We see a man lighting a woman’s cigarette in silhouette as the credits roll. The music, by Max Steiner, is dramatic and portentous. We see a door, with a sign that reads “Sternwood,” and we see a man press the buzzer. A butler comes to the door, where he finds a man who introduces himself as “Mr. Marlowe.” Mr. Marlowe follows the butler into the grand Sternwood residence and looks around. “I’ll tell the general that you’re here,” the butler tells him, and Mr. Marlowe looks around. Suddenly a young girl in shorts comes down the staircase. Marlowe greets her, and she looks him over, before commenting on the fact that he’s not that tall. Seductively, she walks towards him and tells him that he’s “not bad looking” before asking his name. “Doghouse Reilly,” he tells her. She comments on how funny the name is, and asks him what he does. He responds that he’s a “shamus,” or a private detective. “You’re making fun of me,” the girl says, before falling backwards into his arms, and saying, “You’re cute.”
They are interrupted by the butler, who tells Marlowe that the general is ready to see him, catching the young girl in Marlowe’s arms. The girl walks away, and when Marlowe asks who the girl is, the butler tells him that it’s Carmen Sternwood. “You ought to wean her, she’s old enough,” jokes Marlowe. Marlowe goes through two French doors into a large greenhouse, where he finds the general sitting in a wheelchair. The general invites him to sit, and asks the butler, whose name we learn is Norris, for brandy. The general tells Marlowe that he used to like his brandy with champagne “cold as Valley Forge.” “I like to see people drink,” he tells Marlowe, who laughs at the scene. General Sternwood then invites Marlowe to take off his coat, remarking that the temperature in the greenhouse is quite hot. He invites him to smoke also, saying that he now enjoys his vices “by proxy,” explaining that he is paralyzed in both of his legs. “I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider,” Sternwood says, drawing Marlowe’s attention to his large number of orchids. When Marlowe says he does not particularly like orchids, Sternwood agrees, saying they are too much like humans, and they smell like “corruption.”
When Sternwood asks Marlowe about himself, Marlowe tells him that he’s 38, that he used to work for the District Attorney’s office, and that Bernie Ohls, the chief inspector, is who put him in contact with Sternwood in the first place. Marlowe then tells Sternwood that he was fired from the District Attorney’s office for insubordination, before telling the old man what he knows about his family: he is a widower millionaire, with two daughters, one of whom is unmarried, and one of whom married a man named Rutledge a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. Both of Sternwood’s daughters live with him, and Marlowe describes them as “both pretty, and both pretty wild,” which seems to make Sternwood uncomfortable. Sternwood tells Marlowe that he is being “blackmailed again,” elaborating that a year ago he paid a man named Joe Brody $5,000 to stay quiet about his younger daughter. Previously, a man named Sean Regan had been under the employ of Sternwood and had handled the case, but he recently left him, without so much as a goodbye. The men discuss Sean Regan further; Marlowe knew him from transporting rum over the Mexican border, while Sternwood elaborates that Regan “commanded a brigade in the Irish Republican Army.” Marlowe did not know this particular detail about Regan.
Marlowe gets up to pour himself a drink, telling Sternwood that he was happy to hear that Sternwood had employed Regan. Sternwood replies that Regan was practically a son to him, that he sat with him in the hot greenhouse and told him stories about the Irish Revolution. Sternwood then hands Marlowe an envelope, which says “Arthur Geiger,” and contains a note detailing a number of gambling debts belonging to Sternwood’s youngest daughter, Carmen, whom Marlowe just met. The notes also contain Carmen’s actual signature, agreeing to pay her debts. When Marlowe asks Sternwood if he has confronted Carmen about it, he tells him that he has not and he doesn’t intend to. Marlowe then asks if Sternwood’s other daughter is involved in the gambling mess, but Sternwood tells him that she is not. He gives him more information on Vivian, the other daughter, however: “Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart, and ruthless.” He describes Carmen as “still a little child who likes to pull the wings off flies.” Walking towards him, Marlowe advises Sternwood to pay Geiger, since Carmen did in fact sign the papers.
Marlowe then asks Sternwood about Joe Brody, whom Sternwood paid $5000 the previous year, but Sternwood doesn’t remember anything more than that Brody called himself a gambler. When Marlowe asks Sternwood if he thinks the current debts are gambling debts, Sternwood gravely says, “No,” suggesting that they’re related to Carmen’s sexual impropriety. Marlowe agrees to take Geiger off Sternwood’s hands, but warns him that it might cost him something, before leaving. Having exited the greenhouse, Marlowe runs into the butler, who tells him that Vivian Rutledge wants to see him before he leaves, and that he will give him a check for whatever amount Marlowe requires to get the job done. Marlowe assures the butler that he doesn’t need any money now, but when he does, he will need $25 a day plus expenses. He then interrogates the butler about how Vivian Rutledge even knew he was there, and the butler tells him that she saw him through the window and asked who he was.
Marlowe goes into a nearby room where he finds Vivian pouring herself a drink. She teases him for his sweaty clothes and short stature, which seems to charm Marlowe. They engage in witty banter, and Vivian asks Marlowe about the case that her father has hired him for. When he asks for a drink, she tells him to make it himself, before warning him that he ought to handle the case with the least amount of worry for her father, who isn’t well. “How did you like Dad?” Vivian asks him, as she walks over to open up a window. Marlowe tells her that he liked him, before Vivian mentions that Sternwood always liked Sean Regan, and that she wants Marlowe to find him, as Regan’s disappearance “broke Dad’s heart.” Marlowe becomes impatient with what he sees as Vivian’s “cagey” attitude, and puts her down, which angers her momentarily. When Marlowe asks Vivian what she wants to know, she questions him about whether her father even hired Marlowe to find Sean Regan, and tells him that Regan left about a month ago without a word about why. “They found his car parked in some private garage,” she says. Marlowe tells her that while Sternwood mentioned Regan, that’s not why he has been hired, and leaves. In the foyer, he runs into Norris the butler, to whom he says, “You were wrong, Mrs. Rutledge didn’t want to see me.” Norris apologizes, and tells Marlowe that he makes “many mistakes,” before leading Marlowe out the front door.
We see the sign for the Hollywood Public Library as the scene shifts. Inside, Marlowe makes a note while looking at a book about “Collectors’ Items.” He puts the note in his inside jacket pocket and brings the book up to the librarian. “You don’t look like a man who’d be interested in first editions,” the librarian tells him, to which he retorts, “I collect blondes in bottles too.” The scene shifts again and we see Marlowe outside Arthur Geiger’s place of business, a rare book seller. Marlowe puts on sunglasses and goes into the store, where he asks the saleswoman about a “Ben Hur 1860,” affecting a voice. When she says she does not he asks for a “Chevalier Audubon 1840.” The woman tells him she does not have any of the books he is looking for, and Marlowe asks to see Mr. Geiger. As the woman tells Marlowe that Mr. Geiger isn’t in at the moment, a man enters the store. As Marlowe turns to see who it is, the woman does a hand signal towards the man which Marlowe doesn’t see. The man walks past and goes through a nearby door that the woman buzzes open for him. The woman then yells at Marlowe, “I said Mr. Geiger is not in!” Marlowe excuses himself, making up that he has to go to a lecture.
Outside, Marlowe takes off his sunglasses and walks across the street to another bookstore as thunder erupts overhead. At “Acme Books,” he asks the woman who works there to do him a favor. He asks her if she’s ever seen Arthur Geiger and if she knows him by sight, and that he just asked to see Geiger, but the woman at the store wouldn’t help him. He then asks the woman if she has the Ben Hur or the Chevalier Audubon, and she goes to check, but soon realizes that neither such book exists. Marlowe smiles at her and tells her, “The girl in Geiger’s bookstore didn’t know that,” which leads the Acme salesgirl to say, “You’re beginning to intrigue me vaguely,” and she begins to tell Marlowe about Geiger. Geiger is in his 40s, medium height, “fattish, soft all over, Charlie Chan mustache, wears a black hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn’t any, and I think his left eye is glass.” Marlowe tells her she’d make a good cop and goes to watch the Geiger store from the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Geiger.
The salesgirl tells him that Geiger’s store doesn’t close for another hour and that it’s raining pretty hard, making eyes at him all the while. Marlowe tells her that he has some rye with him, and the girl goes and closes the shade on the door of the bookstore, telling him that she’ll close the store early so they can drink and spend time together while he waits to spy on Geiger. She asks Marlowe to tell her more about his business, but Marlowe asks her to take off her glasses before answering, to which she agrees. She lets down her hair and takes off her glasses as Marlowe pours them some drinks, and her transformation gets Marlowe’s immediate approval. They drink as the scene shifts to later on. We see the woman go up to the window and tell Marlowe that Geiger’s car has just driven up across the street. A man gets out of the car, whom the woman tells Marlowe is named Carol Lundgren, “Geiger’s shadow.” Marlowe thanks the woman and leaves, patting her on the arm with a quick, “So long pal.”
He walks out into the rain and sees Geiger being brought out to his car by Lundgren. Marlowe gets in his car to follow them, as the scene shifts to a street sign that reads, “Laverne Terrace.” Geiger’s car pulls up in the rain and Lundgren goes up to the door. Not far behind, Marlowe pulls up and watches. Another car approaches and Marlowe ducks down. A woman gets out of the second car and runs into Geiger’s house. Putting on a raincoat, Marlowe walks over to inspect the woman’s car. He gets in the driver’s seat and turns on the light, finding that the car indeed belongs to Carmen Sternwood. Marlowe gets out of the car and goes back to his own. While he waits in his car, smoking a cigarette, he suddenly sees a great flash in one of the windows of Geiger’s house, hears a scream and a gunshot. Running towards the house, Marlowe struggles to open the door as someone runs out of the house. The unseen person gets in the car and drives away before Marlowe can see who it is.
Marlowe rushes towards the house and goes in. He finds the room well lit, and sees Carmen sitting in a chair. Geiger’s dead body is crumpled on the floor, and Marlowe wanders over to Carmen and sniffs her drink. Carmen appears inattentive, seemingly intoxicated or on drugs of some kind, and Marlowe continues to examine the room, finding a strange camera hidden inside a Buddha’s head. This leads him to realize that Carmen has been getting her photograph taken in the house. Marlowe wanders over to Carmen—who giggles to herself, clearly high—and slaps her face gently. She looks at him, and says, “You’re cute,” and Marlowe responds, “You’re higher than a kite,” and questions her about Geiger’s dead body. He helps her to her feet and leads her to the couch, instructing her to be quiet. Marlowe then goes back to the camera, which he finds empty, the film having been taken out. He continues to snoop around the room while Carmen sleeps. Opening a notebook, he finds an entry labeled Sternwood; the text is some kind of code, which he puzzles over a moment, before pocketing it and closing the door. He looks over at Geiger’s body, wakes Carmen up, and leads her out of the house.
From the start, the viewer is invited into a curious world filled with mystery and intrigue, the kind of world that is characteristic of a film noir. The eccentric General Sternwood lives the secluded life of a wealthy invalid, thriving on heat “like a newborn spider” in a large greenhouse at his gigantic mansion. Also curious is the seductive young woman, Carmen Sternwood, who lives at his residence. Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, is the prototypical noir protagonist, craggy, witty, self-possessed, and well aware of his tendency towards “insubordination.” There is no exposition or background at the start of the film, and the viewer is instantly brought in to a strange world, Marlowe leading the way. Indeed, the film sets out to depict the life of a private detective as consistently unusual, filled with strange characters and even stranger circumstances. Film noir is known for its atmosphere of mystery and danger, and The Big Sleep wastes no time establishing such an atmosphere.
The Sternwood sisters, while different from one another, seem both to occupy the role of “femme fatale,” or at least to exhibit the tantalizing and mysteriously amoral qualities so typical to female characters in film noir. Carmen particularly is portrayed as oversexed, flirtatious, and uncaring about the consequences of her actions, an untrustworthy but beautiful woman who can entrap men without thought of its consequence. Vivian is a bit more complicated. As Sternwood describes her, Vivian is “spoiled, exacting, smart, and ruthless.” When Marlowe meets her, he develops his own opinion of her, and seems initially charmed by her wit and irreverence, but quickly sees that she cannot quite be trusted. Both of the Sternwood sisters are presented as dangerous in some way by their father. This is in keeping with noir traditions, in which female characters are rarely pure or innocent and seem to always present a threat to both male sexuality and male safety. In this case, their chronically-ill father must bear the brunt of their careless attitudes, and does so with the belief that he deserves it all for having chosen to have children at such an old age.
Vivian and Marlowe’s repartee is almost immediate, as the two begin a verbal dance with one another. Vivian’s attitude is one of almost immediate skepticism and distrust, which seems to charm Marlowe as she insults him. It is clear that Vivian wants to know just what her father hired him for in the first place, but her motives remain unclear. Even though Marlowe is charmed by her initially, he soon realizes that she is not to be trusted, especially since he has been employed by her father. Lauren Bacall’s performance as Vivian is understated and intelligent, her deep, knowing voice lending Vivian a savvy sophistication that belies an intensity and a charisma that disarms the usually-unflappable Marlowe. While he does not fall prey to her dynamism, Marlowe is undeniably intrigued.
Indeed, nearly every woman in the beginning of the film is presented as either a threat or a seductress. Nearly every domain contains a woman practically throwing herself at the sardonic and lovably self-effacing Marlowe (and in the case of Carmen Sternwood, she does throw herself at him—“she tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” Marlowe says). Even the women who work at the library and a bookstore seem ready to abandon their bookish posts to pursue the magnetic private detective. At the library, the librarian goes out of her way to flirtatiously comment on the fact that he doesn’t look like the kind of man who would be interested in rare books. Then later, at Acme Bookstore, the bespectacled woman who works there initially has a dismissive attitude when she starts talking to Marlowe, but in the blink of an eye changes her tune and begins sending him seductive looks. The difference between a scolding spinster and an appealing date is as simple as the removal of the girl’s glasses, at Marlowe’s request. It is as though Marlowe’s sex appeal nullifies the necessity of eyeglasses. Indeed, Marlowe’s appeal seems to attract sexual attention from all women, even when that attention is laced with belligerent dismissiveness, as with Vivian Rutledge.
The first section of the film presents the viewer with a number of mysterious variables. Sternwood hires Marlowe to get Geiger off his trail, but there also appears to be a parallel mystery at stake: Sean Regan’s mysterious disappearance. Both of these intriguing and disturbing mysteries are left vague, and members of the Sternwood family seem to have different amounts of information. When Marlowe goes to investigate Geiger, he discovers that Geiger is running an apparently illegal operation, on the simple evidence that his clerk seems to know nothing about rare books. Additionally, when he follows Geiger to the house, he hears Geiger being murdered and rushes into the house to find Carmen “higher than a kite” and a strange camera set up, its film nowhere to be found, as well as a notebook filled with a kind of code language. The film has a markedly convoluted and multifarious start, and the viewer is as much in the dark as Marlowe.