The Darwin family (or at least those members of it who read above a second grade level) has been on a Chandler kick for the last couple weeks. Like many of our kicks, this one can be blamed on the Wall Street Journal -- since the drinks column frequently refers to various Chandler novels, and the a week ago they did a "Classics Reviewed" piece about The Big Sleep.
I read The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. MrsDarwin read those plus The Little Sister, Playback and the screenplay for Double Endemnity. And we bumped the movie version of The Big Sleep up to the top of our NetFlix queue.
I'd never read a Chandler novel before, so it was interesting to read the real thing, having only run into Chandler immitations before -- most noteably, of course, Tracer Bullet (who was known to have seven slugs in him: three lead and four bourbon).
I found Chandler a better writer than I would have expected going in. His style is eminantly parodiable, but taken on its own Chandler's style is very good at what it does -- though it's hard to encounter it without seeing it through the filter of all the immitations which have come since.
The Big Sleep is a surprisingly edgy book for having been put out in 1939. But then, the world was a pretty dark place in '39. The lid may have been tight on all that was not up to Hayes Code standards in Hollywood, but in the rest of the world millions of people were about to be fed into the gas chambers, gulags and battlefields of World War II, and the sense of impending darkness abounds in late thirties writing.
The plot centers around a rich general (now near death) who wants private detective to make a blackmail attempt against one of his daughters go away. The investigation soon leads to a peddler of high rent porn books; illegal gambling; several murders; the homosexual sub-culture; nude blackmail photos of the younger daughter and the missing (possibly murdered) husband of the elder daughter.
And yet the book is not at root sensational or exploitive. And main character Philip Marlowe (all Chandler's novels are written in the first person) has a certain basic set of morals which he sticks to, despite at times suffering rather hard for it.
Based on this, I was curious to see what the movie would be like. One of my all time favorite movies, The Third Man (screenplay by Graham Greene) was filmed in 1946 (the same as The Big Sleep) and though not diving as deeply into the underside of society, The Third Man is without question a dark meditation on human sin. It's an example of how despite stringent rules on what could be shown and discussed in a movie, you could make a powerful, adult film about the darkness that can inhabit the human soul.
Having seen The Big Sleep, I can't say I was similarly impressed. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart go through the motions, and much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, but the result of cutting all the can't-be-shown-on-screen content out of the original story is actually a less moral narrative than the original book. The nearly inhuman desperation of many of the underworld characters (desperately trying to get that one break that will provide the money for a ticket out of town to a comfortable retreat somewhere) is lost, as their vices are hidden.
The bookstore that was at the center of the porn ring is still there, but it's never clear what it does. The younger daughter is still being threated with exposure of photos of her, but since they're just photos of her in a Chinese dress, you're not clear why. The missing husband isn't even a husband anymore, just a family hired tough. The gay lover of one of one of the early murder victims (who piles up his own body count seeking revenge and thus is instrumental in bringing about the conlusion) is left motive-less. And the ending is radically changed so that more of the low-lifes can be gunned down and Bogart and Bacall and end in each others arms, the smug survivors of a journey that wasn't that dark after all. No longer is the rich Sternwood family the symbol of all that can go wrong among the moneyed elite of a corrupt city. Instead, they're a great place for a detective to find a beautiful love interest.
One of the books we had out of the library included a number of Chandler's letters and essays. In one of the letters, he said wrote to someone who had complained to him that The Big Sleep was without moral structure at all that he thought the person was refering to the movie more than the book. The movie, he said, lacked the moral compass of the book. And I have to agree. Through a combination of poor adaptiation (key plot points are changed for no particular reason, and in ways that make little sense) and an unwillingness to show the darkness against which the story plays out, the movie lacks the basic, natural-law (or perhaps just virtuous pagan) sense which the book possesses.
If you want to see something that has more the feeling of a real Chandler novel, try Chinatown or LA Confidential. Both these R-rated noir tributes have more of a moral compass than the trimmed-for-content 1946 The Big Sleep.