Our Director Series on Robert Altman is partially responsible for a look at The Big Sleep, as the overlapping rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue characteristic of Altman’s films was first characteristic of the films of Howard Hawks. Toss in the fact that the source material is by Raymond Chandler and the fact that William Faulkner himself helped write the screenplay, and The Big Sleep is still one of the finest American film scripts ever committed to celluloid.
Private eye Philip Marlowe has appeared in a few films – notably portrayed by Elliott Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye (also Altman) and then by Robert Mitchum in both 1975 and 1978 – but Humphrey Bogart’s time in the role is the most valuable. He’s Marlowe in the way that Sean Connery is Bond: it’s not the only portrayal of the character…but yeah, it’s the only portrayal of the character. Marlowe’s investigation into a whole host of strange occurrences rolled out one after another, starting with the disappearance of one Sean Regan, provides the drive for the film. But one solution inevitably leads to two more problems in The Big Sleep, and there’s little hope of piecing everything together into a neat little answer to “so what actually happened?”
The script, again, is king. This is a major reason why The Big Sleep is so often referred to and imitated but never truly recaptured, and the humor in the dialogue is unparalleled. Marlowe is that perfect ’40s noir hero (is he a “hero”? Let’s come back to that question), constant womanizing but not without a trace of actual heart, constant quips, seemingly leaning against something when there’s only cigarette smoke in the air around him. He’s not too dissimilar from a lot of other Bogart characters, except that Marlowe is sharp enough to merit such an actor wearing those shoes. The case, likewise, is so frustratingly complex that only a guy like Marlowe could even attempt to keep up with it.
Speaking of which: there’s never any need to make this winding and weaving case “personal”, which is distinctly at odds with basically every crime/superhero/action/adventure movie you see in theaters these days. Take every single Liam Neeson movie of the past half-decade, most of which come complete with the tagline This time it’s personal as if that weren’t already apparent; take The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel, featuring heroes who can’t just fight bad guys but have to fight bad guys with hundreds of explicit links to their own genetics and history; even the aforementioned James Bond, who is arguably the epitome of the it’s-nothing-personal hero, recently had things hit much closer to home in Skyfall with a villain who just wants revenge, not world domination (and Bond gets notably pissed when his Aston Martin gets blown up – that’s right – because it’s personal). Is it bad to have a protagonist with an emotional investment in the plot? Of course not. But every single movie doesn’t need that trope to survive, and The Big Sleep is the proof.
And besides, pit the two against each other: the man who is reluctant to fight crime but has no choice, or the man who does have a choice (and could easily choose to just drop it at any moment) but for some reason just doesn’t. Which is more noble? Hell, which is more interesting? Marlowe ends up with Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge at the end of it all, and the emotion in that ending is as great – if not greater – than any emotion that could have been mined from making one of the dead bodies a relation of Marlowe.
So is he a hero? Yes and no. Your definition of the word could include someone fighting for what they believe in or fighting for a cause or for love or lust or for family, rather than just fighting. Telling women to shut up and shooting people with little provocation might disqualify him from the hero running in your estimation. Maybe some alleyways of the world have never seen someone who could truly fit that bill. Inasmuch as The Big Sleep can have such a thing, Marlowe is your man.