Philip Marlowe is the hard-boiled private investigator at the center of the film, and serves as its protagonist. He is 38, has experience as an investigator for an insurance company, and working for the office of District Attorney of Los Angeles. Marlowe is confident, handsome, intelligent, and sharp with words. He is especially fond of heavy drinking, smoking cigarettes, and flirting with beautiful women. Marlowe is the quintessential noir anti-hero; his charm comes from his irreverence and his disregard for authority. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the truth and do the right thing, even if that means going outside the law to get answers. He is a true loner, never quite trusting anyone but himself. Marlowe is disarmed by the witty and intelligent charm of Vivian Rutledge, and in her he finds his feminine match. The couple spars and teases with a dynamic chemistry, which increases Marlowe's investment in the case. He is a macho man with a soft side, a craggy crime-solver with a tender touch.
Sternwood is an elderly millionaire, who is paralyzed from the waist down. We meet him only once in the film, but he is the reason that Marlowe takes on the case to begin with. He has been blackmailed by Geiger, so hires Marlowe to investigate the indiscretions of his daughter, Carmen. A sickly old man who can only thrive in a heavily heated greenhouse, Sternwood is presented as gentle and kindly, but also anxious to stay out of the public eye in light of the scandals surrounding his wayward daughters.
At first sight, Carmen appears to be a delicate, attractive, appealing and innocent figure. Soon, however, she reveals herself to be the embodiment of a stereotypically rich, spoiled, and unsupervised young woman. Furthermore, it is suggested that she is in need of professional medical attention for her apparent nymphomania. She is wild, reckless, and oversexed, biting her thumb compulsively in a flirtatious manner and sexually pursuing nearly every man she meets. When she is rejected, she becomes angry and rash, as evidenced when she bites Marlowe's hand after he rejects her, and in the revelation that it was she who killed Sean Regan when he rejected her. Carmen is a wild and impetuous brat, characterized by Marlowe as Sternwood's "not so wonderful" daughter.
While it is not made obvious until later in the film, Eddie Mars is the central villain of The Big Sleep. Seemingly the placid and non-violent owner of a gaming club, Eddie Mars is involved in many serious crimes, but never convicted. He hires thugs and gangsters to do his dirty work, which helps him maintain a distance from his crimes. He is the antithesis of Marlowe in many ways: dishonest and crooked.
We never meet Sean Regan, but he was once a friend of General Sternwood's, who mysteriously disappeared about a month before Marlowe becomes acquainted with the Sternwoods. While he is rumored to have run off with Eddie Mars' wife, it is later revealed that Carmen Sternwood killed him after he refused her sexual advances.
Carmen's older sister, Vivian, isn't any less seductive or attractive than her sister, and like Carmen, she hides many secrets. But Vivian has a smart sophistication that Carmen lacks, and she does not struggle with the same damnable vices as does Carmen. Marlowe describes her as "wonderful," and is instantly taken in by her clever coolness. While she is not oversexed like Carmen, she does have vices of her own, including an interest in gambling. Vivian is also depicted as fiercely protective of her sister, even attempting to take the blame for Carmen's murder of Sean Regan. Ultimately, having fallen in love with Marlowe, she helps him apprehend Eddie Mars and serve justice.
Taylor, the Sternwood's chauffeur, is another character who we never meet. He was in love with Carmen, which leads him to kill Geiger. While the circumstances of his death are unknown, early on in the film he is retrieved by the police from a sunken car that drove off a pier.
Carol Lundgren is a business associate of Arthur Geiger, and attempts to avenge Geiger's death by killing Joe Brody. Little does he know that it was not Brody who killed Geiger, but Owen Taylor. Carol Lundgren is soon handed over to the police following his impulsive act of revenge.
Arthur Gwynn Geiger
We never meet Geiger, but he is the initial antagonist of the film, blackmailing General Sternwood. He lives in a house owned by Eddie Mars, where he takes salacious photos of Carmen Sternwood. Owen Taylor kills him.
Joe Brody is an associate of Geiger's who is unjustly murdered by Carol Lundgren, who thinks he murdered Geiger.
Agnes is the clerk of Geiger's "bookshop." She is initially antagonistic towards Marlowe, but eventually gives him the important information that Mrs. Mars is hiding out in the house behind Art Huck's garage.
A cop who is a friend of Marlowe's. While the D.A. office does not want Marlowe getting too involved in the Sean Regan case, Bernie gives Marlowe his blessing to continue investigating.
The butler who works for Sternwood, dutiful and polite.
Harry Jones is yet another criminal, a friend of Brody and Regan. As Marlowe notes, he is a small man, who is in love with Agnes, and even drinks a poisoned drink given to him by Canino in order to protect Agnes's safety.
Canino is Mars's gunman, a cruel and senseless gangster.
Mona Grant is the devoted wife of Eddie Mars. She hides herself in order to protect him, operating in the state of denial about her husband's criminal record.
The cowardly owner of the garage behind which Mona Mars lives in hiding.
The Big Sleep (1946 Film) Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Big Sleep (1946 Film) is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.