Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is a private investigator hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). He runs into Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) on the way into the house. We find out later that she is the cause of the trouble. In the course of the conversation with the General we learn that Marlowe used to be an investigator with the district attorney’s office. Marlowe, in the course of his investigation into the blackmailer, meets Ms. Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) and eventually, by the end of the movie they have fallen in love. Marlowe helps cover up the fact that Carmen was at the scene of a murder. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house numerous times. It’s as if he’s trying to figure something out and can’t. Finally he ends up putting all the pieces together.
The Big Sleep has elements common to most films in the genre. Dark shots, femme fatales, close ups, rain and scenes that occur in the dead of night. And let’s not forget the must have private eye which Bogart seems quite adept at playing. (He also played private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.) The femme fatales in this one work against each other. One is Vivian Rutledge and while not seen as much, the other is her little sister Carmen. Both are guilty of something, neither worse than the other.
The central characters in this film are typical of the genre. Bogart’s character of Marlowe is the tough, rugged man’s man. He likes the ladies as we can see when he flirts with the Acme Book Store girl as well as the attempt at charming Agnes (Geiger’s book store girl). Martha’s character of Carmen Sternwood is the “innocent” young girl. She uses her sexuality every chance she can get, even when she’s high. Vivian is not so stereotypical. She’s smart and sassy. She hides her secrets very well, even pulling them out in jest. Marlowe doesn’t believe her. Yet, they fall in love.
This film says that everyone has something to hide. No matter how small the flaw is. The only thing I really know about film noir is that the films in the genre are usually dark and gritty. This film certainly lives up to all of that. The subject matter is murder and blackmail. Never are the two mutually exclusive.