The Big Sleep and the Femme Noir: #Noirvember Retrospective

By Joan Amenn

Few actresses are indelibly linked to the genre of film noir as Lauren Bacall. Thanks in no small part to her falling in love with her co-star Humphrey Bogart while making her film debut in “To Have and Have Not” (1944) Bacall became the female counterpart to his noir “tough guy” image.

Their chemistry was so electric they were teamed up two years later for an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1944). In this film, Bacall is much more self-assured as an actress, relying less on her signature smoldering stare and allowing herself to show her emotional range. She epitomizes the femme noir in her character of Vivian Sternwood, a rich divorcee at a time when that was not looked upon approvingly by society.

Independent due to her wealth and unapologetically enjoying herself with an active social life, Vivian answers to no one as Marlowe (Bogart) quickly finds out. Her sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) is another story, however. While Vivian has her own moral code that includes a fierce loyalty to her family, Carmen is a spoiled and sexually promiscuous young woman who may have an addiction problem. She has gotten herself entangled in a pornography racket whose leader attempts to blackmail her family.

None of this is clearly explained in the plot as the Hays Code infamously had a field day taking a hatchet to the original story by Chandler. None other than famous authors William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett attempted to piece together the Humpty Dumpty of remaining narrative once the censors got done with it. The film soars when both Bogart and Bacall are onscreen together and since that is what audiences were paying to see, director Howard Hawks admittedly didn’t concern himself with a coherent storyline.

The best scene of the film is when Vivian and Marlowe meet at a back table of a bar so that she can pay him for his services to her family as a private detective. Their conversation quickly turns to flirtation and then to sexual innuendo as they discuss how they like to judge the physical merits of horses before they bet on them. Vivian does not make herself out to be virtuous, nor does she care what anyone thinks of her. Marlowe is one step ahead of her and realizes she is paying him off to just go away, even though they share a mutual attraction.

Vivian, like most femme noirs, has secrets. Marlowe wants to know what they are and in the process finds himself needing to solve a murder. Carmen is also a femme noir but her character is sadly underdeveloped beyond the “fallen woman” stereotype. Regardless, Vickers is amazing as a vulnerable, destructive woman who craves attention from the men in her life. She conveys so much with just a smile that has a hint of sadness or eyes that seek approval.

Vivian comes to Marlowe’s rescue in a plot twist that shows her to be a true hard as nails femme noir. She doesn’t bat an eyelash when Marlowe then turns to her and tells her he is going to leave her in a “tough spot” for a little while. Of course, he doesn’t abandon her but their complete trust in each other as equal partners makes “The Big Sleep” unusual in recognizing how capable a femme noir can be.

All the while, Bacall is coolly gorgeous whether she is perched on a desk in a houndstooth suit and rakish beret or in an evening gown for a night at the roulette wheel. She helped set the standard of what a female lead in a film noir should be and also created a role model for a kind of movie heroine who didn’t need a man to recue her. She was a match for Bogart in all of their films together and that is probably one of the reasons why their films are still loved today.


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