Tag Archives: Philip Marlowe

Style on Film: The Big Sleep

This was the scene that made me sit up and start paying serious attention to the fashions of The Big Sleep, the classic 1946 film noir which is best remembered as the second movie to star the sizzling hot team of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The lady in the chic, tiered black dress didn’t even get her name in the titles – despite being more prominently featured than some of the other character actors. Her name is Sonia Darrin and she played Agnes, the hard-hearted dame who worked for the blackmailer Geiger. The first sighting of the movie’s leading lady Lauren Bacall finds her lounging in a stylish jacket, black trousers and loafers, as her character Vivian has an informal chat with private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogie).

Vivian and Marlowe’s next meeting is even less formal: he brings home her kid sister, the troublesome Carmen, who has been found drunk in charge of the dead body of her father’s blackmailer.

The next morning, Vivian visits Marlowe in his downtown office. The checked suit and beret combo sported by Bacall here is the best known outfit from The Big Sleep, and the publicity shots featured Bacall working what had been christened “The Look” – her unique way of holding her chin down and casting her eyes up as she spoke.

Bacall later explained that “The Look” had been born out of necessity: when she made her first film, To Have and Have Not, she found that the only way she could disguise her nerves, stop herself shaking and her voice from trembling was to hold herself like that.

A rendez-vous at a bar provides Marlowe and Vivian with a chance of trading a little bit more banter – and affords us a glimpse of one of the most contemporary-looking outfits of the movie: the shiny jacket..

Later that evening, in Eddie Mars’ casino, Marlowe discovers that Vivian – like only a couple of other film noir femme fatales – fancies herself as a singer. Wearing good-girl white (well, she is one of the least dangerous of forties FFs), she is the centre of attention – and quickly captures Marlowe’s interest once more.

And to finish? Two dresses for the price of one as both Agnes and Vivian feature in the next scene – the point in any normal thriller when matters come to a head and the real goodies and baddies are exposed. But this being The Big Sleep, the film with the most convoluted and confusing plot of them all (so convoluted and confusing that even the writer of the original book, Raymond Chandler, couldn’t say who had committed one of the murders), that doesn’t quite happen. Better to revel in the performances, the chemistry and badinage between Bogie and Bacall and the fabulous clothes.

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Chandler On Screen

It’s Film Noir weekend on BBC4, so it seems like a good time to talk about Raymond Chandler – especially since the 50th anniversary of his death earlier this year only seems to have been commemorated by the literary world.
 
More than any single director and more than most stars, the name Raymond Chandler is synonymous with film noir. It appears on the credits of three of the handful of movies which gave birth to the genre: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet (AKA Farewell My Lovely, its British title). These masterworks – directed by Billy Wilder, Edward Dmytryk and Howard Hawks respectively – are the grandparents of such diverse modern-day classics as the The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and LA Confidential.
 
 Chandler, an American educated in upper middle-class England, brought style and panache to the detective thriller. His laconic yet poetic descriptions and the wisecracking, cynical observations made by his alter ego, the “shamus” Philip Marlowe, set him apart from other crime writers.

His stories were more than merely whodunits – which is just as well, given that plotting wasn’t his forte at all. Indeed, so complex and confusing was the plot of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep that when Howard Hawks was in the middle of filming it, he had to wire Chandler to ask him who had committed one of the peripheral murders. After re-reading his own book, Chandler replied that he had no idea.

What distinguished Chandler’s stories and books was that they were rich in atmosphere and packed with quotable passages. The language was authentically slangy, and the banter between the sexes crackled with playful and witty eroticism.

So, in 1943, when Paramount Studios bought the rights to former journalist James L Cain’s taut novelette Double Indemnity, Chandler was hired to collaborate on the screenplay with the director Billy Wilder. The Austrian emigre director had decided that Chandler was the man for the job after reading The Big Sleep and being impressed with what Chandler biographer Al Clark called the “poetic toughness” of the writing. He also appreciated Chandler’s knowledge of Los Angeles and his instincts about the kind of duplicitous seductress they would be portraying in their script.

Despite this, working together turned out to be an ordeal for both men. Wilder later recalled that “there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler” while Chandler wrote to his publisher saying: “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonising experience and has probably shortened my life”. Nevertheless, the tense collaboration produced a seminal film noir.

Double Indemnity, like a typical Chandler novel, was told in flashback with its central character, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), narrating his story into a dictaphone as he lies dying. It featured a classic Chandler-esque “big-league blonde”, the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who entices the hapless hero into a web of murder and deceit. With its night shots, and shadowy sequences, it, to use the slang of the day, reeked from atmosphere; Wilder’s arresting images the visual equivalent of Chandler’s evocative descriptions.

Billy Wilder, whose great run of success really began with Double Indemnity, later said of his grumpy, alcoholic, middle-aged writing partner: “He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence.” He also admitted that he learned from Chandler “what real dialogue is”.

None of Chandler’s other forays into screenwriting in the 1940s were as successful – not even his excellent original screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 thriller which starred the popular team of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd and lent part of its title to the sensational, real-life “Black Dahlia” murder story that broke shortly after it opened in cinemas.

Of course, Chandler’s most easily recognisable gift to cinema is one of the most iconic screen personalities in movie history – of his private “dick”, Philip Marlowe. He made his movie debut under another name when the 1940 book Farewell My Lovely was used as the plot of one of the “Falcon” series of films about a gentleman sleuth played by debonair George Sanders.

Chandler’s Marlowe was no gentleman sleuth; he was very much a working, streetwise detective, available to hire for $25 a day (“plus expenses”). A loner with morals and a soft spot for the little guys whose inevitable deaths nobody else in the story cares about, Marlowe armed himself with a wry sense of humour despite being routinely “slugged” by brainless henchmen, and double-crossed by vampy blondes.

He has been portrayed numerous times on screen: Robert Altman’s spoofy The Long Goodbye (1973), has Elliott Gould portraying him as a pot-smoking slob in 1970s LA, while the reverential reworkings of Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978) cast Robert Mitchum as a crumpled, middle-aged Marlowe. James Garner had a crack at the character in the 1969 Marlowe, while back in 1947, the actor Robert Montgomery made an admirable attempt at recreating for the cinema the first person viewpoint of The Lady in the Lake by having the camera/viewer as detective.

By far the best adaptations of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, however, are The Big Sleep 1946) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on the book Farewell My Lovely. Both films met with Chandler’s approval, even though huge chunks of plot were lost as the stories were condensed for cinema audiences’ consumption.

The Big Sleep was rejigged at director Howard Hawks’s insistence so that the burgeoning romance between Marlowe and Mrs Rutledge onscreen – and Bogie and Bacall off it – was the main thread. But Chandler, who was the first to describe it as “a detective yarn that happens to be more interested in people than plot”, didn’t mind and actually felt that Humphrey Bogart was the ideal Marlowe. “Bogart can be tough without a gun,” he said. “Also, he has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.”

However, Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is pretty impressive too – especially when you consider that instead of being established as a tough guy, Powell had to shake off his image as the crooning, goody-two-shoes hero of a string of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. In addition to its stylish direction – by the about-to-be blacklisted Edward Dmytryk – it boasts a terrific script which was able to utilise excerpts of Chandler’s brilliant prose by retaining Marlowe as its narrator.

And it doesn’t get much better than this: “‘OK, Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm till you’re as crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now, let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

 
CHANDLER TRIVIA
* Walter Neff, the character played by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, was also the name of the local newspaper editor in The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
* Fred MacMurray only got the part of Neff after Wilder had been round the houses trying to find an actor willing to play the sap of an insurance salesman. Among those who turned it down were George Raft. As MacMurray later said: “If he’d got Bogart or somebody like that, the audience would have known instantly that the couple were going to knock off the husband.”
* Billy Wilder wasn’t the only director to have a hellish time working with Chandler. Alfred Hitchcock binned the screenplay that Chandler wrote for Strangers on a Train (1951) after the pair failed to see eye to eye.

* Two less well-known 1940s films were based on the Philip Marlowe story The High Window: Time to Kill (1942) – which starred Lloyd Nolan (best remembered now as the father in the 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters) and was one of the Michael Shayne series of movies – and The Brasher Doubloon (1947), which starred George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe.

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