Entry from July 18, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The fifth film in the series, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, screened on Tuesday, July 17th. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

After four films that have spanned the years from 1941 to 1956 and have featured one version or another of the virtuous hero, this week we’re backing up ten years, to 1946, and one of the earliest examples of what I call the cool hero — Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep. If you had to sum up in a sentence the themes of the last two movies in our series, you could say of High Noon that it’s better to be brave than to be smart and of The Searchers that what makes the difference between civilization and savagery is sexual continence. Now that we’re entering the realm of the cool hero, we find both of these heroic maxims turned on their heads.

We know that we’re in the realm of the cool hero even before the movie itself begins. The first image we see is of two silhouettes, a man and a woman, lighting cigarettes and depositing them in an ashtray and then the extended shot over the opening credits of them smouldering there — presumably both the lovers and the cigarettes. Everyone knows, even today, that smoking is cool. And this is going to be a film about smoking, among other things. Drinking too, for drinking is cool too. Drug use is cool too, but they couldn’t show that back in 1946. Then, in the opening scenes of the movie, our hero meets, first, gorgeous pouting Carmen Sternwood, played by Martha Vickers, whose frank and open leering at him might call to mind that of one of the young white girls returned from Comanche captivity in The Searchers. Then he goes into General Sternwood’s greenhouse, filled with orchids whose “perfume,” says the General, worn out from his many vices, “has the rotten sweetness of corruption.”

In Raymond Chandler’s novel, by the way, it wasn’t “the rotten sweetness of corruption” but “the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” But that was something else you couldn’t put on the screen in 1946. Part of the legendary difficulty in following the plot of the film is owing to the fact that there were a number of other things in the book that could not be shown in the movie because of the Hays Code. In the novel, when Marlowe later comes home to his apartment to find Carmen Sternwood there, for example, she is naked in his bed. In the film she’s decorously and fully dressed and about as sexy as the armchair she’s sitting in. In the movie, we’re not even told that Geiger’s so-called “racket” is in dirty books, or that Carol Lundgren, the kid who kills Joe Brody, had been Geiger’s homosexual lover. In the scene where Lundgren slugs Marlowe, Chandler’s version of the character comments: “I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.” You couldn’t say that on the screen then — and, come to think of it, you couldn’t say it now either.

There is a certain irony in the fact that so much of the sea of corruption in which Chandler’s hero, like so many others of film noir, was meant to be seen as swimming could not be shown on the screen but only implied. Is it more corrupt to keep the corruption out of sight or to make it obvious as we do today? In fact, film noir could never have come into existence but for the Hays Code’s restrictions on what you could show in a movie. To my mind, this is proven by the almost uniform failure of the many attempts to revive the noir style that there have been since the Code was abolished in the 1960s. Corruption ceases to be very interesting when it is no longer hidden beneath a veneer of decency and respectability.

But that veneer was meant to serve another purpose in films like this one. It was to show us that the hero has nothing to fight for but himself. That’s the hallmark of the cool hero: he’s a lone wolf. “I was fired for insubordination,” Marlowe tells General Sternwood. “I seem to rate pretty high on that.” The General, rather improbably, says that he does too. But his being all alone in a world of vice and corruption means that the cool hero has to be smarter than the virtuous hero. In High Noon, remember, there was a trade-off between being smart and being brave. Being smart was the plea of those who weren’t brave, and the one man who was brave was accused of not being smart. Well, the cool hero differs from the brave hero in being a smart guy. It’s not that he’s not brave; it’s just that he’s smart enough not to be, usually, any braver than he has to be. The virtuous hero, like Marshal Kane, has to face down his enemies. Or, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, he has to outlast them. But he doesn’t usually outsmart them. That’s more typical of the cool hero, and why the cool hero is better personified by someone who lives by his wits — a spy, like James Bond, or a detective, like Marlowe — rather than a soldier or a cowboy.

The plot of The Big Sleep is so convoluted, I think, partly to show us that Marlowe’s the only one who can understand what’s going on — and even he gets caught out on two occasions by thugs hired by Eddie Mars, played by John Ridgely. In the climactic scene, he says to Vivian of Eddie, “If I don’t get the jump on him this time, we’re cooked.” Of course, we can expect that he will get the jump on Eddie because he’s clearly the smartest guy in the movie. He not only knows more than anybody else in it, he knows more than we do. The proof is in that incomprehensible plot. But it’s all a magnificent bluff. One of the famous stories about the film is that, in the course of making it, Howard Hawks sent a telegram to Chandler: “Who killed the chauffeur?” he asked. Chandler telegraphed back: “Damned if I know.”

The movie is even harder to follow than the novel because it added further obscurities by cutting out a couple of scenes that furthered the plot in order to make room for some more of the film’s big selling point, which was the screen chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, playing Carmen’s older sister, Vivian, with whom the hero falls in love. That doesn’t happen in the novel, though he has a brief romantic interest in her, nor do the two scenes inserted into the movie to suggest that part of the glamour of the life of a private eye consists of frequent opportunities for casual sex with willing strangers. Just in case we don’t get the point, after his dalliance with the girl in the bookshop, whom he’s just met, Bogart’s Marlowe thanks her and puts his hand on her shoulder, saying, “So long, pal.”

Like his smoking and drinking, the cool hero’s casual sex, the product of his effortless attractiveness to women, is another way we know he’s cool. Shades of James Bond, we might think: the coolest hero ever. In The Searchers, as I say, it is sexual restraint that holds the line of civilization against savagery: the restraint of John Wayne who loves his brother’s wife but will only give her a chaste kiss on the forehead, or of Laurie Jorgensen who waits years for Martin Pawley and fears becoming an old maid. By contrast, the savages personify unrestraint, and when Ethan and Martin are looking at the white women who have been rescued from the savages, we are meant to look at the lascivious leer of the blonde girl, so reminiscent of Carmen Sternwood’s, as a sign that her sexual nature has been corrupted by her life among the Indians.

The virtuous hero protects women’s virtue, whatever else he does, but the cool hero has a certain contempt for women. The movie shows this contempt in its milder form by making its Marlowe a libertine, but one who, in a concession to the mass audience’s romantic sensibility, is still capable of falling in love. In the novel, Chandler expresses his contempt much more directly. “You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol,” he says. “I had one from women. Women made me sick.” The contempt is naturally mingled with excitement, however. The bad girl is the object of our contemplation, rather than the good girl, and the fascination she exerts utterly transforms our view of the world from one in which goodness is endangered to one in which goodness, if it exists at all, is a sham, and certainly not something worth fighting for.

But there are still some things worth fighting for. Again and again Chandler’s Marlowe expresses disillusionment with any lingering ideas of chivalry or gentlemanliness, and he cheerfully admits to having bad manners to Vivian. Like General Sternwood again, perhaps, his hold on life is too tenuous for him to have any time for what the General calls “Victorian hypocrisy.” And yet, like all cool heroes, he has a certain sense of honor that raises him above the level of the grasping low-lifes with whom he has to do business. In Marlowe’s case, this honor seems to be expressed in his loyalty to his employer, General Sternwood, but even this, even his love (in the movie) for the General’s daughter, won’t stop him from finding out what she doesn’t want him to know, which is what lies behind her relationship to Eddie Mars. It’s that inward imperative to get to the truth behind appearances to which Marlowe is finally loyal and for which he risks his life more than once. It’s a loyalty to abstract intellect, if you like, to truth for truth’s sake, which makes it an appropriate if lonely one for the brainy, cool hero.

Another feature of the cool hero is that he is a version of the victim hero who has come to dominate, along with the cartoon hero, the movies of the last 30 years. Bogart’s Marlowe gets beaten up twice during this movie, and this was to become a more and more common cinematic way to win our sympathy, just as it wins Vivian’s in this movie. He comes out of the beatings with no apparent injury apart from a smudge on his face. By the time we get to Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars next week, we’ll see how much room for improvement on this poor mask of suffering a skilled make-up man could give to Sergio Leone.

But in 1946, the main suffering endured by the cool hero is mental and it lies in his world-weariness, his disgust with the corruption and the hypocrisy of all around him. If he invites us to emulate him, it is for this rather than for his heroic qualities, which are designed precisely so that we can’t emulate them. We can’t be as smart as Marlowe is, any more than we can pick up girls as he does. In these ways, you could say that he looks forward to the cartoon hero, the superhero, as well, since we can’t emulate them either. But we can adopt that cynical, world-weary pose so characteristic of the cool hero, the pretense of being able to see through everything, all pleasing but deceiving appearances, to the corruption within. There’s nothing easier, in fact. That’s the cool hero’s legacy to our world, and it begins with Humphrey Bogart.

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