NOTW: THE BIG SLEEP AND “THE LITTLE BITCH”
Musings On Some Thoughts By David Thomson
We still don’t know how much torment and difficulty accompanied the process that created The Big Sleep, despite the evidence contained in the 1945 version unearthed several years ago. We’ve learned of the careful stitching of existing and new footage that resulted in the “delightfully incoherent” final version, but we don’t know how much actual time and trouble it took to get there.
What is clear, however, is that director Howard Hawks transformed the character of Philip Marlowe into a trench-coated version of his ideal fantasy self, moving the character away from Chandler’s nostalgic moral center toward something more modern. This could be the very reason why for many of us, Hawks’ version of Marlowe and The Big Sleep is still so comfortable a vision, the smoothest and most serpentine of noir experiences.
As David Thomson notes in his BFI Film Classic volume on the film, Hawks achieves this triumphant “dream-sense” for Marlowe by positioning him in a world where he is literally drowning in sexual opportunity. Only in the Hollywood “dream factory” was it possible to generate such a sustained sense of foreplay, a seemingly endless prelude to a never-ending sexual nirvana. As Thomson notes, Hawks encouraged his actresses--both lead and bit players--to behave in a very specific, manner, accentuating allure and availability. It was not necessarily an attribute that the actresses possessed in real life, as Hawks’ anecdote about Martha Vickers (the most extreme of the film’s so-called “little bitches”) demonstrates. Quoting from Thomson:
”Okay, she got her first salary check and went out and bought a lot of girly dresses with a lot of...little bows and ruffles and...she started playing a nice girl and they fired her after six months. And she came to me and said ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘You’re just stupid. Why didn’t you just keep playing that part?’ ‘Well, that was a nymphomaniac.’ ‘Look, it’s only a nymphomaniac because I told you so. They liked you on the screen. And you did such a good job of it because you weren’t trying to get sympathy or anything. You were a little bitch. Why didn’t you keep doing that?”
And it’s clear that, in one large sense, Hawks is more interested in sustaining this fantasy world throughout the course of The Big Sleep. From the two available versions we have, the parade of available “talent” in which Marlowe is swimming was a fixture in the film no matter how the rest of the film’s landscape may have been altered.
Thomson does us the service of chronicling all of these encounters, pointing out that the film “has variants on the little bitch” that operate “like reel markers”:
--There is the blonde in the library (not in [Chandler’s] book), the one to whom Marlowe tosses the line that he collects blondes and bottles: the actress is Carole Douglas.
--There is Agnes Lozelle [actually Lowzier—Thomson has this wrong], in Geiger’s shop, dumb on books but hip with grapefruit, and later the dream girl for Joe Brody and Harry Jones, both of whom (if you’ll pardon the remark) are too small for her. Indeed, Marlowe has her sized up and knows how to whip her with words--he understands the b###h, and she looks at him with the bruised gratitude of someone who knows she’s been understood. Whatever happened to Sonia Darrin, who played Agnes? [NOTE: that question was answered in an essay by Ron Schuler that appeared in the NC e-zine in 2010.]
--Then there’s the girl at the Acme bookshop, the 20-year-old Dorothy Malone, who knows bibliography, has the instinct to close for the afternoon, and who is, shall we say, obliging enough to slip off her glasses and put down her hair. "We just did it,’ reminisced Hawks, ‘because the girl was so damn good-looking."
--Don’t forget the lady taxi-driver (Joy Barlowe), who’ll follow anything for Marlowe and gives him her card, making sure he knows when she’s off duty. "Wouldn’t be bad," he tells her, always the expert.
--Then there’s the hatcheck girl (Lorraine Miller) and the cigarette girl (Shelby Payne) at Eddie Mars’ place, who step on each others’ lines trying to be the first to talk to Marlowe.
--And finally there’s Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen) whom Marlowe admits to liking after goading her into throwing a drink in his face.
Given all this action, it’s actually a wonder that Marlowe has time to solve the case--a situation that ultimately comes down to the fact that the biggest “little bitch” in the film (Carmen Sternwood) is the lethal cautionary tale lurking in the midst of these anecdotes of availability. Maybe the most interesting tidbit Thomson provides us in his volume is some hearsay from Chandler (in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, his British publisher) about an alternative ending to the film that more prominently features Carmen and her, as we say nowadays, “issues”:
Chandler even reports that Hawks considered an ending that involved Marlowe and Carmen. According to Chandler, Hawks was often dissatisfied with the script. In their subsequent talks they worked out this ending: Marlowe and Carmen go to Geiger’s house at the end; by now, he knows that she is [Regan’s] killer; he also knows that the first person out the door is going to get shot by Mars’ men.
This Marlowe wasn’t sure how to act, so he tossed a coin:
“Before he tossed the coin he prayed out loud, in a sort of way. The gist of his prayer was that he, Marlowe, had done the best he knew how and through no fault of his own was put in a position of making a decision God had no right to force him to make… If the coin came down heads, he would let the girl go. He tossed it and it came down heads. The girl thought this was some kind of a game to hold her there for the police. She started to leave. At the last moment, as she had her hand on the doorknob, Marlowe weakened and started for her to stop her. She laughed in his face and pulled a gun on him. Then she opened the door and inch or two and you could see that she was going to shoot and was thoroughly delighted with the situation. At that moment a burst of machine gun fire walked across the panel of the door and tore her to pieces.”
Perhaps the problem with this ending is that it doesn’t show Marlowe as the invincible, always-in-control hero. There are only bare hints in the actual ending that Marlowe is even breaking a sweat as he pieces together that Mars is willing to kill him in order to protect the secret of who really killed Sean Regan. However, making Marlowe more vulnerable might have been a small price to pay in order to have “the little bitch” receive her ultimate comeuppance.
The film finally settles for its Bogart-Bacall romantic myth, and a pale variant of the Chandler-Hawks final scene; this preserves the comfort level that audiences respond to in the film, where fantasy and authority are seamlessly woven together in an endless parade of one-liners and available flesh. By doing so, The Big Sleep almost inadvertently creates the framework for the “post-modern” film landscape. As Thomson concludes: “[It] inaugurates a post-modern, camp, satirical view of movies being about other movies that extends to the New Wave and to Pulp Fiction. In that sense, it breaks new ground while sensing the ultimate dead end of the form.”
Postscript: Sheila O’Malley’s tale about Martha Vickers and the filming of The Big Sleep
...here's a story about Martha Vickers, the teenage actress who so convincingly played a drugged-out thumb-sucking nymphomaniac.
Hawks had an idea for one of the scenes--where Marlowe comes in, and finds her sitting, all dressed up in the empty house--obviously some kind of lecherous photo shoot had been going on. And Marlowe comes upon her, and she is high on drugs, and completely out of it. Anyway, Hawks had an idea for this scene (which ended up not making it into the movie): he wanted Vickers to simulate an orgasm.
He asked her to do so. This is in front of Bogart, Regis Toomey (who plays the DA), and a couple of other people.
"Sweetheart, what we want here is for you to simulate that you're having an orgasm."
Martha Vickers asked, "What's an orgasm?"
Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what to do. Literally. These three men, Hawks, Bogart, and Toomey--standing there, with a teenage actress asking them what an orgasm was. Dead silence. Hawks called a 10-minute break, and called Toomey aside. He asked Toomey to please go and explain to "Miss Vickers" what an orgasm was.
Toomey, who apparently was a good-natured fellow, but also the product of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing (so funny to imagine!), went over to Martha and explained it to her. (Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.)
Toomey said later to Bogart: "The girl didn't know anything. I asked,'Are you a virgin?' 'Uh yes.' 'Do you know what an orgasm is? Mr. Hawks wants you to be having an orgasm here.' 'No, I don't know what it is.' 'You don't know what an orgasm is?' 'No.' And so, dammit, I explained to her what an orgasm was. And she got the idea all right. Howard liked the scene very much."
After that, it became a huge joke. Hawks would say to Toomey, "If I ever have to explain an orgasm again, I am calling on you." And Bogie would laugh and laugh like a madman.
For some reason I just love that story.
[O’Malley gets one fact wrong here: Toomey played a police detective pal of Marlowe’s, not the DA. Later in his career, Toomey would work for a millionaire playboy cop (Gene Barry) whose "double major" in college had been criminology and orgasms, on a show (BURKE'S LAW) that could have been entitled "The Big Gasp.")