The Big Sleep (1946 Film)

The Big Sleep (1946 Film) Summary and Analysis of Part 2: Geiger & the Photographs


Marlowe goes to Sternwood’s house, where he is greeted by Norris. When he asks to see Sternwood, Norris tells him that Sternwood is asleep. They are interrupted by Vivian Rutledge, whom Marlowe informs that Carmen is outside. Vivian follows him outside to collect Carmen. Marlowe carries Carmen into the house and lays her down on a bed, as Vivian asks him if he is responsible for Carmen’s unconsciousness. Marlowe replies sarcastically, and refuses to tell Vivian what happened, even though Vivian—a concerned and protective sister—wants badly to know. “Don’t even ask her,” Marlowe advises, to which she responds, “She never remembers anyway." Here, Marlowe takes an opportunity to ask Vivian what Carmen remembers about Sean Regan, which visibly startles Vivian. “What did she tell you?” Vivian asks, trying to play it cool, to which Marlowe responds, “Not half as much as you just did,” and grabs her arms. Thunder crashes and Marlowe threatens to slap Vivian, but leaves the room abruptly, wishing her “goodnight.” Norris helps Marlowe with his jacket and Marlowe instructs him to tell anyone who asks that Carmen has been in all evening, and that Marlowe never came by.

Back at Geiger’s house, Marlowe goes back in to examine the evidence. Entering tentatively, he finds the room dark, so turns on the light and snoops around looking for clues. Geiger’s body is gone, and only a pool of blood is left on the floor. After examining several rooms, Marlowe leaves, as the scene shifts to show Marlowe’s office door. In his office, Marlowe looks over papers, when suddenly he is interrupted by a buzzing. It is Bernie, an associate of his, who enters and looks at the papers on Marlowe’s desk. Marlowe asks Bernie what he wants, but Bernie is vague, even though, as Marlowe points out, it’s rather unusual for someone who works in the homicide sector to come to his office at 2AM. Bernie observes that Marlowe is working on cracking the code that he found at Geiger’s house, but Marlowe shrugs off his decoding work. When Bernie asks about the Sternwood case, Marlowe tells him that he only just started working for them and lies that he hasn’t done anything yet. “They seem to be a family that things happen to,” Bernie tells him, before adding that a car belonging to the Sternwoods has been found floating in a nearby body of water, “off Lido Pier.”

Marlowe offers Bernie a cigarette as Bernie tells him that there was a man’s body found in the car. When Marlowe asks if it’s Sean Regan’s body, Bernie vaguely remembers that Regan is “that Irish ex-legger Sternwood hired to do his drinking.” Bernie invites Marlowe to join him in his investigation of the Lido Pier, which Marlowe accepts. As Marlowe goes to get his coat, Bernie snoops around on his desk, looking at the cipher. The two men leave the office as the scene shifts.

We see the car, a Packard, being pulled up from the water slowly. Marlowe and Bernie approach a cop named Ed, who tells them that the dead man in the car is named Owen Taylor, and was Sternwood’s chauffeur, according to his license. The car went through the railing and into the water at about 9:30 PM. When they question a doctor about what happened, the doctor tells them that Taylor’s neck was broken and that he had a bruise on his temple, likely from something previous to the accident. All of a sudden, another man tells Bernie that the hand throttle of the car was set halfway down, perhaps another salient piece of evidence. Bernie and Marlowe walk away, Marlowe confessing that he thinks that this was neither a drunk driving incident nor a suicide. When Marlowe asks Bernie what he knows about Owen Taylor, Bernie informs him that several of the other Sternwood chauffeurs lost their jobs after being seduced by Carmen Sternwood. After hearing this, Marlowe agrees to tell Bernie more about the Sternwood case, that he has been hired to follow a case of blackmail. “This doesn’t look like the way you’d handle it,” says Bernie, alluding to the death of the chauffeur. This stops Marlowe in his tracks. “Me? I didn’t do this,” he assures Bernie, who laughs at him.

The next day, as Marlowe enters his office, he finds Vivian Rutledge waiting for him. She teases him for coming in to work so late, and he invites her into his office. Vivian apologizes for her behavior the previous evening—“Perhaps I was rude”—to which Marlowe responds, “We were both rude.” Marlowe then tells Vivian that he learned about Owen Taylor the previous evening, and that he learned that Taylor wanted to marry Carmen. Vivian reveals that Owen Taylor was in love with Carmen, pulling out a piece of paper, and once again asking Marlowe to tell her what Sternwood has commissioned him to do. Marlowe tells her once again that he cannot disclose his business with her father without her father’s permission, as Vivian hand him a letter that was brought to the Sternwood residence that morning. It is a picture of Carmen taken by Geiger along with a number of negatives. Vivian tells Marlowe that the photographer has asked for $5000 for the negative and prints. After the photograph and negatives were delivered, a woman called Vivian and told her the sum.

When Marlowe asks Vivian why the blackmailers would want 5000 for the photos—he doesn’t think they are worth it—Vivian informs him that there is some kind of “police jam” connected to the photographs, which could get Carmen put in jail. Marlowe asks Vivian if she’s spoken to Carmen, but Carmen was asleep when she left. She then tells Marlowe that Norris told the police that Carmen was in all evening, when they came to ask about Owen Taylor. When Marlowe asks why Owen Taylor had the car, Vivian tells him that Taylor took it without permission, and Marlowe suggests that perhaps Owen Taylor knew about the photograph. Vivian appears nervous, scratching her leg and playing with her glove, and Marlowe becomes more and more impatient, demanding to know more about why Vivian didn’t go to the police, suggesting that perhaps the police would have turned up something that would ruin the Sternwood’s reputation. Defiantly, Vivian looks him in the eye and asks to use his phone, on which she calls the police to report the blackmailing incident, but before she can speak to anyone, Marlowe pulls the receiver out of her hand and confuses the police officer on the other end. Vivian and Marlowe take turns speaking to the confused police officer, pretending that he called them by mistake. By preventing Vivian from getting in touch with the police, Marlowe shows her that he is willing to take on her case.

Marlowe hangs up the phone. “You like to play games, don’t you?” Vivian smiles at him. “Why did you stop me phoning?” she asks, and Marlowe tells her that he is working for her father. As he sits down on the desk beside Vivian, he adds that he also doesn’t want to go through the police, because he’s “beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods,” implying his growing affection for Vivian. When he asks her if she has the $5000 requested, she tells him she can get it from the gambler, Eddie Mars. Marlowe is surprised that Vivian is a gambler, but she assures him she is, and that she has been a “good customer of Eddie Mars,” and can likely get the money from him. She elaborates that the Sternwoods and Eddie Mars are also bonded by the fact that “Sean Regan ran off with Eddie’s wife.”

Marlowe stands and asks Vivian whether Sean Regan is mixed up in the blackmailing situation, and she says that he is not. When Marlowe asks Vivian to tell him what she’s trying to figure out—since she keeps bringing up Regan—Vivian becomes defensive. Marlowe says, “It’s a funny thing: you’re trying to find out what your father hired me to find out and I’m trying to find out why you want to find out.” When Vivian begins to leave, Marlowe asks her how she left it with whoever called about the photographs, and she tells him that the woman is due to call her back at 6 that evening with instructions. Marlowe tells Vivian to call him when she’s heard from the woman, and she begins to leave, but she forgets the envelope with the negatives. “As long as you’re going to pay 5 grand for the rest of these, you’d better take this one with you,” he says, handing her the photographs. As she tries to leave she finds the door locked, which Marlowe assures her “wasn’t intentional.” “Try it sometime,” she tells him.

The scene shifts to Marlowe coming back to Geiger’s bookstore, where he finds the rude woman from before sitting at the desk. “Remember me?” he asks, putting on the hat and sunglasses from before. She stands and tries to tell Marlowe yet again that Geiger isn’t there, but Marlowe is stern and persistent. As she tells him to come back the following day, a young man comes out of the back room, catches a glimpse of Marlowe and retreats back into the room, as an older man coaxes him back, calling him Carol. As Carol closes the door behind him, Marlowe asks her, “His name’s Lundgren isn’t it?” The woman advises him yet again to come back the following day, and Marlowe leaves, suspicious that they will make a run for it that day.

Marlowe gets in a cab. The driver is a woman, and when he tells her they’re going to be following a car, she responds, “I’m your girl, bud.” He suggestively replies, “It wouldn’t be bad,” as they begin tailing a station wagon coming out of the alley behind Geiger’s bookstore. They follow the car to an apartment complex, and Marlowe reads a buzzer with the name “Joe Brody” attached to it. He then notes the name of the apartment complex, “Randall Arms,” and gets back in the cab that he arrived in. The cab drops him off, and he pays the driver, who gives him a card and offers to work for him whenever he needs her.

The scene shifts and we see Marlowe pull his car up in front of Geiger’s house. He walks over to the house, where he finds Carmen hiding behind a nearby bush. She stands, and he introduces himself as “Doghouse Reilly,” the name he used when he introduced himself to her on their first meeting. She laughs and Marlowe grabs her arm and leads her into the house. They find it dimly lit and empty. He asks her if she remembers anything from last night, and she becomes defensive. Marlowe doesn’t buy her act, however, and presses her to tell him what happened. “Are you the police?” she asks him, but Marlowe tells Carmen that he’s a friend of her father’s, before directly asking her who killed Geiger. “Was it Joe Brody?” he asks her, but she tells him that she doesn’t know who Joe Brody is, and continues feigning ignorance. As Marlowe walks away from her, she abruptly confesses that Joe did in fact kill Geiger. Marlowe asks her why he killed him, but Carmen says she doesn’t know. “But you’re ready to tell the police he did it? That is, if we can get the photograph he’s got,” he says to her. Carmen is shocked that he knows about the photograph, as Marlowe tells her that Brody took the photograph with him the previous evening, and she tells Marlowe she has to go. Before she leaves, Marlowe warns her not to say anything to anybody (not even Vivian) and to not go to the police.

“Just leave it to Reilly,” Marlowe says to Carmen. As Vivian snickers and corrects him—his name isn’t Reilly—the door buzzer goes off and the two look over at the door. When neither answers it, it buzzes again and we hear someone trying to open the door. A man comes in and asks for Mr. Geiger, but Marlowe tells him that they don’t know where Mr. Geiger is, and that he and Carmen just stepped in to find out about a book. The man tells Carmen that she can go, but that he wants to talk to Marlowe, threatening that he has two boys in his car if Marlowe doesn’t agree to talk to him. Marlowe dismisses Carmen, who walks out somberly. After she’s left, the man tells Marlowe that his story doesn’t sound quite right, and walks around the house smiling menacingly. As Marlowe takes out a cigarette, the man looks at the blood on the floor, before telling Marlowe, “I think we’ll let the police in on this.”


Part of Marlowe’s expertise as a private investigator is his ability to know when to disclose information and when to withhold it. His discretion is part of his masterfulness as a detective. When he returns to the Sternwood residence, he stays long enough to get the information he needs from Vivian (that Sean Regan is more important than anyone had initially let on), before telling the butler, Norris, to keep mum on all that he’s seen. Marlowe approaches his work methodically, and no piece of evidence or realization is treated carelessly. When he speaks with Bernie from the homicide department, he barely lets on that he knows anything about the Sternwoods or has had any interaction with them. Even though he has already seen so much, Marlowe is intent on keeping his discoveries to himself until he knows more.

Marlowe’s relationship to Vivian remains tense but curious, and also reveals itself to have threatening undertones. When Marlowe returns Carmen to the Sternwood residence, Vivian and Marlowe attempt to learn more from one another, but remain mutually untrusting. While their tension contained a certain amount of chemistry and playful flirtation in their first meeting, in the face of drama and danger, their rapport is markedly tense, culminating in a moment of threatened violence. When Vivian fails to give Marlowe the information that he wants, he scolds her for her incorrigibility, saying, “I don't slap so good around this time of evening.” Their playfulness is replaced with the threat of violence, as Marlowe holds down her hands and leers at her. Vivian’s charms and wiles no longer hold sway over Marlowe’s affections in this moment of heightened tension following the death of Geiger. In The Big Sleep, as in most film noir, sexuality contains an undercurrent of violence.

For all its frustration, however, Marlowe and Vivian’s relationship maintains a flirtatious combativeness when Vivian visits him at his office. She coyly teases him for sleeping in, and he in turn invites her into his “boudoir.” With a few apologies for their “rude” behavior the previous day, the two are back to a sparring conviviality, and it once again becomes a battle of wits. While neither of them is at liberty to give the other what he or she wants, they dance around the topic with a mutual interest and an unusual respect, even if neither of them can quite trust the other. As their intimacy deepens, Vivian reveals herself to be not simply a femme fatale, but a savvy protector of her family’s reputation, and a compatible sidekick to Marlowe. Likewise, Marlowe shows her that he is willing to take on her case, even if it means going behind the police, which earns him some of Vivian’s trust. Vivian is almost as unflappable as Marlowe, rarely becoming overemotional or thrown off course, and the two even share a playful prank phone call to the police, exchanging covert smiles as they pass the phone back and forth. Slowly Marlowe and Vivian are revealed to be one another’s match.

At the center of the mystery is Carmen Sternwood’s sexual impropriety, her loose morals, and her association with Arthur Geiger. In fact, Carmen Sternwood is the image of vice, as she tries to seduce every man in her path, gets “higher than a kite,” and seems to hang around with unsavory low-life criminals. Compared to Vivian Sternwood and Detective Marlowe, Carmen is the image of corruptibility. The tone of The Big Sleep is foreboding and ominous, as if around every corner is an unseen danger waiting to corrupt those who are not strong enough to resist it. If Marlowe represents a stalwart resistor, never taken in by such seductions and vices, Carmen is the opposite, completely tainted by the world, even at her young age. The film presents Carmen’s moral center as unsalvageable, and so Marlowe and Vivian must set to work saving that which is salvageable—the family’s reputation.

The film remains very vague and confusing throughout this second section of the film. While climactic events occur, their meaning and the events surrounding them remain ambiguous and unexplained. Carmen ends up at Geiger’s house, clearly on drugs and in some kind of backroom photo shoot. Marlowe finds Geiger’s body on the floor. The Sternwood’s former chauffeur drives a car into the ocean, and incriminating photos of Carmen surface. For all of these dramatic events, very little information is revealed. Marlowe continues to wonder, who is Sean Regan? Why doesn’t Vivian want to go to the police with her case? The confusing mysteries of the plot are perhaps best encapsulated in Marlowe’s line to Vivian: “It’s a funny thing: you’re trying to find out what your father hired me to find out and I’m trying to find out why you want to find out.” No one, including the viewer, knows quite enough about just what is going on.