Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.
The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.
What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.
Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.
The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.
The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”
Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.
Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.
One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.
Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.
It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page. It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.
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Let’s not muck about: this was the best episode yet. The first twenty minutes to half an hour in particular, were as gripping as anything on TV. The quality of the opening alone made this the highlight of a bold series.
What made the beginning so absorbing was the reveal of the much talked of, but never seen, Peter Glickman, and some superb writing and acting. Indeed it was the acting above all else that made this so good, especially when Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse squares up to Anthony Sher’s Glickman. Before that unbelievably tense encounter though, we’re treated to Sher’s portrayal of Glickman’s alter ego Paul Donnelly, who lives a simple life as a clock shop owner in Ireland.
The unlucky passing of an old business associate, an American flashing plenty of cash, transforms our Irish accented and mild mannered old chap devoted to his clocks into a slick and ruthless criminal. The script excels itself as we see Glickman follow the man from his shop, cleverly work out the number of his hotel room and then pull off a near perfect murder.
The conversation between Glickman and the American in his room is chilling and realistic. The moment Sher’s performance switches from one persona to another is astounding. Glickman is a quietly menacing character very much in the mould of Gatehouse but also somehow on another, less predictable level. The murder itself was surprisingly brutal, jumping out at you just as Glickman is showing a compassion Gatehouse seems to lack and contrasting starkly with the meticulous but unnoticeable preparation.
Accomplished ad hoc killing complete, Glickman slots seamlessly back into the shoes of an old fashioned and harmless shop owner. He has cultivated the last resort escape route of his alter ego for twenty years, making regular but short appearances in Ireland as Donnelly to flesh out the believability. Echoing all the talk of him dividing his life into boxes in previous episodes, he describes his double life as a room kept ready for him and where nothing looks odd when he moves in full time, because really, he’s been there all along.
Despite his calculating nature and devious credentials to match Gatehouse, Glickman nevertheless seems more human than Stephen Rea’s character. He claims to have genuinely loved his girlfriend and to deeply regret not having the opportunity to say goodbye. Later in the episode he meets Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede for a dead drop on a bench, ignorant of the fact that he’s been banging the woman he misses. She has sought comfort in the arms of the florist/drug trafficker, somewhat predictably after last week’s flirtatious behaviour, because they both live in the “loneliness of the past” or something.
Anyway what do we actually learn when Gatehouse and Glickman have that awesome standoff? Admittedly I’ve been putting off an explanation because I’m not quite sure I’ve digested it all. But the big thing that surprised me, amongst the quick fire, back and forth dialogue was that Gatehouse is Glickman’s “controller”. I always assumed Glickman was the real big cheese and that Gatehouse was pissed because he’s the hired help, albeit a rather active, expert and efficient employee. But I guess a theme of the series is that people appear to have roles and responsibilities which they don’t, to protect the real puppet masters (e.g. Bede).
Glickman got Wratten out of jail because the two had been working together for thirty years. Gatehouse disapproved because Wratten was threatening to expose something massive, an extremely secretive operation called “Counterpoint”. Gatehouse implies he wanted the satisfaction of killing Wratten himself, rather than having him eliminated in jail. Glickman of course ends the conversation by trying to blow up Gatehouse, unsuccessfully, thus postponing the real showdown for a later date.
Crudely ejected from his cover life, Glickman tips off Gabriel about the drugs, kick-starting an unveiling of police corruption on a huge scale and taking us closer to the truth about Gabriel’s memory loss. The police are selling drugs from the evidence room (Honey and Gabriel discover UV codes; two sets from the police and one from customs) and even very top officers know about it. Gabriel, in trying to confront his superior, is confronted with his own apparent corruption and the extent of the rot. Blimey.
As if that wasn’t enough for one episode, Bob Harris pulls out of the deal to buy Bede’s drugs, only for his rent boy to bump him off and take his place. Someone must be backing him and this becomes one of the new mysteries, along with what exactly is “Counterpoint”?
As I’ve said before, this is a series that can infuriate as well as inspire, with some of the many references to “shadows” in this episode deflating the subtlety somewhat. But undoubtedly, The Shadow Line is now beginning to reward commitment in a big way.
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