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An unidentified finger presses the doorbell of the Sternwood mansion. A butler answers. The guest intones: ''My name is Marlowe. General Sternwood sent for me.''

This introduction thrusts us into immediate alliance with private detective Philip Marlowe, and throughout the film we traverse the world of crime as he does. As the central character, he is in every scene: we know what he knows, nothing more, nothing less. We share his experience as if on a detective training course: we see the way he works, the way he choreographs his moves and orchestrates his space to provoke a desired reaction from his opponent; we share his cognitive processes by identification with his visual point of view; we adopt his attitude by osmosis.

This is the world of film noir in which the existential hero (here played by noir favourite Humphrey Bogart) moves through oppressive atmospheres and dangerous locales, encounters wicked men and women and strives to earn his salary by solving a minor-league murder while wading through a complex and confusing series of clues. Despite a blackmail premise which exposes a whodunnit plot, this Howard Hawks film concerns itself less with why or who, than with how, more with process than result. The story line is extremely complicated (even the author of the novel, Raymond Chandler, was reputedly unable to answer a certain key question about the plot) and unfolds at breakneck speed forcing the spectator to assimilate facts and assess situations quickly or succumb to confusion. Does it really matter who is blackmailing General Sternwood, or what happened to Sean Regan, or who shot Arthur Gwynne Geiger?

In adapting the Chandler novel for the screen, many details were altered and the directly political material erased, but an essential pessimism and cynicism remained. An atmosphere of corruption was pervasive and more than an investigation of a crime, this is an investigation into modern treachery. Marlowe is deceived, beat up, and threatened with extermination as he searches for the truth of a criminal situation. We are concerned not so much with what happened to others as what is happening to Marlowe.

What does happen to him is true in spirit to the novel except in the realm of romance. Marlowe's misogynistic streak replaced by a cynisicm which erodes as the developing romance with Vivian consolidates. In a typical film noir, male/female relationships are doomed, severed by the conclusion of the film—typified by Fred MacMurray's condition at the end of Double Indemnity or Bogart's loss of Gloria Grahame at the end of In a Lonely Place. In The Big Sleep Hollywood romance prevailed in Hawksian style; Bogart and Bacall lived out their celebrated off-screen romance on screen.

The Big Sleep was a Warner Brother's big budgeted film, not an RKO low budget ''B''; box office stars, a top notch crew, and three major writers was not the usual treatment accorded to films of this genre. This studio treatment elevated the film to ''A'' status, but ultimately the box office was fuelled by a movie-going public anxious to witness romantic reality amidst Hollywood fiction.

—Doug Tomlinson

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