Friday, September 01, 2006

Getting ‘Sleep’

As Allen Barra writes in an old issue of American Heritage on my shelf:
Legend has it that William Faulkner, who worked on the screenplay [for The Big Sleep’s adaptation], couldn’t figure out who killed whom even after phoning [author Raymond] Chandler in London.

Note his professional use of the words “legend has it.”
It is a fairly famous story now that the great Raymond Chandler, sovereign of the hard-boiled club, created such convoluted plots that even he didn’t know who really was plugged by whom. I’ve seen it in many a vague form on the Internet and other media over the years, never with so adequate citation as Barra’s “L-word.”

Below, I present the only “early generation” source I’ve been able to find which, if true, cuts through the confused muck of which of the many murders was unsolved, etc etc. It is excerpted* from one of director Howard Hawks many lengthy interviews, this one at age seventy-seven.
During the making of The Big Sleep, I found out for the first time that you don’t have to be too logical; you should just make Good Scenes. […]
[William] Faulkner and Leigh Brackett […] did a whole script in eight days. And they said they didn’t want to change things. They said the stuff was so good, there’s no sense in making it logical. So we didn’t. […]
Because once during the picture Bogart said, “Who killed this fellow?” And I said, “Well, I think it prob’ly was that…” I said, “I don’t know.”
So we sent a wire to the author, Raymond Chandler, and asked him and he told us the name of the fellow. And I wired him back and I said “He was down at the beach when that happened, it couldn’t have done that way.”
So nobody knew who killed that bird. It didn’t hurt the picture!

Right there it would appear that several things have been cleared up. No longer is there much basis on which to claim that it was the chauffeur’s death so deemed unexplainable. Rather it is the death of the man Geiger, antiquarian book dealer, pornographer, and blackmailer, that is a supposed mystery.
For whom did Chandler name as the dealing hand of death? That very same chauffeur who was later that night fished out of the deep, dead. What is left unexplained, however, is why Hawks would assume his (the chauffeur’s) role as killer impossible, when any mystery-goer in the world knows one can be alive and firing in one place one moment and be dead down at the pier an hour later.

Not that any of this really matters too much, for while Hawks’ The Big Sleep is a fairly enjoyable, light movie, it in no way compares to the book. The director’s predisposition toward a breezy view of empty diversion is in violent contrast with the darker world of Raymond Chandler, wherein all that is empty is treated with brooding contempt.
Perhaps most important in terms of the above discussion, however, is the fact that the book succeeds not only in being more convoluted than the film, but many times as logical simultaneously.

*I have here transcribed Hawks’ words from that interview by way of The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks [1973]. A re-cut of that documentary television piece, circa 2002 with a new narration from Sydney Pollack, is available on Disc 2 of Bringing Up Baby [1938], the essential screw-ball comedy.

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