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The Big Sleep (1946)

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A poster from THE BIG SLEEP

Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is a very complicated film.  It was originally shot in December 1944, a few months after Bogart and Bacall's debut pairing, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), and a few months before the two stars married.  THE BIG SLEEP was based on the Raymond Chandler detective mystery of the same name, and was originally slated for release in 1945, but Warner Bros. held it back despite the success of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT because Bacall's second vehicle, CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1945) in which she co-starred with Charles Boyer, was not well received.  Warners decided to improve THE BIG SLEEP, adding more of the snappy, sultry dialogue between Bogart and Bacall (most notably, the horse racing conversation) which had made TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT so popular. 

Unfortunately, while this made THE BIG SLEEP into a true film-noir classic, Warners also decided to cut a few scenes from the original (1945) version of the film to keep its length manageable, and the result is a plot that, even after repeated viewings, is almost incomprehensible.  Six people are killed in the course of the film, and one before the action begins.  A few of the murders are easily explained, but others remain a mystery, either with regard to the murderer, the motive, or both.  While one can conjecture various ways to fill in the blanks, it is impossible to understand everything based on what is given in the film itself.  The original 1945 version was located and made available in 1997.  I haven't seen it yet, but it is supposed to be easier to understand, though lacking the Bacall-Bogie-isms that make the 1946 version the classic that it is.  I have also heard that reading the book is really the only way to completely grasp the whole of the plot.  However, a movie is never exactly a representation of the book from which it is taken (and this was especially true during the days when the Production Code restricted film content).  Therefore, I have attempted below to explain what really happens in THE BIG SLEEP as best as I understand it.  My goal is to clarify (and this essay assumes the reader has seen the film), but keep in mind that mine is just one of many possible interpretations.

 Audio Clip:

"Warner Bros. Fanfare and Main Title" (clip) by Max Steiner (a .MP3 file courtesy RCA Victor).

Understanding THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

Eddie Mars, Arthur Gwynn Geiger and Joe Brody are all in the blackmail business together -- as well as gambling, pornography, and all kinds of other illegal, bad-guy stuff.  Mars is the head racketeer though, and Geiger and Brody aren't always informed of everything he's up to.

Antecedent Action:

Carmen Sternwood, the younger of the two Sternwood daughters, loves Shawn Regan, her father's paid companion.  Shawn Regan however, loves Mrs. Eddie Mars. Carmen gets jealous and kills Regan.  Eddie Mars knows about it.  Mars sends his wife into hiding to make sure it doesn't look like he killed Regan (out of anger because of Regan's love for his wife) and tells everyone that she ran away with him.  Then he blackmails Mrs. Rutledge, the older of the two Sternwood daughters, about her sister's involvement in Regan's disappearance.  At the same time, Geiger is blackmailing Carmen about the murder of Regan too, though there could also be more to it given that Geiger is really a pornography dealer behind that rare bookstore front -- perhaps he has pornographic pictures of Carmen; the movie isn't clear.  Carmen can't pay up herself and signs IOU's which Geiger tries to cash via General Sternwood.  Sternwood knows they're probably not the gambling debts they appear to be, and are most likely blackmail, so he calls private eye Marlowe in to handle the situation.  Marlowe is supposed to pay Geiger off permanently.

The Plot of the Film Itself: 

Owen Taylor, the Sternwood's chauffeur, loves Carmen and doesn't like it that Geiger is blackmailing her.  One night, Marlowe follows Geiger and his shadow (named Carol Lundgren) home from the bookstore to Geiger's house.  Joe Brody, Geiger's blackmail and pornography associate, is already at the house, but his station wagon is in the back and Marlowe doesn't know he's there.  Owen Taylor (whose car is also in the back) is already there too, unbeknownst to Marlowe.  Marlowe watches out front.  Carmen shows up.  After a little while, there's a flash bulb, a scream and a gunshot.  Two cars drive away out from the back -- Taylor in the Sternwood's car followed by Brody in his station wagon.  Geiger was probably taking porn pictures of Carmen (who is drugged/high).  Owen has killed Geiger and taken the film from a camera hidden in a hollow sculpture on Geiger's desk.  Brody goes after Owen and the film, knowing that with Geiger dead, he can take over the racket.  Brody catches up to Owen, gets the film, kills him and pushes his car off the pier and into the ocean where the police find it later (when Bernie, the homicide detective, calls Marlowe and has him come down).  Marlowe goes into the house, sees Geiger dead, sees Carmen "higher than a kite," takes her home and tells everyone to pretend she was ill and stayed in all night.  He goes back to Geiger's where he discovers that someone (Geiger's shadow) has hidden the body.  He finds Geiger's book of names and codes and goes back to his office to try to decipher them, but doesn't have much luck.

Brody, Geiger's shadow and Agnes (the saleslady at the bookstore) go to Geiger's store to collect the pornography and blackmail stuff before the police find out that Geiger's dead and start to investigate. Marlowe follows the station wagon full of stuff as it leaves the store and heads to Brody's apartment. Brody starts blackmailing in Geiger's place. He gets Agnes to call Mrs. Rutledge and tell her that he has a picture of Carmen to sell for $5000. Mrs. Rutledge tells Marlowe about it when she comes to see him at his office because she's trying to figure out what the picture is about and what Brody knows. So far, she's only been blackmailed by Eddie Mars; as far as she's concerned, Brody's a new player.

Marlowe drives to Geiger's house and finds Carmen wandering around and trying to get in. She's trying to remember what really happened. (She was drugged at the time and her memory seems to be a little clouded.) Perhaps Mrs. Rutledge has asked her to try to remember since she's trying to figure out what the picture is all about. Marlowe lets Carmen in the house and she looks around for a body. She knows that Geiger has been killed-- she tells Marlowe that it was Brody that did it-- and she knows there was a picture taken of her. Eddie Mars shows up at the house while they're there. He has a key because he owns the house-- this helps prove that Geiger was working for him. Most likely, Geiger's shadow (who hid the body) has told Mars that Geiger is dead and Mars is coming to look the place over. Mars knows that there's blood under the carpet. He sees Carmen and seems to imply that she had something to do with Geiger's death. Marlowe mentions that someone was cleaning out the back of Geiger's store. Mars asks who-- he doesn't really seem to know it was Brody.

Marlowe goes back to his office and gets a call from Mrs. Rutledge who was supposed to tell him what the photo blackmailers (Agnes and Brody) were demanding, but instead tells him that no one called and she doesn't have any new information but that she'll call him as soon as she knows anything. She has decided it's better not to involve Marlowe in this blackmail (probably because Carmen has returned home from Geiger's and explained about the picture) and tries to take care of it herself by getting the money and going to Brody's apartment to pay him off, in an effort to protect Carmen from being implicated in Geiger's murder. Marlowe follows her there. He goes up under the pretense of wanting to team up with Brody in the overall blackmail scheme because Marlowe has the book of names and Brody has the blackmailable material on the people (like Carmen's picture, for example). Agnes from the bookstore and Mrs. Rutledge are there. Marlowe says the only way that Brody could know why the picture is valuable is if he was there when Geiger was murdered. Marlowe accuses Brody of killing Geiger without knowing Carmen was there, discovering her presence, and taking the picture to blackmail her into silence-- this is wrong. The picture was taken before Geiger was killed, not after, and Owen Taylor killed Geiger, not Brody. Carmen shows up at Brody's apartment, pulls a gun on Brody and wants her picture. Marlowe takes all the guns, gets Brody to hand over the pictures, gives them to Carmen and sends Mrs. Rutledge to take Carmen home. Once they've gone, Brody explains that he tried to blackmail Mrs. Rutledge with the picture and not the General because he'd gotten money from the General a few months previous (the $5000 that Regan paid him on behalf of the General which the General mentioned to Marlowe during their meeting in the greenhouse) and didn't want to press his luck trying him again.

Brody says that Owen killed Geiger and took the film, so Brody went after the film but didn't kill Owen to get it; he just pretended he was a cop or something and scared the little guy. But, in reality, he did kill Owen to get the film back and then pushed the car off the pier, etc. The doorbell rings again. Brody answers it thinking maybe Carmen is back, but instead he gets killed by Geiger's shadow, probably either sent by Eddie Mars who thinks that Brody killed Geiger to take over his part of the blackmailing, or just as revenge for the death of his friend. Though Geiger's shadow was at the house when Geiger was killed (He went home from the store with Geiger when Marlowe was following them.), he seems to have mistakenly thought that Brody killed Geiger, perhaps because Brody took off so fast. Marlowe chases Geiger's shadow from Brody's apartment and catches him, taking him to Geiger's house. Geiger's shadow has a key to the house and they go in after Marlowe knocks him out. Geiger's body is laid out on the bed this time. Marlowe calls Bernie at the police station and tells him that there's a body in Geiger's house, that Geiger was killed by Owen Taylor, and that the proof is that the gun found with Owen in the car should be missing three shells which are in Geiger. He also tells Bernie that Geiger's shadow (whom he has tied up) killed Brody because he thought that Brody had killed Geiger.

Mrs. Rutledge calls up Marlowe and has him meet her at a restaurant so she can try to pay him off. The story about Geiger's murder is out: Taylor murdered Geiger; Brody killed Taylor; Brody was killed by Geiger's shadow because he thought Brody had killed Geiger; Geiger's shadow is now in jail. The Geiger murder mess is over and Marlowe kept Carmen's name out of it. Thus, Mrs. Rutledge says the General doesn't need Marlowe's services any more. She thinks everything has been cleared up and that the General probably hired Marlowe to find out where Regan is. She doesn't know that Marlowe was hired to find out about the blackmailing of her sister by Geiger after Geiger tried to collect on Carmen's debts by sending the "gambling" IOU's to the General. Mrs. Rutledge only knows that Eddie Mars is blackmailing her about Carmen's having murdered Regan, and she doesn't want Marlowe getting involved in that-- he'll find out that Carmen is guilty which is what she has been trying to keep secret this whole time. Marlowe still doesn't know why Geiger was blackmailing Carmen. (It's all part of Mars' grand scheme to blackmail both sisters about knowing that Carmen killed Regan.) He's trying to figure out why Mrs. Rutledge wants him off the case. Who put her up to it? (Eddie Mars.) Why? What does Eddie Mars have on her? (His knowledge that Carmen killed Regan.)

Marlowe makes an appointment to go see Mars at his club, where Mrs. Rutledge and Mars put on an act to make it look like there is nothing between them. Marlowe asks why Mars isn't anxious to find his wife. Could it be that he already knows where she is? (Yes, hiding out in a remote locale behind a service station where he sent her.) Marlowe asks if Mars is tailing him. Mars truthfully answers no, but secretly wants to find out who is. He tells Marlowe that Mrs. Rutledge isn't very popular around his club because she has some bad gambling debts-- backing up Mrs. Rutledge's cover story that the blackmail she pays Mars is really "gambling debts." The act between Mars and Mrs. Rutledge consists of him letting her win at roulette and then sending a boy out to "steal" the money back from her. Marlowe steps in and "saves her," then drives her home, but he knows it was all an act and tells her so-- he knows there's no $28,000 in her purse. He asks her what Eddie Mars has on her, but she won't tell.

Carmen is waiting for Marlowe when he gets back and says that she didn't like Regan (obviously, since she killed him) and that she doesn't know who Eddie Mars is. Marlowe believes her-- she may not know Eddie Mars, having been high when she killed Regan, but Mars knows her-- and then Marlowe throws her out. The next morning, Bernie calls and tells Marlowe that the District Attorney (at Mrs. Rutledge's insistence) has requested that he stay off the Sternwood case. Marlowe tells Bernie that he's going to keep on it anyway.

Marlowe calls the Sternwood house and asks to talk to the General, but is refused. He is told that Mrs. Rutledge is anxious to talk to him however. She has decided that since she thinks he's looking for Regan, the only way to get him off the case is if he thinks that Regan has been found, so she tells him that he's been located in Mexico and that she's going down to see him. As Marlowe leaves the diner where he made the call, he is beat up by two men on behalf of Eddie Mars who wants Marlowe off the case too. Harry Jones, a friend of Agnes and the guy who has been tailing Marlowe, picks him up and tells him that he has some information to sell for $200-- (1) where to find Regan, and (2) where Eddie Mars' wife is. They arrange to meet at an office in an hour so that Marlowe can get the money, and then Jones will take Marlowe to Agnes. Jones tells Marlowe that Agnes wants it so she can get out of town-- it's true. When Marlowe goes to meet Jones however, Canino, one of Eddie Mars' men, is already there threatening the little guy-- telling him that Eddie Mars doesn't like what he's up to. Jones tells Canino that he was just trying to blackmail Marlowe. Canino poisons Jones and leaves to go find Agnes (because too many people knowing blackmail secrets makes them worth less), but Jones gave him the wrong address.

While Marlowe is in the room with the dead Jones, Agnes calls to find out how things went and Marlowe has to tell her that Jones is dead. They arrange to meet so she can get her money anyway. Agnes tells Marlowe how she and Brody happened to see Mrs. Mars and Canino driving to the house behind the remote service station. Marlowe pays her and drives to the station, pretending to have blown out a tire. Canino and another of Mars' men knock him out and tie him up. He wakes up in the house behind the station with Mrs. Mars (who honestly doesn't know where Regan is, and believes her husband (in her eyes, an honest businessman) hasn't done anything wrong) and Mrs. Rutledge who is there hiding out because she has supposedly left for Mexico to meet Regan. Mrs. Rutledge is in love with Marlowe and lets him go because they both know that Mars will kill him if he's caught. Marlowe gets away, killing Canino in the process, and takes Mrs. Rutledge with him in Canino's car. She still won't tell him what he wants to know, and even tries claiming that she killed Regan, but he knows it's not true. They head to Geiger's house.

Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge on the lookout for Eddie Mars

From Geiger's house, Marlowe calls Mars and tells him to meet him there, pretending that he's still at the house behind the service station and that it will take him a while to get to Geiger's house. They hide and Mars arrives early to set a trap for them. He has his men surround the house and then goes inside and tries to cut the phone wire but finds out that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge are already there. They know he has the house surrounded. 

On the spot, Mars tells Marlowe that Regan is dead and that Carmen did it. He also tells him about how Carmen was in love with Regan but that Regan was in love with his wife, and admits to blackmailing Mrs. Rutledge with the information about Carmen's guilt. After Marlowe fires a few shots into the floor and wounds Mars, Mars' men outside think that Marlowe must have killed Mars, so when he goes running out the front door yelling "Don't shoot!" they accidentally kill him, thinking he's Marlowe.

Marlowe picks up the phone and calls Bernie at the police station. Still loyal to Mrs. Rutledge and her desire to protect her sister and father, Marlowe tells Bernie that Mars killed Regan and is now dead himself, having been killed by his own men. He then tells Mrs. Rutledge that she'll have to send Carmen away to an institution or something, since we know that according to the Production Code, a killer can never get off unpunished in the end.

A murder recap:

  1. Carmen killed Regan out of jealousy (antecedent action)
  2. Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, shot Geiger at his house because he loved Carmen and didn't like that she was being blackmailed
  3. Joe Brody killed Owen Taylor and pushed his car into the ocean to get the film from Geiger's camera back
  4. Geiger's shadow (Carol Lundgren) shot Brody as he answered his apartment door because he mistakenly thought that Brody was the one who killed Geiger
  5. Canino, one of Eddie Mars' henchman, poisoned Harry Jones because he knew too much (via Agnes)
  6. Marlowe killed Canino as he shot his way out of the house behind the service station
  7. Eddie Mars was killed by his own men as he ran out of Geiger's house

© 1998 Reel Classics, L.L.C.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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