It is virtually impossible to understand what the fuck is going on in this film. Seriously. I watched it more than a dozen times, and the plot remains completely opaque. The Big Sleep is a detective movie directed by Howard Hawks, and based on a novel by Raymond Chandler. It’s a classic film noir, but in a way it’s an exception – it’s a great film that doesn’t make sense. Usually when you leave a film and you’re still wondering who killed who, and why, and when, it signals to you that the film you just saw was a failure. Not so with The Big Sleep. This movie is no failure: it’s one of the 100 best American films, according to the American Film Institute. But how does it avoid being a failure? The answer lies in this question: how can you enjoy a movie when you don’t understand the plot?
For many people, plot is the most important part of a movie. This is perfectly valid. The story is what keeps us watching; it’s what involves us. Excepting more experimental approaches to the narrative form, we rely on the plot to take us through a film. In recent years, this structure has been occasionally toyed with – take Christopher Nolan’s Memento and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for example. In a way, these movies do the same thing to their audience that The Big Sleep does. When watching a David Lynch film, you know that he knows you might not understand what’s going on. But there’s an implicit trust there, between you and the director. The Big Sleep takes your trust and crushes it like so many cigarettes. The film’s numerous plot recaps serve only to confuse you further. Phillip Marlowe, the detective character, figures everything out, and he’s got no more information than the audience does. Maybe he’s just better at his job. Why would a movie do this to its unsuspecting viewer? Is the director trying to torture us? Well, maybe.
Let’s do a recap of our own: integral to film noir, and crime fiction for that matter, is the cityscape. Like the plot, it twists and turns, down back alleys and into hidden courtyards. The detective must master the space in order to master the case. That’s all well and good for him, but we, the audience, have no clue where we are, at any given point; we are perpetually lost. We’re lost temporally as well, partially due to Marlowe’s odd hours (is it dawn or is it dusk?), and partially because the nighttime shots were clearly filmed in daylight and altered later on. Add to this the fact that characters and their relationships to each other are introduced at such rapid-fire speed that we never know who anyone is.
We are strangers in a strange land. But this is all part of the film noir ethos that this movie encapsulates with such skill. The post-war period here is a time of incomprehensible danger, faceless enemies, and cynical disillusionment. We’re in the dark, because the world is dark. Film noir evolved from the gangster movies of the 1930s, but in this genre no one learns their lesson, and we can’t moralize because we can’t know anyone’s crimes. Characters are killed by mere shadows for no apparent reason, and the truth is always unknowable. Grafted onto this backdrop is a labyrinthine plot, and a hero who drinks his lunch out of a bottle. So that feeling of confusion, that impotent urge to blame someone that this film whips up in its viewer, gets cast not on any one character but on the society it portrays. And this, I think, is a sign of a good movie.
There are other good things about The Big Sleep. Humphrey Bogart, who plays Phillip Marlowe, made his career with roles like this, and he’s pretty sexy for a man whose face looks like a bag of bricks. The screenplay was written by William Faulkner, and Leigh Brackett, the woman who would later write the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. It truly is a great film. Don’t try to figure out what’s going on, though, or you’ll drive yourself crazy. Instead, watch how many cigarettes they smoke, try to keep track of where the guns go, and enjoy the innuendo. But above all, savour the disdainful tour through 1940s L.A., and the depiction of decay, both moral and physical. The movie may not bring you to any logical conclusion, but the emotional payoff is far more powerful than anything that a straightforward narrative might bring you.