The Big Sleep is a great film – and yet it exposes so many potential problems with the Hawksian process. As a rule, genre is a painted backdrop in Hawks' films, a set of comfortable signifiers that create audience expectations with which Hawks and his actors can then play. The detective genre is a good candidate for the Hawks treatment, based as it is on the perceptual divide between the protagonist and the environment that he or she must navigate and interpret. It's easy to translate this perceptual divide into a Hawksian map of the project: the world that Philip Marlowe explores will become so many genre trappings, and Marlowe himself will move against that cinema-bound world with a lightness and informality that will make him seem more real by contrast.
In fact, the genre is so appropriate for Hawks that it pushes him to a posture that almost resembles parody at times. With so much of the film universe marked off as genre signification, and the protagonist left alone on stage center, the Hawksian urge to have fun can sometimes seem frivolous and even contemptuous. Rarely have the goofy scenes in Hawks films seemed so purely goofy: Marlowe playing a prissy book collector in Geiger's bookstore, or Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood bedeviling a policeman over the telephone, strike me as too strenuous and inorganic a form of reflexive fun. The running theme of Marlowe being irresistible to a stream of beautiful female supporting characters and bit players, likely a send-up of the male fantasy associated with the genre, doesn't come across as much less of a fantasy than what it's sending up. Even the film's opening scenes in the Sternwood mansion play a little too much like a trip to the funhouse: the general's monologue is too literary and scene-setting to let the character breathe; and each of the Sternwood daughters is little more at this point than a genre exhibit that gives Marlowe a chance to show his wit and detachment. (This is not to deny the Hawksian beauties of this opening section: not just the appealing underplaying of Marlowe sweating in the general's hothouse, but also the wonderful reverse tracking shot of Marlowe entering the mansion, framed in that ineffable Hawksian style that conveys both a movie set and an intelligence sizing it up.)
I think the best way to understand the film's greatness is to ask the question, "What causes Marlowe to get personally involved in the case?" For his early detachment gives way to fierce emotionality by the last act. Marlowe forcing Eddie Mars out to face his own gunmen is a driven man; and just before that is the startling concept of Marlowe's hands trembling in fear as he loads his gun in preparation for Mars' arrival.
I don't believe there is a single sufficient answer to that question. Here are some of the components of Marlowe's response.
1) To a large extent, Marlowe is motivated by a spirit of inquiry. This is a reflexive motivation, one that belongs primarily to the film audience, and for which Marlowe acts as our agent. But Hawks is adept at blurring the line between the fictional impulse and character motivation. The film really takes off with the long scene of Marlowe arriving just too late at the Geiger house and finding an array of clues: a corpse, a hopped-up Carmen Sternwood, a concealed camera. Marlowe moves freely about the set like a video game avatar, laying out the available facts for our inspection; Hawks enjoys his time in the house, declines to compress the time it takes for Marlowe to wander the room or search for evidence. The scene is about Marlowe investigating more than it is about the results of the investigation.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is, on the face of it, purely informational: detective Bernie Ohls stops by Marlowe's apartment at 2 am to tell him that Owen Taylor's car was found in the ocean. Marlowe volunteers to accompany Ohls to the crime scene; and asks Ohls a few factual questions as he retrieves his hat and coat: "How's the weather?…What time did that call come in?…What kind of a car did you say that was?" It would have been commonplace for a genre film to fade out as soon as Marlowe's departure was established. The ten or fifteen seconds that Hawks tacks onto the end of the scene are quite relaxed, with Marlowe moving off microphone as he walks to an adjoining room. On the one hand, it's as if Marlowe is using the few moments before "Cut!" to strengthen our grasp on the plot; on the other hand, the rhythm of the scene is peculiarly independent of the story's momentum. Hawks is playing in the space between the fascination of the fiction and the process of creating it.
By the time we get to the familiar pause at the middle of the traditional detective story – then the case is completely closed, I hope this amount is satisfactory, we're very grateful to you. Mr. Marlowe– Hawks feels no need to show Marlowe hesitating over the too-pat solution. Having exposed Marlowe's role as master of the fictional process, Hawks isn't tempted to play a game that he has already tipped us off to. Marlowe goes forward because we want him to, or because he wants to – the difference is hard for us to make out.
2) The Big Sleep is, among other things, a love story, and a rather good one. And Marlowe's object of desire, Vivian Sternwood, is somehow beholden to Eddie Mars, and can't escape his clutches without Marlowe's intervention. Marlowe cites this motivation on a few occasions: "I'm beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods."
From a plot point of view, this motivation is sufficient to explain Marlowe's emotional involvement. But Hawks and his writers are canny enough to know that the love story is not important enough to dominate the film, that the general tone of genre awareness militates against Marlowe falling too hard. Characteristically, Hawks turns this structural prohibition to his advantage, letting Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood drift together calmly and inevitably, dialing down the destabilizing aspects of the relationship (including Vivian's repeated acts on Eddie Mars' behalf) and emphasizing the lovers' quiet, mutual pleasure. The film's final, gentle joke – "What's wrong with you?"- is another way of saying "You may have looked like a plot problem on paper, but you never really were."
3) Interestingly, a much less important character – Jonesy, the penny-ante hood who sacrifices himself for his unworthy lover Agnes – is also cited in the script several times as a reason that Marlowe is determined to take Eddie Mars out of action. Jonesy is treated much more brutally by Mars than is Vivian; and yet it's an indication of how much the love story is muted that this minor character can compete with Vivian on Marlowe's hierarchy of motivations.
There is a reflexive angle here that boosts Jonesy's importance. He didn't just die: he died with Marlowe standing helplessly by in the next room. Marlowe's powerlessness during this incident is clearly a goad to him, as Marlowe himself states. It's a motivation that we, the audience, understand well: the hero is our power, our vehicle to traverse the narrative; any check on his power has dire consequences for our pleasure. So Marlowe's desire for revenge doesn't have to be explained too carefully in terms of his character, as we feel the slight along with him. The subject comes up again as Marlowe loads his gun with trembling hands in the film's penultimate scene: he tells Vivian, "Mars has been ahead of me all the way, way ahead." The pleasure of the genre depends on Marlowe reversing that trend.
Marlowe's various motivations are skillfully meshed. There is enough character-based motivation to let us parse the film on purely internal evidence. And yet the energy that drives Marlowe to ever greater levels of involvement doesn't completely feel like a result of the characterization. In Hawks' films, the balance between the pleasure of fiction – the direct bond between the filmmakers and the audience – and the internal imperatives of the depicted world is a carefully managed trick, almost a matter of sleight of hand. You could call this blend inorganic; and perhaps it can be justified only as an acknowledgement, and a gentle underlining, of the intrinsically inorganic nature of art.