Anthony Dean Rizzuto is a professor of English at Sonoma State University, where he teaches (among other things) California ethnic literature and hard-boiled fiction. He is also a bookseller at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia.
Or maybe didn’t realize you didn’t know! The 1946 film version of The Big Sleep, alongside other film noir set pieces, have become such a part of our collective cultural imagination when it comes to detective fiction that they obscure the literary realities etched right there onto the page. Here are some things that had escaped my awareness until I slowed the novel down while annotating it.
1. Hey, Good Lookin’!
Philip Marlowe, as described in the novel, looks nothing like Humphrey Bogart. He doesn’t even look like a stereotypical noirish private eye. When the novel opens, the detective isn’t outfitted in a trench coat and fedora (despite the rainy weather); he’s decked out in a powder-blue suit, with dress shoes, fancy socks, and display handkerchief. The novel makes it clear that our hero is tall, handsome, and downright dashing. Chandler later said that the actor that most resembled Marlowe in his mind wasn’t Bogie nor any of the other Hollywood tough guy actors, but the debonair Cary Grant. How about George Clooney for the remake? He’s rather older than Marlowe, who’s thirty-three in TBS, but he does have the elegant good looks.
2. Not Just a Pretty Face
Marlowe also talks and acts nothing like Humphrey Bogart. He’s no cardboard cutout hardboiled tough guy. In fact, he makes fun of those who affect that pose! Joe Brody is his chief antagonist on this score (“Pictures have made them all like that,” Marlowe scoffs), but he also spars with gangster Eddie Mars over his tough-guy posturing. We all know that the novel is told from Marlowe’s point of view, so we’re in his mind – and it’s a mind unlike any other in hardboiled fiction. It’s often noted that Marlowe is more idealistic and sentimental than other detectives; what goes unremarked is how much more self-aware he is. He even offers a running commentary on the clichés of the hardboiled genre that he’s acting in! Is it postmodern? Meta? Or just super smart?
3. Anything Goes
Critics talk about “queering the text,” but we didn’t have to work too hard on that: It was pretty queer when we found it. There are both homoerotic hints and what we now call homosexual panic on Marlowe’s part, especially around the gay couple Carol and Geiger. There’s the backdrop of the “Panzy Craze,” an actual trend in L.A. when the novel was written, making visible gay and lesbian subcultures – a trend which got woven into the novel. There’s an odd (if not inexplicable) reference to bisexuality at one of the novel’s climactic points. And then there’s Vivian, who is pointedly described as looking and acting “mannish.” And speaking of Vivian…
You may have seen this one coming, but Vivian, as described in the novel, looks nothing like Lauren Bacall. She has black wiry hair parted in the middle and a robust physique. Not only is she kind of butch, she’s also something of a flapper – an empowering role for women of the period. She’s strong, she’s smart – but she’s not the femme fatale she is sometimes mistaken to be, the archetype of which runs rampant in the crime fiction and film of the period. (That honor goes to Vivian’s sister.) The Victorians had an ideal of femininity called “The Angel in the House,” adapted from a thoroughly gacky poem of that name. Believe it or not, the Vivian of the novel is closer to a warped, John Waters-ified version of that ideal than she is to a femme fatale.
Another way that Chandler rewrites the hardboiled genre is in his attitude toward guns. Big Sleep film posters and book covers love to show Marlowe brandishing a gun, and that image would work for all the other period detectives. But it may surprise readers to realize, as it surprised me, that Marlowe stalks the territory of his urban jungle without a gun (though he does have one stashed in his car). In fact, not only does Marlowe not carry a gun in The Big Sleep, he goes through the novel confiscating guns from various other characters, with disapproving comments to punctuate the action (“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains”).
6. Eight Ways (At Least!) of Looking at the Novel
The Big Sleep isn’t noir. There was no such thing in 1939, when the book was published. Chandler helped to found the genre by describing startlingly visual and cinematic cityscapes, and writing stunningly stylized dialogue. It also seems to rain a lot in Chandler’s not-so-sunny LA. But is it noir? Of course we can read it that way, but I was surprised to find that it can be read several other ways, bringing to mind something that the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Literary genres may depend less on texts than the way texts are read.” We can certainly read TBS as the hardboiled detective novel we all know and love, and we can call it noir if it makes us feel better. But we can also read it as a romantic quest narrative, as a realistic critique of a corrupt society, and/or as a philosophical exploration of mortality. We can read it as an existentialist fable, a Gothic thriller, a creepy fairy tale – or as the Great American Novel. Our annotations follow each line of reading. You be the judge.
7. Wise Guys
For all the genre play, dark themes, and dangerous visions, The Big Sleep is funny! And it’s not just the wisecracks, which are everywhere (“Don’t get clever, for God’s sake,” Marlowe begs the dimwitted Carmen. “It’s not his step, it’s the back of his lap he ought to watch,” he warns Agnes of her lover Joe Brody). There’s also Marlowe’s interior monologue, which can be quite whimsical. (Of the nonplussed Agnes: “Her smile was now hanging by its teeth and eyebrows and wondering what it would hit when it dropped.”) And there’s some bona fide flat-out comedy interweaved into the proceedings. Marlowe’s sarcastic treatment of Joe Brody in the latter’s apartment is hysterical, but my favorite is the scene in the parking garage outside Eddie Mars’s Cypress Club. Marlowe escorts Vivian to her car, and the ensuing dialogue would be more at home in a screwball comedy like His Girl Friday (which TBS director Howard Hawks made in 1940) than in forties noir films.
8. The Big Sleep opens a portal into a whole other world, intricate, captivating, and meticulously described. But you already knew that.