Film Noir Conventions in The Big Sleep

by Smart

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) begins with an entirely classic film noir thrust. An unseen guest, soon to be revealed as the film’s protagonist, Humphrey Bogart, is greeted by a butler at the front door of a mansion. “My name is Marlowe. General Sternwood wanted to see me.” Immediately the audience is attached to Detective Philip Marlowe and for the rest of the film will ride alongside him into the dark and mysterious underbelly of crime that he ambles into. Born out of the anxiety caused by World War II, film noir is an interesting genre in that

“it is impossible to locate either in the films themselves or in the critical discourse surrounding them a set of consistent features usually attributed to the “classical” phase of noir: the hapless private investigator, femme fatale, gritty urban setting, convoluted story structures.” (Arthur, 2001).

It seems that it is much more a ‘sense’ of noir that one feels when watching that is requisite to recognising the conventions of the genre. The Big Sleep transcends to an even higher level of intricacy through the way it plays with and denies many of the established film noir visual, narrative and representational conventions.

Film noir is visually one of the most complex and identifiable film genres. It lurks in the absence of light, the dark of night, and the shadows of society. The Big Sleep utilises a number of the conventions that embedded themselves under the title of film noir during the 40s and 50s. However, it is important to note that the majority of the visual techniques used in film noirs are borrowed and are not enough on their own to categorise a film as a noir. Firstly, on the absolute surface, is the fact that The Big Sleep was filmed in black and white. Though shooting in black and white would have been an obvious choice at the time, it was still a key element in the films construction, and there are clear indicators that it was used to deliberate effect. Filming in black and white by itself is a very stylistic exercise. It forces heavy contrast where normal colour photography would have far less. It emphasises objects in the light and buries everything else in the shadows. On a metaphorical level, low-key lighting works to show how the truth is being kept shrouded in darkness, as this is parallel to the narrative mystery in The Big Sleep and also the recurring theme in film noirs of moral ambiguity. Obviously the power to manipulate light in this manner is vital when trying to tell the type of dark stylized stories that film noirs frequently revolve around.

Black and white costuming can also be used symbolically to represent the traits or allegiances of a character. In The Big Sleep Lauren Bacall’s character Vivian is initially dressed in white colours. This represents her purity, her innocence; it tells the audience that she is to be viewed as being on the side of good. In contrast to this is Geiger’s bookstore assistant, Agnes. She is visibly portrayed as being on the side of evil as she is adorned entirely in black. This is also done after Vivian double-crosses Marlowe and she now also appears dressed in black. At times the colours of black and white are put side-by-side. In The Big Sleep this is achieved through the use of venetian blinds. The slatted nature of venetian blinds creates an even share between light and dark as it spills across a room. This suggests that despite how clear some aspects of the mystery may seem to Marlowe, there is still much he has yet to find out that remains cloaked in darkness and a victim to ambiguity.

Much of the camera work in film noirs is not particularly distinctive, at least not across a range of directors. The Big Sleep “creates its night-world of rain, mist, and smoke entirely within a studio, with the camera always at eye level” (Naremore, 1998). This approach to studio filming may seem unadventurous, but it does have a few merits, the main benefit being the viable creation of artistic sets. The Big Sleep has a distinct flavour from set to set, and each work in a way that maximizes on the contrast between light and dark.

“Film noir is a genre identified by a variety of stylistic conventions: unsettling or otherwise odd camera angles, the dramatic use of shadow and light, hard-boiled dialogue, settings that emphasize isolation and loneliness” (Conard, 2006: 41).

As Marlowe chases Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty) down a flight of stairs there are exaggerated shadows of both Marlowe and the banister that creep up against a wall. This effect was engineered to give the setting an ominous feeling of paranoia and movement. The use of overbearing shadows is one of film noirs greatest conventions for creating the ‘isolation and loneliness’ mentioned above. At the final location of The Big Sleep the mist is low and thick in the outdoor scenes. This invokes a dreadfully eerie feeling during a gunfight, and alludes to the difficulty of not being able to see objects in the distance when they are veiled under fog.

On a narrative level, The Big Sleep is a hard film to follow. It is convoluted and filled to the brim with extraneous dialogue and unexplained occurrences. There are a number of double and even triple crosses throughout the film. Halfway in the story suddenly changes directions and switches to the mystery surrounding Sean Regan, leaving the previous ‘gambling debts’ storyline in the dust. Even more baffling is the death of the Sternwood’s chauffeur Owen Taylor, which is left entirely unexplained. These inconsistencies and blank areas are common place in film noir narrative. “Hollywood movies are frequently accused of being formulaic. A marginally less hostile way of making the same point is to say that they are conventional.” (Maltby, 2003). The Big Sleep is in many ways exceedingly formulaic. The narrative has a number of standard twists and turns, double crosses and dramatic confrontations. The final outcome with Marlowe and Vivian together, although not entirely conventional for a film noir, is a tested and proven audience pleaser. The film’s approach to violence is characteristic of the hardboiled crime dramas of which it is a part. We repeatedly see people shot and wounded and women dragged around and slapped. Marlowe is put in the centre of this violence and can change in an instant from handing out punches to being on the receiving end of a beating.

Metaphors and symbolism factor heavily into film noirs. Females are not simply female because of their anatomy; they are representations of different personas inside a patriarchal society. The world is a cynical and pessimistic place in The Big Sleep. Marlowe traverses this rocky moral plane without a care for the lives or fates of others. The private eye lifestyle is represented with a degree of glamour, but also gangsterism. Marlowe dresses well, he wears a typical detective trench coat and hat and he smokes constantly. He is free to threaten and exploit people to his every whim. However, The Big Sleep does deny a common narrative convention of the film noir genre by allowing the story to conclude with the flourishing relationship between Marlowe and Vivian. “Marlowe’s misogynistic streak is replaced by a cynicism which erodes as the developing romance with Vivian consolidates. In a typical film noir, male/female relationships are doomed” (Tomlinson, 2000). This romance also brings about character development in Marlowe that is generally absent in the protagonist of many film noirs.

After the private detective, the most prominent archetype in a film noir is usually the femme fatale. A femme fatale is a woman who “refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence” (Blaser, 1996). The Big Sleep starts out with the introduction of two potential femme fatales, the sisters Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian Sternwood. Vivian’s character is interesting in that she denies many stereotypical conventions of the femme fatale. “Her costuming is a subtle denial of another stylistic convention of the film noir genre: the sinister allure of the femme fatale – Vivian wears not passive and seductive whites, but active and assertive jackets and collars” (Slattery, 2001). Dressing her in such a way evokes power in her character which allows her to go toe to toe with Marlowe in their conversations. She does not rely on her physical attributes to seduce him and as such their relationship feels more genuine than that formed with a typical noir female. Carmen however is a far less pure character. She uses sex profusely as a means to getting what she desires, although Marlowe is able to resist her flirting.

It is not surprising, considering the nature of film noir, that the institution of the family is represented in such a negative light. “In the film noir thrillers the family often operates as a metaphor for social discontent” (Krutnik, 1990). The Big Sleep centres on the Sternwood family and their various ties and relations to outsiders. The family has no mother present, and the two daughters are both wild and free from their father. Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron) is both literally and figuratively crippled. He is limited to his wheelchair and this is representative of his detachment from and lack of understanding of his daughters. The only thing that indicates that the Sternwood’s are even a family at all is that they all live inside the same house. That house, however, is a giant, cold, clinical, empty mausoleum. It reflects on both the daughters and their father. For Gen. Sternwood it is the embodiment of his entrapment. He cannot move either physically or emotionally and this is shown by how he keeps himself tucked away in a separate wing of the house from his offspring. In contrast to this we have Carmen. Her character is in stern opposition to the residence and she wishes to break free from its confines. Her behaviour and attitude are reckless and irresponsible, not ordered or tidy like the interior of the Sternwood home.

When one looks at each location throughout The Big Sleep a trend emerges. On the interior the walls are high and angular and houses look overly decorated and flashy. This crowded sense of space feels duplicitous and authoritative. Staircases are often seen leading to places the audience has no knowledge of, heightening the already ever-present sense of mystery. Certain locations are given visual tagging, such as a street sign appearing on screen, or Geiger’s letterbox which is visible each time an establishing shot of his house is shown. This is common in film noir and allows easy identification when a location is revisited multiple times. It creates a spatial understanding of the scope of the mystery and also reminds the audience how close by danger can lurk. In a way it harks back to the intricate use of sets in the German expressionist films of the 1920s, where the locations were used to calculated effect and to manipulate audience emotions and understanding.

In The Big Sleep Howard Hawks challenges multiple film noir conventions while still managing to stay true to the genre as a whole. The film draws much of its power from the screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The superfluous dialogue held between these two characters moulds perfectly into the intricate and inexplicable plot line. Key visual features create metaphor and meaning while the studio made sets encroach with claustrophobia and paranoia around the characters. Shadows creep out from every possible angle and mist and rain echoes across the urban jungle-like streets. Marlowe is a traditional representation of a private detective that lives in violence and falls in love; he dresses sharp and talks sharper. The women are beautiful and idolised as sex objects by men; they use their charms to get things done but succumb to the male dominance in the end.