Rev., September 17, 2016.
Of the many pleasures of The Big Sleep (1946) the relaxed, but, then, also tense spatial dynamics of its imagining of the city of Los Angeles is very high on the list. It’s fair to argue that the ambience and atmosphere created by the psychogeographic dimensions of how the plot is spaced out in LA is primarily responsible for the dynamic momentum of the movie. The fun thing is that there is downtown LA, where everything seems quaint, but, then, open-ended in an odd way. Then there is a strange in-between zone, between the city and the country, where some not great things also happen. And, finally, there is the far out country, where danger lies, people hide out and nefarious doings are afoot. In each zone, there are peculiarities of passage, of entry and exit. One does get the impression that the movie is set up as a maze with herms at every turn of the maze marking the way in a way that promises intrigue and mystery around the next corner.
The city of LA is presented as a very small, compact place, where people not only know each other, but are constantly bumping into each other. The milieu consists of a night club, and the homes or apartments of those involved in that world. That brings the mobster Mars into the picture, from several directions, and then, of course, Lauren Bacall, who is a client of Mars, spends a lot of money at his casino, and then is involved in other ways. The weird thing about this city of LA is that while there are all sorts of spaces, people seem to have no locks on their doors, and they keep just stopping by, stopping in, and doors are opening and closing, a lot. This interpenetrability of the urban space is exemplified by a scene in which at one time or another in it all the principals get involved, when Marlowe stops by Mars’ apartment. Immediately inside, a gun is pulled on him
there is a whole gun play with others too as it seems that everybody is packing, and using it as backup coming through doors where they don’t know what is what
at that earlier exchange, Bogey dismissed Mars’ gun by saying that’s the second time today I’ve run into a guy who thinks a gat in the hand means you got the world by the tail. Then, surprise, Bacall turns up here too
there is a whole lot of interrogation, and then when Mars answers the door, having taken the gun to the door so many times, and opened it cautiously, fearing that trouble might be coming from behind it, even if in the city his apartment is open to such close insecurity, this time he does not have the gun, and is shot at, through the door, the first time this happens in the movie. This then causes Bogey to chase after the shooter, scrambling down the steps, a nautical painting representing this space as casting out into other spaces, always moving one along in the game of searching for the killer
another fun thing is that the clubs in the city look like houses too, they have a very domestic, cozy feel, nothing fancy, Bogey even questions her, why did we meet at a place like this, as if it is not common, also, at this place, he’s got to find a pay phone to get messages out, and the movie is careful throughout to show him putting his dimes in. Here Bacall saunters in to a not very glammy place, carrying with her a draped long many footed fur, a trophy
they then have a swell game of cat and mouse, talking of their style in terms of ways in which various race horses run from the post, and then he catches her up in trying to pay her off, so he knows of the labyrinth of the city and its deceptions
the accessibility of Marlowe’s LA might be prototyped by his own office, where people are coming and going all the time. The walls are covered in sporting pictures, including boxers, meaning he is of the milieu of the night club, and the men’s club, an open, chummy world. In this scene he is quite shocked that Cook broke in on him, and Cook explains (the bad daughter also broke into Bogey’s apartment, open ended), the doorman having been too lax in security, but the fact that someone got in and is negotiating with him is a sign that, again, spaces in the city are highly interpenetrable by other forces. (again, here, horses race imagery prevalent)
My notion is that in the movie LA is pictured as a “glass onion”, the office, and the frosted door panes of Marlowe’s office, it is a place where access to places is easy, but, for that, also dangerous, people need their guns to answer the door, and can get shot answering doors. For that, things feel throughout to be cozy, but fated, filled with dread, as if some sort of former security and norm, in the context of the quaint look of some of the urban sets, has been raffled at the edges, and things are coming apart. And Marlowe is racing to get to the bottom of this job before things do in fact come apart. The city is doing OK, but there is a sense in the movie that it is also coming apart at the seams, and the trouble is expanding outward.
And, indeed, if The Big Sleep had stayed put in the city of LA it would have filed in alongside of a zillion other movies of the life, all of them deflating into cops and robbers deskbound business. This movie avoids getting paralyzed at the desk, by keeping Bogey on his toes out in the real world of the investigation. But if the movie only rattled about the film noir limits of downtown LA, then it would have filed in with many others, lots of doors and hallways, and the like (same milieu in the Thin Man, for example). But, The Big Sleep is distinguished for taking the milieu out for a ride, to a larger greater LA dimension, especially for the time. There is a sense that trouble is expanding, and its expanded universe is where that trouble is going. According to psychogeographic theory, every soul marks out its safe and unsafe places in its surroundings, and then grades the world accordingly. In between the safe place of the wagons circled at home, and the unsafe place of the country beyond, is a transitional zone, called the wild space. It is in the wild space that the dwellers of the safe place can vent some of their anxiety and thus partake of as it were counterfeit or shortcircuited versions of real terrors beyond. It is into this space adjacent to, and lying close in by civilized space, but not yet fully out into outer space, that the denizens of the safe place projects their imaginings of bogeys, their monsters, and go play with them, to as it were test run before getting into real trouble outside in the raw outside world. This is space where in the 40s society girls go bad, and this movie is famous for its bad girls, not only the younger sister, who is a snip, and a mess, with a problem, but Bacall herself, who is into all sorts of things. It is in this wild space, this liminal zone between civilization and wilderness, between the city and the country, that the movie comes alive with a special feeling. The management of space in this zone is enlarged to a lattice level, spreading out in all directions, with all sorts of spatial confusions. The epitome of this is Mars’ strange nightclub, far out of town. For me, it is right up there with the country cabin in Laura, and the strange country nightclub in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as some of the most evocative wild space interiors in film noir movies. The club appears to be a ranch style house
it appears to have a front yard, and a white picket fence, and you approach it as you would a suburban house, from a parking lot. It feels like the house in Christmas in Connecticut, it does not feel like a nightclub
the degree to which this sort of outlying country house club was common at the time, I am uncertain. But it has about it a surprising, slip-sliding away signification to it because you think it is a house, then it turns out not to be a house, and then you look for a club, but it remains a house, and then there are strangers in the house, having a party, so it could be either that this was Mars’ house at one time and he gave it over to partying, or eventually started up a secret nightclub in it, as in the movie I recently watched with the Corot, see title, and then it drifted, and become a party house, which was later formalized into an actual club. The space in the club is very odd. Bogey drops in, but then there is a cigarette girl, pretty well stripped down, to show him in. But then he spies a room off to the side, where, as if at a private ski lodge party, Bacall is actually performing something, with a sit around of the fire group of jazzy friends. Even odder is that Bogey signals hello from the door, and here again we have another of those funny bumping into you meet ups, obliquely passing by, with other business.
when Bogey stands at the door, spying in on the events inside, all that room set up like a den in a standard house, more sporting pictures above, he stands at the door, and the cigarette girl stands behind him as if a herm to announce he is entering in and out of domestic and nightclub space, that he is in transition,
this shot reminds me, and was likely quoted, in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which offers another sliding-signifier space of a home made over into a club, and a club always falling back into a home, resulting in a wild space ambiguity where no one quite knows where one stands. Only in the case of the Kubrick, people were having sex on tables in the other rooms. Even odder, is that, this venture into pseudo-domesticity, is then pulled back, interrupted by an abrupt return to business, as in one of the former rooms of his room, if that thesis is operative, Mars has set up his office, so Bogey goes off into there. And here Mars serves him a drink with a hunting dog picture behind him, indicating that we have graduated from controlled in-city sport like boxing and racing, to the hunt, out in the more open wild spaces lying outside the country
and even truer to telling the mazelike nature, the where am I? dynamic of this shifting ground, is the next shot where we see the hunt dogs take a lead that segways them into a reflective zone in a maze, doubling up their uncertainty in terms of where they stand (and there are two, in two different dimensions, assembling a pack, a sign of menace
the fact that Bacall then calls back Bogey, after the meeting, for him to be sure to see him, and this results in some shtick with three or four people passing this message along. He comes through a space that for its smoke now looks more like a bar, to a casino in back and not only is Bacall at the table but Mars is called out to OK a bet and when he Oks it and she wins some folks of a not so farious sort around the table give her takeaway money an evil eye, causing Bogey to offer to drive her home. She is then robbed in the parking lot, he rescues her, though later he suspects the whole thing was staged
while Bacall can play deadpan sufficiently to get away with seemingly being innocent when involved in strategizing against Bogey, for some reason, her body language when she snuggles into the car seat is not under her control. In Batman (1989), I credited Kim Basinger for striking a pose, in the Batmobile, whisked off by this uncertain character, to in body language evoke abandon, being swept off in an adventure beyond one’s control, and a problem life that is now totally out of hand, but going anywhere. Overwhelmed with abandon, Basinger cozies into surrender. Same thing here, and it is likely that Burton was quoting this scene, as when Bacall snuggles down in she more or less concedes that she is out in the wild space and though she is embroiled in calculations and plottings, in truth things are out of control, and she needs his help—and love, great scene
and she gives us the same surrender pose coming back from their most farthest out of town mission, again featuring a coincidence meeting, when at this point Bogey admits that she has surprised him, because he didn’t think they made them like that anymore, and then she says I guess I love you
in that third ring beyond the wild space, is the beyond zone, beyond the safe place, beyond the circled wagons, out into the country, where things are dangerous, because darkness, evil and whatever crooks want to do are. This adventure in darkness involves Marlowe coming upon a garage, faking a flat, then being hit and tied up by Mars hitman, but then it turns out this rough looking barn is linked to a surprisingly nice house, where he is tied up, and he meets Mars’ mistress, who is hiding out out there, to be safe (another role that the country played, the apotropaic), and at the end of that road he likes the woman he finds there. Oh, its got big cozy lamps, a rock country fireplace, a mantel, it’s a country cabin
and then, too, again, in another odd place, Bacall shows up, just like in the city
she is profiled by a limited Bluemmer style landscape of a square sort which, unlike horizontal landscapes, does not spell trouble without, but contracts back for this outlying place to try to pretend to be less wild and less out there, with a tamer rendering of the landscape
and then there is a strange little herm figure on the mantel, apparently a peasant women playing a pipe instrument of some sort, or perhaps carrying a cornucopia, both of which, as peasant imagery evoke simply hard work in simple middle class folks, while the themes would present the bounty of an idyllic nature, also seem to civilize the outlying space, and announce to us here that by this point Bogey has stopped seeing her as a strange intrusive presence but as his good luck token, to see him through, so ultimately this is a mercury figure, transiting from crossroads, to other events
in fact, in that scene, as Bogey tries to convince the woman that her boyfriend is a killer by way of proxy, and she is not buying it, there is another odd picture on the far wall
it to seems to a genre picture of a Mexican sort (or late DeChirico), a picture of lovers, announcing that this place is a cult place, a lover’s meeting place, and a refuge too, but maybe farther out of town that it wishes, exoticizing it by reference to a large exotica, Mexico (this looks too like a prototype Walter Robinson painting)
but then, now, Bogey is tied up, now Bacall is enlisted to cut him loose, then they escape, cleverly, and Bogey has to wear handcuffs through the whole scene, it’s a terrific sequence, evoking the unsteady and dangerous ground of out of town. And it is after this, freeing him, buying in to him entirely now, that on the way back into town, that Bacall truly settles in, resolved, but with a deeper sense of abandon
all of this is terrific town and country by play. The city is, in dream imagery, a strange interpenetrable, glass door, door watching, apotropaic, herm-needing, glass onion; the country is an entirely scary place where people hide, and hide out, and meet illicitly in love, or simply get out of town for a bit, but, for that, bad things can happen there, it is the whoosh down the drain. One is civilization, the other is the beyond.
But the route that Bacall and Bogey are now taking brings back into the city, but to a transitional point. It is 7244 Laverne Terrace, Laurel Canyon, and, to me, one of the most mysterious, strangely empowered places in all 1940s movies. Why? Why do I like this strange little house so much? What purpose does it serve, and why it is so central to the movie? The house is visited often in the movie, in fact, it could be said that the movie is woven in and out of the house. For this reason, it is apparent that 7244 Laverne Terrace is the psychological heart of the movie, what does it mean? will be discussed in part two of this essay.