Category Archives: Great Scenes

Great Scenes: The Big Sleep


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.

The Last Picture Hero

The title of The Last Picture Show has an obvious referent within the film: the single movie theatre in the tiny Texas town Anarene (not a real place, but based on real places) closes during the course of the film, and two of the main characters attend the final show. Yet the actual fact of the cinema shutting down does not, on the surface, seem to be important enough to rate its titular status. The characters aren’t cinephiles. There’s no great outcry against the closing of the cinema. The characters only go to see one other movie during the film, and they spend the majority of it trying to make out with their girlfriends. But writer/director Peter Bogdanovich is not merely choosing a title and event sure to interest his cinema-loving peers. Rather, the closing of the picture show serves as a tangible sign of the shift in American cinema and culture that the film as a whole presents. That shift is most clearly seen in the death of Sam the Lion.

Ben Johnson won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of town entrepreneur Sam the Lion, who owns the cinema, cafe, and pool hall. The “supporting” designation is accurate, since the younger generation led by Sonny and Jacy are the clear protagonists. On the other hand, it’s a tiny bit misleading, because Sam the Lion is the central, the foundational figure in the town and in the film. Sam represents the last of the classic Hawksian or Fordian heroes. (It’s no accident that Hawks’s Red River, starring John Wayne, is the last picture show.) He doesn’t talk too much, but when he does, it’s worth it. He protects Billy, the young boy who’s not quite all there, from the other kids who bully him. He lets Miss Mosey keep her job at the cinema long after she’s ceased to be useful in it. He comes down hard on Sonny when he joins in a humiliating gag on Billy [see clip below], but is quick to forgive him when the time comes.

It’s far too simplistic to suppose that Sam the Lion’s death half way through the film is the catalyst for the breakdown of the town. Jacy was off chasing college men at risque parties and Sonny was carrying on with the coach’s wife long before that. Sam doesn’t particularly comment on these goings-on, in fact. He’s the moral center of the Anarene world, but he’s far from a sermonizing moralist. Yet there is a relationship between Sam’s death and the loosening behavioral mores. Sam’s passing is inevitable because he belongs to an earlier generation. Not a perfect generation, or a generation that never sowed any wild oats – his monologue about Jacy’s mother shows that [see clip below]. But a generation with the inner strength and sense of personal honor that characterizes the heroes of Golden Age westerns and war films. (It’s not quite just a generational thing – at the very end of the film, no-one in the town, from old men to sheriff, is willing to stand up for Billy. Only Sonny keeps a glimmer of Sam’s love for the boy alive.)

When Sonny and Duane go to Mexico, Sam gives them extra cash, even though he knows they’ll probably spend it unwisely. When they return, barely able to sit up, they immediately try to find Sam, knowing that he’ll know the best way to stop their illness [see clip below]. But the sight of Sam waving them off to Mexico, half-sad that he couldn’t go with them, half-worried about them, but knowing that they had to do crazy stuff in order to grow up, was the last one they’d ever have.

From that point on in the film, Sam’s absence is a gaping hole in the life of the town. It’s not that everyone talks about him incessantly, or that everything falls to pieces without him, or that very much happens that wouldn’t have if he were around (nearly all of the events at the end of the film are set almost inexorably in motion before Sam’s death), but his absence is felt constantly by characters and audience alike. Before, there was always Sam to go back to if things got out of hand.

Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show in 1971, right in the middle of the “New Hollywood” renaissance in American film; it wasn’t his first feature, but it was his first major success as a filmmaker, after having been a noted film critic. He set it in the early 1950s, when the first post-World War II generation was coming of age. Thus, the film represents two crucial periods in American history – the shift in American culture in the 1950s and moving into the 1960s, as social mores started to change (see contemporary films like Rebel Without a Cause), and the shift in American filmmaking in the late 1960s and 1970s, led by Bonnie & Clyde, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (among others). Sam the Lion is passing in both. He belongs to the pre-war generation as well as to Old Hollywood. A trademark of New Hollywood is the combination of respect for Golden Age directors with a desire to push the envelope and find new ways to make films. This was the first generation of filmmakers who grew up studying films – the first set of American cinephiles, if you will. They knew their Hawks, their Ford, their Nicholas Ray, but they also knew that for American filmmaking to compete artistically with the Europeans, they had to find new heroes for a new time. Bogdanovich’s nostalgia for a time when Sam the Lion could be a viable hero is palpable. In fact, it’s much stronger than his assumed nostalgia for small-town America – to me there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love lost between him and Anarene. About the only good thing about Anarene might be that Sam the Lion was there. Without him, there’s little left in the town and most of the main characters move away as quickly as they’re able.

So The Last Picture Show really is the last picture show – the visible sign of the toll that Sam’s death has taken on the town, the death knell of Old Hollywood, and the passing of a uniquely American type of hero. It’s nostalgic, but it accepts the inevitable.