I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Big Sleep (1946) Analysis

Howard Hawks’ classic The Big Sleep, written by Leigh Brackett, might not have a regular femme fatale, but the women in it, all of them different, complex, and absolutely fascinating, more than make up for it. A film about process more than results, it chronicles private eye Philip Marlowe’s journey into the heart of crime, gambling, murder, and blackmail often masked by genteel manners in the world of rich urbanites. Although we have little more of an idea of what just happened and who killed whom and why at the end than we did in the beginning, the movie is a pleasure to watch, a black and white symphony conducted in the rich and smoky atmosphere of the post-WWII noir. With its moody, expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting, long and heavy shadows cast by the ubiquitous Venetian blinds, its classic, hardboiled romantic hero and the shady, powerful, beautiful women around him, The Big Sleep submerges us into darkness but, surprisingly, helps us see the light as well. While Bogart gave up everything in Casablanca for the greater good, here he might be even braver; instead of seeking redemption in a corrupt, chaotic world through self-sacrifice, he finds redemption and stability in an adult relationship of equals with the woman he loves.

***Spoilers ahead (although I can't really give away the plot; like both the film's director and writer, I have no idea what the solution to the murders is)! This is an analysis of Vivian's character as a noir woman and her relationship with Bogart's Marlowe.
 And what a woman! Every bit as seductive, smart, ambitious and independent as the ruthless femme fatale, she does not manipulate, use, or destroy the hero. Sexy, secure and self-confident, she soothes as much as she stings and ultimately ends up helping Marlowe rather than hurting him. Their courtship, if it can be called that, is one of the greatest love story beginnings I’ve seen on the silver screen, a game of suspicion, fascination, attraction and appraisal through which they get to know each other and decide they have found their match in wits as well as charm. Through the costuming, lighting, use of music, and placement within the frame, we see their relationship evolve as the power structure shifts back and forth, and they develop respect and understanding for each other as equals and friends before they can become lovers.

Before we meet Vivian, we find out from her father that she is “spoiled, exacting, smart and ruthless.” The first time she talks to Marlowe, it is in a sly and seductive competition of smarts as they bicker, banter, and cross-examine each other. Undeniably beautiful and sensual, Vivian, however, never has to flaunt any of her many physical assets to get what she wants, using her brains instead. Unlike her sister Carmen, “still a little child who likes to pull the wings off flies,” Vivian refuses to throw herself at men, to “try sitting on [their] lap while [they are] standing up”; neither virgin nor vamp, the older sister has experience (she has been married before), but is ice-cool in her interactions with men. She is stylish, but dresses simply, in a straightforward manner, and her hair, parted, like Veronica Lake’s, doesn’t, however, fall on her face casting the same shadow of ambiguity; like her demeanor, it’s neat and natural, perfectly arranged and never out of place, but without seeming fussy. Her outfit is neither the sultry black of the femme fatale nor the innocent white of the good girl, but a combination of the two: her unadorned, conservative white shirt sports Bacall’s usual shoulder pads, perhaps a sign of strength and other “masculine” qualities, and she is wearing not a revealing skirt but simple, almost severe, black pants. As she talks to Marlowe, they seem poised to start circling at any moment to better size each other up. 

In the beginning of the scene, Vivian clearly thinks she has the upper hand, starting the conversation with, “So you're a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren't you?” As soon as he quickly and cleverly retorts, “I’m not very tall either. Next time, I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket,” she realizes it won’t be quite as easy as she’d imagined to control the situation. They take turns sitting and standing, dominating and submitting, and it’s clear they don’t quite know how to react to someone so similar to themselves, so honest and smart and utterly, humorously irreverent. “People don’t talk to me like that,” Vivian exclaims, and I’m sure not a lot of people talk to Marlowe like she does either, and even fewer can get away with it the way they do.

In their second meeting, the hero dominates the scene. He has just brought a drunk, drugged-up Carmen home, and because now he knows more than Vivian she is vulnerable. Dressed in a feminine, white satin robe, she seems more exposed and less well put together than in their previous interaction and sits on the bed while he towers above her and shadows create oblique bars of darkness and light across her face. The next time they see each other, it is on level ground. She comes to his office, his territory, where we assume he generally holds authority, and promptly sits on his desk, placed higher in the frame than he is. Her outfit, a tailored suit jacket and skirt, is professional and playful at the same time, with a lively black and white houndstooth pattern. As they call the police only to fool around, Hawks creates an atmosphere of honesty, spontaneity, and energy that is infectiously delightful. This time they banter affectionately and friendly rather than bicker competitively. Their dialogue evolves into a sly, double entendre filled conversation in their next scene together, which brims with a kind of joyous sexual tension and attraction that must have given a few audience members pause in studio era, Production Code Hollywood.

Veiling her feelings towards him in horse-race speak, Vivian explains, “Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run. (…) I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.” Of course, she doesn’t like to be rated either, but only because she hasn’t “met anyone yet that can do it,” at least not before she met Marlowe. “I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground,” he says. “You’ve got a touch of class, but, I don’t know how far you can go.” It all depends on “who’s in the saddle.” Now dressed in a sleek, shiny blazer that looks almost metallic, hard and cold, she is reticent to go any further and tries to pay him off to get rid of him as the bar piano plays “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.”

Always a part of the action, never a part of the décor, Vivian knows what she’s doing and looks to Marlowe not as a protector or a toy she can manipulate, but as a grown-up individual with whom she can fall in love, of course never admitting it in gushy sentimentality, but obliquely hinting at it—“I guess I’m in love with you” is as syrupy as this couple ever gets. Even when Vivian is wearing a white, feminine dress, more revealing than the rest of her outfits, she is never helpless or naïve. At Eddie Mars’ party, she sings “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” but hers never do. She is always cool, calm, and composed, and when she sees Marlowe flirting with a perky brunette cigarette girl, the heroine gives her an approving up and down look. She might need his help when she’s at gun point in her pure white dress, but we need to remember she’s wearing furs over it—she is a predator, an instinctual, strong woman who can take care of herself. And she even gets to return the favor, now in a black dress that accentuates her waist—like a wasp’s, similar to her manners—when she unties the ropes binding him in a later scene. As Marlowe sits helplessly on the floor, Vivian and Mona Mars are on the couch, one on either side of him; Hawks explains visually which sex has the power in this situation. Although Marlowe is still caring towards her, advising her even in his state to watch her fingers and not cut towards herself, it’s not difficult to see she’s the one in control.

The end captures the main characters arriving at the most seductive destination for a love story—the beginning. They embrace and kiss—“I want more,” she’s already informed him in an earlier scene. He holds her, and she occupies the lower space in the frame, but she is by no means powerless or submissive. The last line, in which she answers the question, “What is wrong with you?” with “nothing you can’t fix,” is not a capitulation, a cop-out, or a sign of defeat. She is allowing herself to be changed by him not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an adult and that’s what happens in meaningful grown-up relationships. She acknowledges not his superiority, but his equality, as the first man she’d probably permit to “rate” her.

You can read more on The Big Sleep and the femme fatale of film noir here.


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