How Dorothy Malone Steals the Show in “The Big Sleep”

By Brian Skutle

All it takes is one moment to make an impression. It’s as true in the movies as it is in life. Howard Hawks’s “The Big Sleep” (1946) is celebrated for the ridiculous chemistry it has on display between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, while Martha Vickers was famously so electric the film went through additional shooting and recuts to restore some of the balance of a film designed to showcase more of Bogey and Bacall’s on- and off-screen- chemistry. Yet the woman whose always held my attention the most is only in the film for three minutes.

At the 15 minute mark, Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) has begun to work for General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in the matter of blackmail. We’ve already met his daughters, Carmen (Vickers) and Vivian (Bacall), and he is trying to talk to a man named Geiger. He looks up some rare books as an in to Geiger, but he’s unable to get past Geiger’s front girl. He goes to the bookstore across the street to stake out Geiger’s in hopes of trailing him. The clerk there is far more receptive.

Dorothy Malone’s bookstore clerk doesn’t have a name, and she doesn’t need one. The moment she engages with Marlowe about the rare books he looked up, she becomes a vital part of the narrative. She works out the game Marlowe was playing, and, as she says, Marlowe begins to interest her. She paints a picture of what Geiger looks like, and we see the flirtatious manner between the two deepen. She invites him to wait for Geiger in her shop rather than his car- it is raining, after all- and he asks her to share a drink. Looks like the shop is closed for the afternoon.

Hawks once said that a good movie consists of three great scenes and zero bad scenes. In a film brimming with great scenes, I think the bookstore scene with Malone might be in the upper tier. Not only is it a great example of exposition, but it’s our first real sense of Marlowe at work; his ability to get people to work with him, and a chance for the film to begin to establish Marlowe as a ladies man. We believe all of it. Part of it is that Bogart was a natural movie star, and the bigger part is that Malone- later an Oscar-winner for “Written on the Wind”- is his equal every moment they share together.

Bogart’s Marlowe is a smart detective, but I will say, the end of this scene leaves me disappointed in him. As he’s getting ready to pour their drinks, he asks if Malone’s clerk needs her glasses. Dutifully, she says no, takes them off, and fixes her hair up. When he looks on her now, he perks up. Yes, this is a trope Hollywood leans into often- the nerdy girl is a knockout without them on- but here, it truly fails, because the character had me from the moment she hit the screen. It’s a shame Marlowe couldn’t see that right away, when the audience can.

Read Brian’s Review of “The Big Sleep” here.

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