The Big Sleep (1946 Film)

The Big Sleep (1946 Film) Summary and Analysis of Part 4: The Sean Regan Case


Marlowe arrives at Eddie Mars’ gaming house and walks up to the front door, where he is let in by an employee. Inside, he asks a scantily clad woman where he can find Mars, and she goes to find him. Marlowe walks into a large gambling room, but stops when he hears a kind of sing-along taking place in a nearby room. When he goes to investigate, he finds Vivian leading the sing-along, and watches from the doorway. As she sings, she spies Marlowe in the doorway and waves to him. The scantily clad woman comes back and collects Marlowe, leading him to meet Mars. On the way, he passes the two thugs from Geiger’s house, who tell him that Mars is waiting for him.

As Marlowe enters the room, he sees Eddie Mars, who welcomes him and makes him a drink. Mars compliments Marlowe on how he has handled the whole situation, and asks him how much he owes him. “For what?” asks Marlowe, to which Mars responds, “Still careful, huh?” Sitting down, Marlowe asks for information on Sean Regan, but Mars says that he already heard that Marlowe got that information from the Bureau of Missing Persons. Marlowe asks him where Regan is, but Mars says he has no idea. Marlowe then asks if Mars had him killed, which Mars also denies. Mysteriously, Marlowe reveals, “I used to know Regan,” and goes on to tell Mars that he has come to realize that General Sternwood is likely worried that Regan is mixed up in the blackmailing business. Mars tells Marlowe that Sternwood can rest assured that the blackmailing was “Geiger’s own racket” and Regan was not involved. Mars says, “When Geiger and Brody got killed, that washed the whole thing up.” Mars then complains about Vivian, that she isn’t well-liked at the gaming club, and she often ends up with IOUs. Laughing, Marlowe assures Mars that he will keep Vivian out of the gaming club, and goes to leave the room.

Mars agrees to let him take a look around, and before leaving, Marlowe says, “There’s one thing that puzzles me: You don’t seem in much of a hurry to find that wife of yours, and from what I can hear, she’s not the kind of wife a guy wants to lose. Could it be that you know where she is, and maybe Regan too?” Mars’ eyes widen as Marlowe says this, but he maintains his composure, telling Marlowe to mind his own business. Marlowe then asks if Mars has anyone following him in a Plymouth coupe, but Mars denies this too. Marlowe leaves.

In the lobby, two scantily clad waitresses try simultaneously to tell Marlowe that Vivian wants to see him, directing him to the center table in the dining lounge. He passes the two thugs, who also try to deliver the message that Vivian wants to see him, and also inform him that Vivian has just won 8 bets in a row. Marlowe goes to Vivian’s table, where he finds her gambling and arguing with a man. Mars enters, and asks what the problem is. After she tells him she wants to place another bet, he agrees to bet against her, one against one. Before they spin the wheel, Vivian asks Marlowe if he’ll drive her home later, and he agrees. When they spin the wheel, Vivian wins a large sum, which suggests that she has a lot of money. She collects her money, as Marlowe gets the car.

Outside, Marlowe gets in his car and notices something suspicious. He pulls a small pistol out of his glove compartment and gets out of the car again, looking around. Crouching behind his car, Marlowe sees one of Mars’ thugs come out of the gaming club. As Vivian comes out of the gaming club, the thug crouches beside a car, preparing to rob her. As she walks out to her car, the thug pops out and threatens her at gunpoint, asking her to hand over her winnings. Luckily, Marlowe comes to her aid, holding a gun up to the thug and disarming him. Vivian takes her purse back, and Marlowe punches the thug in the face, knocking him to the ground, unconscious. Marlowe opens the car door for her and tells Vivian to stop pretending to tremble. She assures him that she’s “not used to getting hijacked,” but Marlowe doesn’t buy it. He believes the hijack was faked for his benefit, and that Vivian and Mars are undoubtedly in cahoots.

As they drive away, Marlowe asks Vivian why she’s still shaking, and stops the car abruptly. When Marlowe asks what Eddie Mars is holding over Vivian, she tells him it’s none of his business, and that he should stop snooping around, as she’s already paid him. “Why don’t you stop?” she asks, and Marlowe suggestively responds that he doesn’t want to stop because he’s taken a liking to her. He kisses her tenderly, before once again asking, “What’s Eddie Mars got on you?” Marlowe details what he knows: that Vivian winning a large sum of money was staged, as was the altercation with the thug outside. The staged events were meant to put Marlowe off their case and convince him that they are not connected to one another, but it doesn’t work. He’s on to them. “Take me home,” she tells him, but Marlowe wants to see the money she won, suspecting her bag to be empty, which would prove his point that it was all an act. She refuses to show him and he agrees to drive her home, but tells her he won’t take care of her anymore.

When he arrives home, Marlowe finds Carmen waiting for him. After her usual attempts at seduction, she reveals (at Marlowe’s prompting) that she never liked Sean Regan, because he didn’t pay attention to her and treated her like a baby. When Marlowe asks her what she thinks of Eddie Mars, she tells him she doesn’t know him, but that he often calls Vivian up on the phone. For the first time, Marlowe believes that she’s telling the truth, and tells her to get out of his apartment. She doesn’t want to, and when he tries to help her stand up, she bites his hand childishly. Marlowe then angrily pushes her out the door and locks her out.

The next day, Marlowe wakes up to a call from Bernie, who informs him that it’s 2 PM. Marlowe agrees to show up at Bernie’s office. The scene shifts to Bernie’s office, where Bernie tells Marlowe to “lay off the Sternwood case,” as ordered by the DA. Bernie goes on to tell him that they’ve been driven away from the case by Vivian, and Marlowe responds, “There’s no law says a man can’t work on a case without a client…just to keep his hand in.” Bernie doesn’t want to get involved anyway, telling Marlowe that he was just told to transmit the message to lay off the case. Marlowe outlines the case thusly: “A nice old guy has two daughters. One of them is, well, wonderful. And the other one is not so wonderful. As a result somebody gets something on her. The father hires me to pay off. Before I can get to the guy, the family chauffeur kills him! But that didn't stop things. That just starts 'em. And two murders later I find out somebody's [Mars] got something on wonderful [Vivian]....Last night, the two of 'em...they went to the moon to prove to me there was nothing between 'em. But I think there is and I think it's got something to do with Sean Regan.” Bernie nods, alluding to the fact that Mars’ wife has likely run off with Sean Regan, and gives his subtle blessing for Marlowe to continue investigating. Marlowe leaves.

At a cafe, Marlowe sits at the counter thinking the case over, before going over to a nearby payphone and calling the Sternwood residence. He tells Norris the butler that he wants to meet with General Sternwood, but Norris informs him that Vivian is anxious to talk with him, and puts her on. Marlowe goes to the counter and the waitress behind it lights his cigarette, as we hear Vivian calling to him on the other end of the phone. He eventually picks up, and Vivian informs him that they’ve found Sean Regan, who has been in Mexico and has been unwell from an accident. Vivian then tells Marlowe that she’s going to visit Sean, but that they haven’t told the General Sternwood about the whole thing yet. “Have a nice trip,” he tells her, and hangs up.

Walking down the street through the fog outside, Marlowe spots the Plymouth coupe that’s been following him, and looks inside to check the registration. The car belongs to someone named Harry Jones. Marlowe walks away from the car, but is apprehended by the two thugs, who beat him up viciously, trying to intimidate him from investigating the case further. After they leave him, lying on the ground, a man emerges from the shadows and approaches Marlowe and helps him up, introducing himself as Harry Jones, the man who’s been following him. Jones helps Marlowe back to his office, where Marlowe washes his face and cleans up. When Marlowe asks Jones what he wants, Jones tells him that he has “something to sell” for $200, and asks Marlowe if he wants to know who he is. Marlowe already knows that he’s one of Joe Brody’s friends and that he is now working with Agnes.

“What do you want?” Marlowe asks Jones definitively. Jones tells him that he has information that Marlowe wants, and that for $200, he can tell him where Eddie Mars’ wife is. This piques Marlowe’s interest, as Jones tells him that Agnes found Mrs. Mars, and that she will tell Marlowe when he pays them. Marlowe agrees, and Jones gives him an address to meet them at in an hour. Marlowe watches Jones leave. The scene shifts and we see Marlowe entering what appears to be an abandoned office building, the place that Jones told him to go. He climbs the stairs to a quiet hallway and slowly approaches the designated room, listening in at the door.


In this section of the film, Marlowe continues to try to figure out why everyone seems to want him to leave the case alone. After his date with Vivian, where she tries to pay him off and assures him that the mystery is over, Marlowe hears the same thing from Mars, who tells him that “when Geiger and Brody got killed, that washed the whole thing up.” While most would find this to be adequate reason to move on, hard-boiled detective Marlowe doesn’t take the bait and their assurance that everything is back to normal only bolsters his conviction that nothing is as it seems. The more he is dissuaded from digging deeper, the more Marlowe wants to know. Marlowe is a true detective, endlessly curious and doggedly motivated to learn the truth of the matter, even when his employees don’t want him to.

This desire to go beyond the formal call of duty and to shirk orders is an almost archetypal characteristic of the noir anti-hero. While the detective in a noir is always employed by someone, and always has ties to the police, he also always knows that he must tread the path alone, and that he can trust no one. Such is the case with Marlowe, who pursues the truth with a fervor, seeking out the help of others, but never trusting anyone to do something he could do himself. In spite of his chemistry with Vivian, he never lets his growing affections for her cloud his judgment, and he does not trust her with any information that might hurt him in the long run. Additionally, Marlowe maintains a close allegiance with Bernie, while also making sure he doesn't get involved. Bernie trusts Marlowe’s ability to go it alone, but does not want any part of it. Marlowe is a lone wolf, and his best partner is himself. This solitary heroism, the belief that one must go outside the system to achieve any real results, is a common trait of the noir anti-hero, as typified by Philip Marlowe.

Even if he does not fully trust Vivian, Marlowe is undeniably attracted to her and charmed by her unexpectedly bold and competent personality. She is not a typical lady—she spends her money at a gaming house, speaks frankly about sex, and keeps up a confident banter with Marlowe that gives him a run for his money. When Eddie Mars explains to Marlowe why Vivian isn’t very popular at the gaming house, Marlowe laughs appreciatively at the stories of Vivian’s boldness. Her ability to play with the boys and hold her own makes her all the more attractive to Marlowe, who is looking for a woman who has as tough a comportment as he does. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall represented this kind of well-matched toughness, onscreen and off. Their marriage in real life was the stuff of Hollywood legend, and their chemistry is part of what makes this film such a classic.

In this section of the film, photography is used in a more inventive way to tell the suspenseful and complicated story. While much of the photography has been straightforward, shot from straight ahead in realistic settings, here director Howard Hawks uses some more unexpected angles. When the thug approaches Vivian, attempting to steal her gambling winnings, we see their reflection in the rearview mirror of a car. The photography distances the viewer from the action in a somewhat disorienting way, putting us more in the perspective of Marlowe, and building the suspense of the moment. Here Vivian is threatened at gunpoint to give up her earnings, and as the tone becomes more tense, the perspective becomes more fragmented and unclear. Also, by framing the interaction in a mirror, Hawks makes the scuffle seem more staged. Marlowe believes that the thug staged the interaction to fool him, but he is hard to fool, and he takes the hijack as proof that Mars and Vivian are conspiring together. The use of the mirror to frame what proves to be a staged altercation only adds to its “staginess.”

Another feature of this chapter of the story is the stark contrast between the two Sternwood daughters. This fits in with conventions of noir, in which personalities are more commonly portrayed as types. As Marlowe describes it to Bernie, one of them is “wonderful” (Vivian), while the other one is “not so wonderful” (Carmen). In this section of the film, we see each sisters’ virtues and vices. While Vivian clearly has something fishy going on with Eddie Mars, she is the perfect charming woman in Marlowe’s eyes all the while: she sings in a seductive warble, commanding a room with her charisma, she likes to gamble, and she can banter better than any man. Even though she might have some skeletons in her closet, she is, by Marlowe’s account, wonderful. Contrastingly, Carmen is an absurd caricature of a nymphomaniacal young woman. She bites her thumb compulsively, in a babyish seduction, she shows up at Marlowe’s house presumably to have sex with him, and when she is shut out and rejected, she becomes vindictive and violent, biting Marlowe’s hand like a wild animal. Thus the two sisters are portrayed as polar opposites; where Carmen is immature, compulsive, and sloppily oversexed, Vivian is sophisticated and deliberate, with a witty and womanly sexuality.