Philip Marlowe has always embodied the troubled masculinity I find so appealing in film noir. Bogart captured him superficially in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, bringing the weight of experience to Raymond Chandler’s zings and metaphors, as the actor was rugged, not quite handsome and charismatic to a fault. One could imagine women falling at Marlowe’s feet, even when it seems that such a fate would be worse than death for the character. There lies my troubled appreciation of Hawks’ adaptation, which strips Marlowe of his rugged, self-destructive impulse and embraces the romance of Bogart’s appeal.
One of my favourite moments in Chandler’s novel is conspicuously altered in Hawks’ adaptation. As the film’s structure was shifted as audiences demanded (with voyeuristic perversion) more fire between Bacall and Bogart, it was done at the expense of Marlowe’s darkness. In the book, and as in the film’s original cut, Marlowe was not focused exclusively on Vivian but torn between the two Sternwood sisters. This was never intended as a romance, however, as Marlowe’s misogyny and self-loathing prevented him from ever having a healthy relationship, even when beautiful women were throwing themselves at his feet.
In the book, Marlowe returns home one night to find Carmen lying in bed naked, beckoning him to join her. Due to the production code, Hawks could never capture the essence of Chandler’s scene, but the film does not properly translate Marlowe’s desire. In the film, after a brief conversation, Marlowe ushers Carmen out of the room and that’s that. In the novel, things go a little differently, as Chandler lingers on Marlowe’s solitude: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.” The palpable violence of Marlowe’s sexual wants resonate in Chandler’s prose, but the character traits remain absent from the film as Hawks focused Marlowe’s sexual hunger almost exclusively on Vivian while also representing the man as someone in control.
This shift in attention not only downplayed the violence of Chandler’s original vision but diminished the corruption of the Sternwood family. While Vivian was clearly troubled, unstable and selfish, she was also smart, sexy and pliant. She could be made a good mate, given the chance, and Hawks presented her flaws as a sign of independence that could be tamed by the right man. As Vivian’s “bite” diminishes to low-grade poison, Carmen’s is rendered harmless in the face of Bogart’s controlled Marlowe. Bogart comes on a little too strong, a little too measured to be threatened by Carmen’s advances. As a result, the self-directed rage that jumps off the page in Chandler’s work becomes lost.
The romantic glow of Hawks’ The Big Sleep adopts most of the film noir tropes, but it lacks the sting of its contemporaries. Chandler’s words burn with pain and self-destruction, but Hawks — who valued strength, independence and action — neutered the inefficiency and hatefulness of Marlowe’s rage.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.