The big question that is usually posed toward The Big Sleep is who killed who. Raymond Chandler’s novel answers many of the questions of killer identity quite definitively, but thanks to the confluence of the star system and the draconian censorship rules known as the Hays Code that controlled content in Hollywood from the mid-1930s through the early 1960, some plot points that are straightforward in the source material become quite murky in the film. As a result, debate has raged on through the decades over who exactly was responsible for which murders. Another important question has stirred even stronger debate about The Big Sleep through the decades and there is no definitive source material available to provide easy solutions.
The question can be framed thusly: is The Big Sleep a film noir or not?
Film noir is a particularly slippery genre of crime film that usually—though not always—is shot in black & white with extreme use of shadows and low camera angles, a persistent atmosphere of dread and a sense that destiny is completely out of the hands of those involved even as they vainly continue trying to search for some kind of meaning in the universe. Among those regularly involved in film noir is the leading man: a sap who more often than not is a recently returned veteran of World War II who inexorably finds himself inextricably intertwined with the film’s leading lady, a seductive woman who has become known in Hollywood history by the French term femme fatale. Together these two engage in an often fatal tango danced to the persistent beat of hardboiled dialogue and the irregular rhythm of moral ambiguity in which the honor among thieves is offset by corruption among law enforcement. And--more often than not--any gaps in the story that are not shown or adequately explained by dialogue is presented by the sap in a world-weary voice-over narration.
So now the question of whether or not The Big Sleep qualifies as a film noir can be boiled down into more easily digested parts: does the movie fit any, some or all of these typical—but by no means mandatory—elements of the genre?
The Search for Meaning in The Big Sleep
First things first: if ever there was a movie that is about the search for meaning, it is The Big Sleep. Of course, much of that search applies to the audience as well as the characters as they search for some sort of clue about what exactly happened. The nice thing about being an audience member confused by the events taking place within the film is that the characters seem every bit as perplexed. A pervasive sense of unease typifies just about every scene in the movie as characters try to make sense of seemingly senseless, disjointed and even random events. On this score, The Big Sleep hits a home run for those who assert is noir-ness.
Shadows of Noir
The overriding cinematographic signature of film noir are those long, dark shadows throw across walls, floors, ceilings and faces. This signature is initialed by low-angle camera placement and key lighting that may or may not make any actual real world sense. Perhaps surprisingly, The Big Sleep is fundamentally lacking any notable use of shadows, low angles or key lighting. In fact, The Big Sleep really looks indistinguishable from any number of hardboiled detective stories, crime movies or gangster flicks. So, is a film noir without shadows really a film noir at all?
The Sap and the Femme
Private detective Phillip Marlowe is no sap. Plain and simple. No getting around it. Leading lady Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge cannot even be included in the discourse since it is clear that all the attribute normally reserved for a femme fatale are to be found in Vivian’s teenaged sister Carmen. But Carmen cannot be considered a femme fatale since Marlowe’s interest is wholly directed toward Vivian. So, The Big Sleep does not have a sap and it features at best only a vestigial femme fatale.
Offscreen narration sometimes by an unknown omniscient observer and sometimes by one of the characters in the story is a staple of film noir. The voiceover narration in film noir is almost always male and usually presented in a world-weary tone that can give the impression of having seen it all or can contain a sense of bewilderment at the circumstances he finds himself, especially as those circumstances continue to swirl more and more out of control. The Big Sleep features no such narration.
Double Indemnity offers a textbook example of how hard-boiled dialogue was used in film noir and American detective movies to provide the context of the times. The characters of this style of speaking include sexually charged undertones and double meanings in scenes between a man and a woman, putting on a show of being a tough in scenes between two men, a faster rate of discourse that uses shorter words and sentences and often incomplete expressions of thought than is found in normal movie dialogue. The Big Sleep unquestionably meets the requirement for noir on the count of tough-talking guys and dames, although it doesn’t come anywhere near to using it as artfully as Double Indemnity.
So, is The Big Sleep a film noir or is it just another private detective movie? Take a look and judge for yourself.