is casing the joint - there's also Joe Brody - a small time grifter shacked up with Geiger's secretary Gladys. Brody follows the chauffeur and saps him down steals the photos (and probably whatever $$ he's got) then runs his car off the pier to make it look like an accident, then uses the photos to on Vivian this time (the father just got gambling notes from Geiger when he hired Marlowe--perhaps he bought the notes from Mars as coercion to get Carmen into his literature, when she resisted or attacked him or otherwise proved difficult he resorted to shaking down the dad. )

X-rated literature (especially the gay stuff) being illegal in 30s-40s LA, apparently, so quite valuable in and of themselves, usually circulated in high end lending libraries (the nervous dude who comes into the store when Bogie's there with the stall about the first editions, is there to return one - in the book Marlowe chases him down and the guy drops the book like it's some kind of dope stash). Marlowe clucks his tongue over in it in one of his rare signs of moral snobbery.

DANW/LATE THAT NIGHT - the sulky obsessive rentboy lover of Geiger's, Carol Lundgren, slinks home to find Geiger dead. Enraged he follows the trail to Joe Brody -- seeing the play Brody makes with Agnes for Geiger's "stuff" and catches up with him finally that night at Brody's apartment.

You can unravel the rest from the film....

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The discovery of an alternate, earlier version of Howard Hawk's THE BIG SLEEP (1946) is one of the greatest archeological finds in cinema history For this alcoholic, it's like some kind of angelic intervention. I know I'm not the only who feels a unique personal connection to Hawks' films. His best draw you in like a circle of cool new friends, comprehending and admiring each other via rituals of friendship involving tobacco, coffee, fire-arms, dangerous flying, shots between drinks and drinks between shots, being good at your job, devoted to your friends more than your own comfort, but no sucker. The focus is always (for his non-comedies) on tough iconoclastic men and the way they need to be risking death and enduring hardship, and drinking and smoking; kissing beautiful women with deep voices is nice they'd like to do more of it--if it can be harnessed to a professional ethic that awakens courage from its somatic 20th century languor. With Hawks, eery lighting of every match is mythic, like that last offered mercy offered before a firing squad.


I had already seen THE BIG SLEEP approximately two million times between when I first taped it as a kid and the alternate print was found. I had read Robin Wood's Howard Hawks book over and over (at the local 'ahem' library) because of my love of SCARFACE (1933) and THE THING (1951). Chesca! Chesca, my steel shutters don't work!! Could dogs chew off an arm? (This kind of an arm...) Between you me and me, Captain, he's havin' kittens.


Hawks is that rare auteur who can speak to me in a way that feels personal, honed to my own constellation of inner weirdness. Hawks draws me into the group in a way I wish I deserved to be drawn, like he's acknowledging some dormant knight-errant whose been awash in booze and decay, bidding him--and me by extension--inward. He creates the notion of a true, good, honest, self-sufficient commander we'd love to follow into battle, whether he sends us to our deaths over the Andes or about to charge some kind of super carrot, such things matter to a film loving 15 year-old not even aware how desperately he's in search of a masculine code that he can't get from watching his dad drink beer and yell at the Mets or his brother and his dumb friend making fart jokes in the garage. I was and still am such a Hawks fan that I refuse to read that huge Hawks biography by Todd McCarthy; I won't have his oeuvre tainted for me by unsavory anecdotes or other evidence of mortal baseness. I just couldn't handle life without my ideal. I don't even want to hear his voice. His voice is his films, fuckin-A.


I remember the different chapters in my life by girls, like Hawks probably did. When I first taped the originally-released BIG SLEEP I was painfully single and a virgin. I didn't think of the surplus of sexually open women holding professional jobs all over the place as anything to do with the war and all the young healthy men being overseas, with only the homosexuals, crooks, cops, old folks, and butlers left for competition. Only now do I realize the line "how are you fixed for red points" has to do with ration stamps. Most of all, though, insecure. But when I saw the newly-found version at Film Forum one rainy Sunday autumn night with, as Hawks would have called, her "a damn good-looking girl" who'd just stayed over, but not all the way yet, if you know what I mean--as nebulous a night as the hour inside the book store opposite Geiger's shop; the ratcheted sexual tension giving soft edges to a mounting hangover, and the rain and the sudden wealth of big screen details and strange new and alternate scenes made me hallucinate. I never saw the damned pretty girl again, until a year later when she showed up at my door and I showed her QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) and she thought I was trying to tell her I was gay, or a woman. What the hell is wrong with me, hmmmm?

I love movies, is what, and the sweet pain of seeing a film you know almost by heart but in a new altered version with scenes you've never seen on a rainy hungover Sunday night with a girl you've been in bed with all rainy afternoon but only made-out with, then you know that sweet, twisting pain is why I love reading Lacan, Freud, Josef von Sternberg, Shaviro, Erich von Stroheim, Baudry, Bunuel, and Dita von Teese, and Stadler. With that masochistic eye brought to the Film Forum on a rainy Sunday night, with this girl who didn't know Hawks from hydrangeas, I entered a perverse spectatorial realm of pleasure through which that missing scene at the midnight D.A's office burned a new chapter into my psyche. Sometimes I dream imagined missing scenes from movies (I dreamt an entirely different ending to ANATOMY OF MURDER where Ben Gazzarra attacks Stewart and then confesses), and so this DA scene became one of those, only real.

"you'll have to take that crab net off, dear."
While the film is less dazzling without the reshot scenes that heighten the Bacall-Bogey interplay, there's more ambiguity about Lauren Bacall's character in the preview version, so when Bogey falls in love with her there's more of an element of danger, like he's taking a big chance the way he's not with his more casual hook-ups, like Dorothy Malone in that bookstore scene --a gem right up there with BABY DOLL and CASABLANCA. (1) as far as heating up the boundary of the code: did Marlowe and Malone just have a few drinks in the dark, make out while the rain fell and get no farther as I had done with the damned good looking girl? Or less? Or more? We'll never know; as opposed to this tell-all blog, but one can't just.... fade...

It gets no better
Even without censors, ambiguity reigns with Dorothy Malone there's no inferring with Bogey and Bacall, even in this early version they create a draggy vortex of desire, like two smoking cobras hypnotizing each other in a rapid circling that ensnares anyone who comes within eyeshot, and drags them to the floor in a druggy stupor. Then again, the scene above with that crab net on is very jarring. Bacall is clearly uncomfortable and stiff, they both seem hungover. It happens.

The key scene that was missing altogether for so long is a late night trip to the DA office after the murder of Arthur Gwen Geiger is apparently 'solved' by the chauffeur's 'suicide' and then the nailing of Joe Brody, the grafter (who may or may not have accidentally killed the chauffeur who murdered Geiger after 'sapping him down' to steal the picture and driven off the pier). The Sternwood name is brought up but it's clear the DA is an old friend of the very wealthy Colonel, so will bend customary procedure to keep him out of the papers. That's the gist of what goes on. Maybe it's not enough, and Hawks trimmed it up as less important than more scintillating banter with Bacall going over similar ground but now we know why Marlowe still pursues the Reagan angle, which really only has minor connection with the first issue.

Though it does kind of provide a lull of sorts, Hawks movies do fine with mid-film breaks, usually for music but here for exposition (music later), and there's a lot of subtextual stuff going on that no scintillating banter could summize. This nighttime D.A.'s office scene illuminates Marlowe's place in the constellation of L.A. law enforcement as a kind of knightly rebel. We learn why he "rates pretty high" for the insubordination that got him fired from the DA's office. We meet the brutish looking by-the-numbers homicide detective, Captain Cronjager, who wants to turn Marlowe in for sitting on his evidence, and not reporting the Geiger murder the previous night and we get more of the great Bernie Ohls as Marlowe's cop friend. It's satisfying to watch Cronjager fume, Ohls needling him every step of the way. "Cronjager's always been my pigeon" Ohls tells Marlowe outside the office with a cat-eating grin.


If that was confusing, and many are confused who've only seen this film once or twice and haven't read the book, I herewith describe the 'hidden' plot as I've discerned it, translated to a more linear form of events, i.e. what happens BEFORE Marlowe takes the case up through the movie's events, so MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if you have only seen the film once or less, or plan on reading the book, just stop reading this post HERE. And either way you should also read the book. Chandler's prose is delicious and tight as a scared man's grip on a .45.

So, here's what happened: Marlowe's old pal Sean Regan (an ex-bootlegger and IRA terrorist) is ex-wild child Vivian Sternwood's husband and friends with the wheelchair-confined old General Sternwood ("paid to do his drinkin' for him" as Bernie Ohls puts it). Sean is having an affair or is maybe just friends with Eddie Mars' hot wife, Mona. Mars operates various illegal activities like gambling and drugs and seems tight with the General's daughter Vivian, whose younger sister Carmen, a deranged nymphomaniac, doesn't come gambling, but does like to get high, and goes to get her laudanum from a dealer who also runs a smut operation out of his house.

Carmen is not just a druggie but a nymphomaniac sociopath who "still likes to pull the wings off flies." She makes a play for Sean and when he rejects her, she shoots him. In the book we learn that Sean even taught her how to shoot, and she shot him, intentionally, when he was changing targets out in back of the mansion after he laughed off her seduction attempt.

Vivian calls Eddie Mars for help covering up the 'accident' and he makes arrangements to dispose of Sean's body and--since it's believed around town (whether true or not) that Sean and Mona were having an affair--hides Mona out in a lonesome cottage behind a garage he owns outside Rio Lido. This will ideally make people think the pair were lovers and ran off together. Of course Mars doesn't do this for free, blackmailing Vivian, who will 'do anything' to protect her sister. And, like so many blackmail deals made with gamblers in movies, the pay-offs are done by intentionally losing bets for large sums of money at Mars' place, money which is then paid off in IOUs sent to the rich invalid Colonel Reagan, who then hires Marlowe at the DA's recommendation to figure out why he's being blackmailed again, and that's where we come in.


One of Mars' branches of service is an illegal adult bookstore, which, like in video stores of olden times, has an adult rental library in back through some bead curtains, and some scattered old volumes in front to make it seem legit (this part is all spelled out more clearly in the book). New York City still has some of these stores, where the front has a bunch of depressing faded blue Kung Fu movies in the window and once you get it in you realize you're the only who's ever come in there searching for actual kung fu movies, and if you ask them for Jackie Chan's PROJECT A-15, you're like Marlowe asking for BEN HUR 1860. It's important to remember that in the 40s hardcore pornography still was illegal, well-hidden, and prosecuted vigorously (especially the gay kind). Knowing Marlowe's familiarity with these kinds of operations (the porn library rental 'sucker list' is then used for blackmail--ala the Mattress King's operation in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE) adds extra resonance to Marlowe's lisp and dark glasses when barging in on Geiger's place ("I'm late for my lecture on Argentine ceramics").

Carmen Sternwood's backwoods cousin -Jill Banner in Spider Baby (1968)
Arthur Gwyn Geiger is an associate of Mars and runs the shop and also provides some the content via his druggy home secret camera orgy operation. In the film we see Joe Brody packing up the books in the back of the shop the day after Geiger's death and it's completely confusing why he would, unless he's trying to get the books out of there super fast so no cop comes by and says hey, what's in the books, Joe? And then confiscates them, so the library has to start up from scratch all over again. We see Geiger's chauffer Lundgren helping Brody pack up the books, though when he sees Marlowe he maybe starts putting two and two together and getting the wrong idea about who killed his boss/gay lover.

Geiger also deals drugs, one presumes, which is why Carmen hangs out there (the drink Marlowe smells and wrinkles his nose over is, in the book, wine spiked with laudanum, like Lord Byron served to Elsa Lanchester). She's also apparently an unwitting model for the photos, which are snapped off the cuff inside a statue head. In a twist white slavery / Requiem for a Dream angle, she's barely aware of her exploitation, but as long as Geiger keeps the cocktails keep coming she's in no condition to resist or complain.

The Sternwood's car, with dead chauffeur inside
Lundgren, seeing Marlowe and perhaps putting pieces together
The night of Geiger's murder, Carmen's smitten chauffeur--part of a long string of them thanks to her druggy nymphomania--perhaps waiting outside for Carmen as she drugs it up in Geiger's house, sneaks in through the back, and, well "he had a gun and the gun went off as guns will." The chauffeur freaks out once he realizes he's killed Geiger, and sees Carmen way too druggy to even know what's going on. So he leaps into the Sternwood car and blazes out the back driveway. Marlowe snaps out of his semi-doze, and sees another car, that's also been staking out the house from down the street, pull out and follow the chauffeur. Marlowe doesn't pursue them, but goes inside to find Carmen, high as a kite, in a sexy black kimono, with Geiger's body at her feet. She is completely oblivious, fascinating with hitting her knee and observing the reflexive kick. Geiger's own chauffeur, Lundgren (above), is seemingly absent; he helps Brody--Gladys' boyfriend and a small-time grifter --pack up and hide the books the next day but when Lundgren later finds out that Brody has the compromising photos of Carmen he thinks Brody shot Geiger, so he returns the favor and plugs Brody in his apartment the following night, while Marlowe is questioning him.

Shortly before answering the door, Brody confesses he did follow the Sternwood chauffeur, who he found parked on the side of the road. Brody came up to his parked car and "played copper. He acted rattled, so I sapped him down." The way Brody says this however, shifting in his chair and avoiding Marlow's eye contact, makes it seem like a lie.

So who did kill the Sternwood chauffeur way out on Lido Pier, if wasn't Brody? Was it Carol Lundgren? Was it Eddie Mars or his thug, Canino? Why would Brody cover for Canino and how did he get the picture? Is Brody even affiliated with Mars? It would seem like a conflict of interest, since Mars was already leeching off the Sternwoods via the Sean Regan incident. Did Brody think the Sternwood chauffeur was alive when he left him 'sapped down'? Apparently Hawks didn't know either and called Chandler, waking him in the middle of the night once during production to ask him. Even Chandler didn't know.

It was probably Brody, who was staking out Geiger's place that night to see if he could get some blackmail leads on their operation. Clearly Agnes, who was working as a front for Geiger's book operation, had hooked up with Brody as the muscle for her own shakedown of Carmen via Vivian (the kind of thing Eddie Mars wouldn't approve of - like double dipping). This leads to Brody's blackmail attempt on Vivian Sternwood with the recovered picture of Carmen from the scene of Geiger's murder, the picture Vivian brings to Marlowe the next morning.

This would seem to end the case, but after Cronjager skulks off from the briefing in the DA's office and Ohls waits outside, the DA tells Marlowe confidentially to keep digging and find out what happened to Regan. The general, who loved Regan like a son was worried Regan was mixed up in the racket. No one yet knows he's dead and buried and used for deeper, longer con of blackmail by Eddie Mars. Vivian Sternwood tries to find out why her father hired Marlowe and that becomes the bulk of their early interactions ("Do you always think you can handle people like trained seals?") since somehow she'll have to put him off the scent if he starts probing about Regan. In an effort to protect her sister Vivian goes to great length to prove there's nothing between Mars and the Sternwoods. When Marlowe doesn't buy it Vivian rats him out to Mars who sends to serious thugs to work him over as a warning.

Meanwhile Agnes has her hooks into a avatar / boyfriend for her dirty deeds, a funny little guy in a gray suit named Harry Jones.


The key as far as understanding Marlowe's motivations to keep going on the Regan angle, enduring even a later contradictory order from the D.A., brings us full circle back to the rediscovered D.A.'s office scene: After dismissing Cronjager and Ohls, the DA rips up the pages in the transcription of Marlowe's disposition and tells him to keep digging, on behalf of his friend, the Colonel. This is why Marlowe later shirks off pressure 'from the DA's office' to stop digging. Marlowe doesn't run back to the D.A. after Ohls tells him this and say "Gee, boss, but last night you said..." I've learned this is how you get promoted, by doing what the big bosses say privately they want you to do even if, later, they publicly tell you to stop. Sometimes the way things get done that your superior can't authorize is that you do them and then the superior yells at you, to cover his ass, then promotes you once the heat's off. So the thing is done that needed doing and you were punished so the boss's hands are clean. Understanding this, the seemingly contradictory statements like "I seem to rate pretty high on that" (on being fired for insubordination) are understood in this context. Thus, Marlowe becomes an agent through which the D.A. can operate outside the law's limits, as needed. And this explains why Marlowe keeps digging even after being warned off by everyone including Ohls.


I like the way Cronjager and later Marlowe sit on the edge of the DA's desk - like they're two sons at the desk of their dad, comfortable with his benign rulership, competing for his favor. Marlowe becomes the prodigal, the privileged knight of the old boy network that makes the D.A. a King Arthur to General Sternwood's fisher king. The unspoken bond between these old scions is the core of the momentum of the film. Vivian is the one who made that request that Marlowe stop but he ignores it, suspecting she's hiding some dark secret that needs to come to light because "it's cleaner." He's hired by the General and encouraged (off the record) by the D.A., two kings he obeys from a recognition of their lack of, as Sternwood puts it, victorian hypocrisy, it's a service of love rather than from a blind worship of power or title.

 And that's really all you need to know, except the end line "we'll have to send Carmen away, from a lot of things" never fully illuminates that she killed Regan in a "hell hath no fury"-style fit. In the book she has a much bigger role and comes onto Marlowe on more occasions (one of the few scenes re-shot or added for the new edition has Carmen showing up at Marlowe's apartment to seduce him and then biting his hand when he tries to throw her out) and we get the full depth of Marlowe's dislike of her associated with his detection of laudanum fumes that make her "stink of corruption" like the general's orchids. It's an odd mix of factors, as ultimately Carmen and Vivian's very existence is borne of the general's mid-life crisis. "Frankly," he says, "anyone who indulges in parenting for the first time at my age deserves all he gets." While smiling on the surface, the scene and tone of the film suggest that sometimes it is too late to start fatherhood. Be contented in thy childless state, lest scorpions issue from thee. Book of Chandler 8:13


Through watching both versions of BIG SLEEP mixed together, flipping the awesome DVD, I am happy, General, as if deserving all I get for my mid-life crises, for enduring the long cocktease that lonesome rainy Sunday with that girl, has paid off, I have two versions of my favorite film in the world. It's like a finishing metatextual touch from God, because this 'preview' version, for the film itself is all about 'duplications,' and doubles not just on page 116 of Ben Hur 1860, but the pair of Mars' more menacing nighttime thugs (Huck and Canino) doubling for Mars' daytime, more comical and unthreatening version (Pete and Sydney "that's what the man said, he said that"). There are also the two versions of the father  (the D.A. and General Sternwood); the two versions of the femme fatale (Carmen and Agnes); and the two versions of the sexually mature 'good' girl (Dorothy Malone in the bookstore and Vivian). There's the two versions of Agnes' patsy, Joe Brody and Harry Jones, and so forth. What does it all mean?  Veils and boundaries are crossed here, between the obscenely rich and the obscenely broke, between night and day, death and life, drugged sleep and waking from a bad dream. Each person Marlowe encounters echoes another he met earlier until finally he runs out of buffers and the banal face of his opponent, one whom--it should be noted--never comes off as hostile or menacing at all -- "he just pays someone to do it for (him)"
--at last is revealed.

In the meantime, as God is my witness, I'll never go to bed early again, not when I can re-watch THE BIG SLEEP over and over, flipping the disc from one version to another, and ponder the mystery of who killed the chauffeur and what the hell happened in that sexy bookstore during the fade, and why there's no one around today with the masculine cool of Hawks and Bogart, or the low voice sexy of Bacall, and why in the hell that damned good looking girl I brought in the Sunday rain to the Film Forum would stop calling me. All we need to know is that Bogie and Bacall both radiate such alchemically rich magic both separately and together that time stands still and the fine print of the plot fades into the dripping shadows of time like the last, chuckling gasp of Harry Jones. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down. Even knowing it would be her last.

NOTES
1. See also: The Tell-Tale Dissolve: Baby Doll and the Collapse of "Decency" 

5 comments:

  1. Hey! I subscribed and read this on your Kindle Feed. What a difference it is reading a lengthy essay on a comfortable, small screen! This was great, I especially appreciate your more explicit takes on so much that was inferred in the movie.

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  2. Good news, Johnny! And glad if I can help explain some of the more bizarre aspects. I'm still figuring it out. The book really helps. All of Chandler's Marlowe books are superb and hilarious.

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  3. I have enjoyed this film numberless times, but I'm always thinking that this is yet another film of Bogart doing Bogart. It seems to me that he is an actor playing Spade playing Marlowe. You might laugh at me but I think Dick Powell was the best Marlowe. On the murder, didn't Carol Lundgren kill the chauffer to avenge his lovers(Geiger) death.

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  4. Hansen, you're close... Lundgren is the one who shoots Brody at his door in the apartment, then runs off. So he thought Brody shot Geiger - Brody followed the Sternwood chauffer who did shoot Geiger in a bid to protect Carmen.

    The big mystery that not even Chandler knew was who really did kill the chauffer. Clearly Lundgren THOUGHT Brody shot Geiger, since Brody's car chased the chauffer out to Rio Lido and Brody stole the books with GLadys.... Brody admits to chasing the chauffer and that 'he looked rattled so I slapped him down' but Marlow suspects even that might be a lie. Brody, alas, dies before he can tell us who really did shoot the chauffer if not him. But it wasn't Lundgren or he'd have no motivation to shoot Brody later.


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  5. ooops just to clarify - no one shot the chauffer - they just cracked his skull and set the brakes to drive the car off the pier

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