The first important symbol in The Big Sleep occurs before it even begins. As the credits end, we see a man in silhouette lighting both his cigarette and the cigarette of a woman standing beside him. They then place the cigarettes side by side to rest on an ashtray. For movie buffs, the couple is instantly recognizable as the iconic duo Bogie and Bacall, and so before we have even been introduced to Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge, we are clued in to the fact that they will have a special bond. The cigarettes represent the compatibility and chemistry between Marlowe and Vivian, and foreshadow the fact that even though Marlowe is a quintessential lone wolf, he finds someone who can keep up throughout the course of the movie. By the end of the film, as the end title card appears, the cigarettes are still there in the ashtray, a symbol of Marlowe and Vivian's enduring bond and the promise of longterm companionship.
General Sternwood's Orchids (Symbol)
In the first scene of the film, in which Marlowe meets General Sternwood and learns what Sternwood wants him to do, Sternwood points out an orchid in his overheated greenhouse and asks if Marlowe likes orchids. "Not particularly," Marlowe responds, to which Sternwood says the following: "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption." Sternwood often speaks in a flowery manner (no pun intended), and this is no exception, as he designates the orchid as a symbol of corruption. As the viewer will see in the film, corruption, especially as it relates to questions of "the flesh," is present throughout. Indeed, Sternwood's youngest daughter is corrupted by her own boundless sexual desires. The orchid represents the corrupting influences and sexual intrigue that Carmen Sternwood has unleashed, and which set into motion the conflict of the film.
Fog and Rain (Motif)
Although the film takes place in Los Angeles, a notoriously sunny locale, the weather in the film is often dreary, foggy, rainy, or otherwise poor. As Marlowe plods his way through the complicated and confusing course of events, he drives down foggy, windy streets towards both literal and figurative unknowns. The weather serves to underline the confusing state of affairs, and has the same obscuring effect of the plot. The truth is never quite clear, things are never as they seem, and danger is lurking behind every corner. The bad weather is a motif that emphasizes this.
When we first hear about the Sternwood girls, we learn that they are both somewhat wild. Sternwood describes Vivian as smart, ruthless, and exacting. We also learn quickly that she is an avid gambler, which is not a particularly ladylike hobby for a wealthy girl like her. When Marlowe meets Vivian, her finds her charming and provocative, bantering and sparring with him playfully, and proving her mettle as a conversationalist. In a way, he perceives her temperament as a kind of gamble, which piques his interest. She is not afraid to throw in her "two cents," as it were, and take a risk for a good outcome. This is most directly shown when the two use horse racing as a metaphor for their mutual sexual attraction.
Vivian's actual interest in gambling is also what gets her into so much trouble. By associating with Eddie Mars, the owner of the gambling house, and relying on him to help her cover up the indiscretions of her sister, Vivian makes herself vulnerable to his corruption. Even if it is a dangerous and seedy operation, however, Marlowe is charmed by her at the gambling house, when he sees her singing a song, and finds her playing at the gambling tables. Her "un-ladylike" behavior is, on some level, what makes her appealing. It proves that she is tough and substantial in some way. Thus, the motif of gambling represents has two sides, both favorable and unfavorable. At times, it is a flattering habit, and at others, a corrupting and dangerous one.
The Title (Allegory)
The whole movie serves as an allegory for the dangers and pitfalls of life, and the title, "the big sleep," refers to death, a state of permanent unconsciousness. Many people die in the film, so one has to be very careful and scrappy in order to survive the dangers that abound. But the world of the living is also one of corruption, crookedness, and unsavory underworlds. Through his job, Marlowe has become cynical and hardened, untrusting of most, and pulled into a corruptible world of sin and unlawfulness. Thus, the "big sleep," as a metaphor for death, is not only a negative idea, a danger, but also a kind of relief from the depravity of the world. In the original novel, author Raymond Chandler writes, "You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now." Thus, we see that to Raymond Chandler, the big sleep represented not only death, but a kind of relief from the "nastiness" of life.
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.