Great Scenes: The Big Sleep

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Originally posted on Row Three.

There’s pretty much nothing I don’t love about Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep – Bogart’s world-weary but somehow still idealistic private eye Philip Marlowe, the chemistry between him and Lauren Bacall (now an off-screen couple starring in their second film together), the cast of colorful supporting characters like Martha Vickers as Bacall’s crazy sister, the witty and caustic script, the florid dialogue, yes, even the fact that some of the mystery isn’t even resolved. I love the very messiness of it. But when I think back about The Big Sleep, the scene that usually pops into my head is essentially extraneous to the main mystery, is unrelated to Marlowe’s relationship with Bacall’s character, and is basically an all-but-unnecessary interlude to the entire rest of the film. I’m talking about the scene where Philip Marlowe goes to a pair of rare bookstores to follow up on a clue.

Now, there are two parts to the scene, set in two bookstores. The first is plot-essential, as Marlowe follows up on a clue that leads him to Geiger’s Rare Books – it is Geiger who holds the promissory gambling notes that are being held over the Sternwood family. It’s really the second half of the sequence in the second bookstore that I find so memorable, but I’ve included both in the clip merely because Bogart delights me so much in the first part. Marlowe affects an effeminate persona with far more ease than you’d expect, presenting the brusque clerk with a erudite proto-nerd in search of rare editions. But Geiger’s is a front, as Marlowe is hoping this conversation will prove, and he is correct – the clerk sluffs off his queries without ever realizing the books he mentions don’t exist, while surreptitiously motioning a suspicious-looking character into the back room. I love that even after their business is complete from a plot perspective, she goes out of her way to attack him for saying “CER-amics” instead of “cer-A-mics,” understanding at some level his contempt for her and determined to regain the upper hand – he rebuffs with a backhanded slag suggesting the superficiality of her knowledge, leaving her little recourse beyond a childish retort.

After Marlowe establishes that Geiger’s bookshop ain’t all about the books, the plot requires him to wait a little while so he can tail Geiger to find out more. This could be done in a number of ways, none of which necessitate the second half of this sequence. But instead, we get a tiny little evocative scene as Marlowe goes to the bookstore across the street ostensibly to get a description of Geiger, where the girl DOES know something about rare books, confirming what we’d already guessed about Geiger’s being a fake. More importantly, she’s a quick study and figures out almost before Marlowe tells her what he’s up to, and gives him a description of Geiger with a level of observation worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Her immediate connection to Marlowe is both a mutual admiration based on intellect perceived in a matter of seconds and an attraction based on the promise of a brief but memorable encounter with a detective (a rather dashing and dangerous profession, at least in the minds of those who read novels, as she likely does) – she doesn’t hesitate at all to close her shop to spend an hour alone with this man, a stolen interlude before she puts her glasses back on and returns to the librarian-esque stereotype of her job and he walks out the door to continue his romanticized detective work.

Watching this scene, it feels like there’s a whole story here, a whole movie that could be written from this woman’s point of view about her brief involvement with this mystery. We hope she turns up again in the story we see, but she does not. Her character doesn’t even have a name. Yet she feels like a fully-formed character, and Dorothy Malone gives her far more of a personality and a presence than the script really necessitates. In a mere three and a half minutes of screen time, she manages to make us forget about Lauren Bacall’s existence in the film, and make her single scene as memorable as anything else in this supremely memorable film. I’ve only seen Malone in this and in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (for which she won a well-deserved supporting Academy Award ten years after The Big Sleep), but based on those two roles alone, I salute her.