Two silhouettes light up a cigarette, with their respective names “Humphrey Bogart” (playing Philip Marlowe) and “Lauren Bacall” (playing Vivian Rutledge) smoldering over them. After the figures inhale one puff, the camera dives down to an ashtray. The silhouettes’ hands briefly slip into the light to line up their cigarettes. Their fresh smoke comes off at the tips of them like miniature chimneys, while the credits continue scrolling.
Tag: The Big Sleep
If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.
Genre revisionism in these post-Tarantino days is about as close as you can get to armchair activism without having a Facebook account. It wasn’t always this way. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, reverse engineering the symbolism in a genre film meant subverting the expectations that decades of studio programming had groomed. It meant unpacking the myths that were sold to the “masses” – who were rather falsely assumed to have swallowed the illusions whole. Audiences may not have believed the myths, but they enjoyed the comfortably structured fantasies and accepted them, and to the counterculture who saw that acceptance culminate in racism and violence, this was a dangerous delusion. Genres were stand-ins for conventionalism, which was itself a stand-in for authority – albeit one that seems quaint and almost benign in retrospect. The remedy, it was believed, was to respond in the same language – with Westerns featuring cowboys as mercenaries (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) or as butchers of Indians (LITTLE BIG MAN) or gangster films about criminals who were less objectionable than the authorities they fled from (BONNIE AND CLYDE). These winks of subversion would later fall under the umbrella of “culture jamming.” But the sad truth of the matter – from a political though not an aesthetic point of view – is that disrupting people’s fantasy lives is not always the same as changing their behavior.
Attending a double feature screening of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP is like going to the factory where they make Reese’s. You have the peanut butter (Humphrey Bogart) and the chocolate (Lauren Bacall). Both are independently delicious items, but items nonetheless. Paired together in just the right way, they make an indelible combination that is problematically delicious. It hits the spot. And you will want more. Lucky for you, in a double feature, that is exactly what you get.