A while back I came across one of those on-line teasers: name five movies that you can watch again and again without losing interest. And, better yet, see or learn something new every time. I thought it would be interesting to mull over my choices in this space across the second half of summer. They will doubtless reveal as much about me as about cinematic greatness, and my reasoning may well expose ethical as well as aesthetic flaws that I might better keep hidden. Certainly my list is that of a white male boomer, but in the immortal words of Popeye, I yam what I yam. Here goes.
We start with The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers, 1946). More accurately, we start with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall knocking the lights out of a William Faulkner screenplay based on a Raymond Chandler novel, under the direction of Howard Hawks. Oh yeah, with a musical score by Max Steiner, the giant of his era. I’ll never forget how that rolling list of credits took my breath away the first time I saw it, on a big screen at some Yale film series in the unbearable stickiness of a New Haven summer. That venue was where I really fell in love with the movies—proven quality in black and white to stir collective memory and personal fantasy after another day of grinding out dissertation research in Sterling Library. The autumn and spring series had the additional bonus of student smokes curling up as the lights went down, and not a cigarette in the place. That’s a topic for another occasion, but the point of context adding to meaning certainly holds. As I reflect on my five choices, and also some in the second tier, it’s clear that the circumstances in which I first saw them figured deeply in their impact.
Ok, back to The Big Sleep. The film is typically celebrated for the hot chemistry and witty repartee between Bogart and Bacall. Then too, the script—I mean, Faulkner riffing off Chandler?!—is close to perfection. Hawks adds all the film noir touches: shadows, stairwells, stripes, all combined perfectly in Venetian blinds; rain and fog making those menacing city streets now glisten, now dim; dangerous dames and angling guys doing unto each other before it is done unto them. Finally bold, well-defined characters are immersed in (to put it mildly) a challenging puzzle of a plot. The complete package.
But what draws me into this configuration again and again? First, there’s the complexity and nuance of the film, the ‘something new’ you can learn every time you watch it again. For me, yesterday, the film’s artfully matched pairs registered for the first time. Obviously, the two Sternwood sisters—Lauren Bacall’s Vivian and Martha Vickers’ Carmen—draw the maximum contrast between the mature and calculating older sister, capable of love, and the younger vamp who can only pretend; much of the plot turns around Vivian protecting their aging father against the consequences of Carmen’s carelessness. The incompetent wannabe gangster, Joe Brody, stands (actually, falls) over against the masked viciousness of Eddie Mars. Harry Jones is the faux, cut-rate P.I. version of Philip Marlowe’s (Bogart) real deal, though the noble self-sacrifice of ‘Jonesy’ for his worthless girlfriend elicits Marlowe’s one admission of self-reproach and moral admiration. There are even two brunettes situated in bookstores across the same street: the one an ignorant fake who’s just working the angles, the other a book-learned innocent who turns out to be the real hottie once she takes off her glasses and, literally, lets down her hair.
Beneath these artful constructions, however, there remains the deep moral center of the movie—really, of the whole genre it incarnates so well. Not that it vends an easy or tidy morality. I’ve reflected before in this space on how the hard-boiled detective—at least at Raymond Chandler’s hand—is the literary version of neo-orthodoxy in theology. He takes us into a dark and dangerous world where purity is hard to come by and arrives through the performance of impure actions on an scary, ambiguous landscape. Let Chandler say it: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” This figure must resist the blandishments of a dominant American male story type, the success saga pioneered by Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and perfected by Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie. Therein, Wealth and The Girl are the icons of Having Arrived; our detective encounters them as the temptations that would fatally turn him away from his calling and integrity. The sultry Vivian tries to lure Marlowe off track in just this way; the novelty of The Big Sleep is that, having been tested and proven to possess integrity herself, The Blonde and The Detective can walk off the screen with the promise of enacting the legendary exchange they had earlier shared about ‘horse-racing’. The last lines of the film have Bogart asking Bacall, “What’s wrong with you?” Her reply, “Nothing you can’t fix.” Cut to closing credits scrolling over a shot of two cigarettes smoldering side by side in an ashtray.
At the end of my first semester of teaching, a zillion years ago, I was so exhausted I couldn’t do anything more than sit in a chair and read hard-boiled detective novels. I would watch for The Big Sleep whenever it showed up on late-night TV. The fantasy of a smart, omni-competent hero navigating the mean streets of our world unsullied and unafraid says things about a fatigued academic that I won’t pursue here. But the genre as a whole, and this supreme cinematic rendering of it, certainly casts in unforgettable images some home truths that a Calvinist can appreciate. We cannot purge the world nor overcome it nor move through it with cleanliness intact, but we can learn what are its deepest evils and resist them on behalf of ourselves and others. And if once in a while a Bacall wants to make nice at the end, hey, who says sanctification must come without earthly rewards?