Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Big Sleep - Censorship and Repression (Film Examination)

This is going to be a little different from usual.

Rather than an outright review of a famous film which is a well-known classic example which has been covered repeatedly and has rightfully been lauded for its strengths - this is going to look into two notable aspects of it. Also the era in which it was made to a lesser extent, so some sections and decisions can be explained. With any luck this will be a chance to display a wider variety of texts of the site and there might be a few more of these in the future.
Though if you do want a review here's a quick one - Are you a fan of classic film noir? Yes? See it, you won't regret watching it, but be ready to be confused and lose track of the plot at the end of the first act.

Right, with that done - enjoy.

 When the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association began to effectively enforce the Motion Picture Production Code (henceforth referred to as the Hays Code) in 1934 under Joseph Breen it introduced new problems in filmmaking. Where as previously studios had been able to produce films with little official interference, the Production Code Administration was given the right to censor and edit any script they felt breached the Code.
These acts of censorship were widespread throughout the film industry. Notable examples are the removal of explicit mentions of Rick and Ilsa’s adulterous affair in Casablanca (1942) as mentioned in London (2000), to the political censorship shown in The Brothers Warner (2008) by preventing Warner Bros. producing a film about the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

The genre that suffered the most under the Breen era Hays Code was film noir. Due to its dark plots, private detective anti-heroes, corruption of authority figures, lurid characters and source material its films were heavily censored. Members of the Production Code Administration removed from the plot anything the Hays Code deemed inappropriate, often to the film’s detriment. One example of this is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), in which Hays Code censorship and, to quote Ahearn (2008), “too many hands juggling the broth” resulted in an extremely cryptic plot bordering upon incomprehensibility.

What is notable is this was not the first film directed by which Hawks which was linked to Hollywood censorship. As noted in Munby (1999) his film Scarface (1932) having been heavily criticized for encouraging sympathy within criminals, its displays of violence, and was considered to have led to greater power being given to the Production Code Administration. Unlike Scarface, it wasn’t depictions of violence which were seen to breach the Hays Code in The Big Sleep but instead its amorous displays.

The Hays Code was firmly against many sexual aspects within films stating, as recorded in Bynum (2006), “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” A sub-section to this also directly forbade displays or open “sex perversion”, which at the time included homosexuality. This proved problematic when adapting a film noir novels as 1941’s Maltese Falcon, due to the relative openness of several gay characters, so the widespread sexual content crucial to The Big Sleep’s tale proved to be even more of a dilemma.

As noted in Kuhn (1994) unlike a number of other films, the novel’s use of widespread full frontal nudity, open references to drug abuse and homosexuality were crucial to its story. While aspects such as the lurid painting in the Sternwood home could easily be replaced, others such as Carol Lundgrun’s motivation for wanting to avenge Geiger, and the role of their bookstore, could not be edited out without damaging the plot. As such methods were used to both appease the censors while at the same time project the idea of illicit acts through suggestion.

The most notable example of this is when the film’s protagonist, Marlowe, encounters Carmen Sternwood inside an isolated house. In the novel she was found drugged and naked, clearly having been posed for a camera but with that not being an option Hawks film utilized other methods to make the audience suspect this had happened. While still drugged Carmen in the film is found fully clothed, but her dress and the entire building has been decorated with far eastern iconography, statues and design elements. Marlowe even puts his coat over her to help suggest nudity.

When The Big Sleep was produced, and for years prior to it, Asian connotations were used as a method of “Orientalism”, a method of suggesting something illicit or sensual in nature, usually related to crime in some way. Two examples of this time are the Lady From Shanghai (1947), due to the titular character, and The Maltase Falcon due to the origins of the Falcon itself, having been created in Persia.

Due to this when the audience sees Carmen surrounded in such an environment it already gives very strong suggestions to something illicit having happened. This is then all but confirmed by Marlow’s disgusted reaction to film negative he prizes from the camera. It never outright shows or explains what happened but it leaves enough of a suggestion for audiences to conclude what has taken place, thus not breaching the Hays Code but also allowing for it to be an emblem of synecdoche within the film. A personification of crime and unlawful actions.

It is likely in part due to its oriental design that the setting was frequently reincorporated into the events of The Big Sleep, as a location for murders and revelations of criminal activities. The film obsessively returns to the same primal scene which sparked the whole plot, sometimes for entirely unexplained reasons such as when Marlowe brings Carol there directly after apprehending him. While this has been seen as nonsensical and added to the film’s reputation as being incomprehensible, it did allow Hawks to make use of the scene’s symbolism. The most plot relevant example of this is the use of the statue with the hidden camera, a key object to the plot which was used to film Carmen. It is present in every scene within the location and at the end of the film an exchange of gunfire smashes it. This symbolically represents the end of the cycle of murder and blackmail the film revolves around.

The film relies very heavily upon uses of suggestion, especially in exchanges of dialogue between characters. One example of this being used to display plot information, along with the use of Orientalism in the shop’s blinds, is the exchange which creates the idea of Geiger’s rare bookshop is a front for illicit businesses:
Marlowe: Know anything about rare books?
Marlowe: Do you have a Ben Hur, 1860, Third Edition, with a duplicated line on page one-sixteen (…) Or a Chevalier Audubon 1840…?
Proprietress: No one would. There isn’t one.
Marlowe: Right. The girl in Geiger’s store didn’t know that.
It is used in combination with more visual elements from scenes within Geiger’s shop itself to enforce the idea. Most notably through the use of guilty and worried individuals quickly passing Marlowe in the store directly before this exchange, and why its wares are frantically packed away after Geiger’s death.

One conversation which relied purely upon suggestion was the famous horse race discussion between Marlow and Vivian. It was added in a revised version of the film after the success of To Have and Have Not (1944), trying to recapture the same chemistry displayed between Bogart and Bacall. It consisted almost entirely of double entendres which suggest lurid subjects and allowed for flirtation between the characters while avoiding breaching the Hays Code:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run. (...) I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

The sexual themes were not the only parts of the film to fall afoul of the censors. The identity of murderer became muddled due to Raymond Chandler losing track of who killed one victim, famously answering “damned if I know” when asked, and the Hays Code.
In the novel, Chandler made it clear that Carmen was the culprit with Vivian trying to cover for her. Due to her role in the film as a character romantically involved with Marlow, this breached the Hays Code’s directives against crime as it would make her an accessory to murder. One both presented in a sympathetic light and who would escape without being punished for her crime.

As a result of this the story was altered to include a complex plot, with the blame of Regan’s murder by Carmen being placed upon Eddie Mars, due to the victim having an adulterous relationship with his wife and then attempting to blackmail the Sternwood family. This convinces Vivian that her sister had committed it while in a drug addled mental blackout. This ultimately resulted in Carmen’s role being reduced from what was seen in the book and Vivian’s expanded upon, a choice which had as much to do with the Hays code as it did the success of To Have and Have Not and the more extensive romance between she and Marlowe.

This also extended to Marlowe himself, removing some of his more morally ambiguous actions from the film. As stated in Kuhn (1994) Marlowe in the novel was indirectly responsible for the death of Carmen, but the Production Code Administration regarded this as “something not to be brooked in a hero figure.” Instead Marlow is recommended to have her institutionalized and cured of her vices rather than pressing any charges against her. While this was a measure to make Marlowe morally unimpeachable and remove some of his ambiguity, it did allow him to retain one defining topos of a noir private detective.
Unlike traditional law enforcing figures covered in Cooke (2003) such as those in Dixon of Dock Green (1955) who enforced justice by adhering to law, Marlowe is supposed to be closer to characters such as Sherlock Holmes, obeying his own personal morals and sometimes letting the villain get away. By having Marlowe suggest Carmen be institutionalised and cured rather than being locked away in jail he does just that, acting upon what he thinks would be better for her rather than the punishment the law dictates she should suffer.

Aside from censorship other aspects of repression primarily exist in how the film is structured, with The Big Sleep’s plot being an obvious oedipal landscape. Characters and events remain in line with an oedipal plot, and there are repeated displays of repression and castration present throughout the film. Many of these tie directly into the character of General Sternwood, a powerful patriarchal figure who is effectively disabled and has received a “prophecy of doom” in the form of the demands for money prior to the start of the film. This also doubles as one of the film’s “civic terrors”, a threat which risks bringing down the Sternwood “empire” and crippling them due in part to his daughter’s excesses.
As with all detective stories, the insoluble riddle ties directly into this threat and is the mystery which the hero must solve and unravel to defeat the antagonist.

The repeated displays of repression towards the protagonist come from those who wish him to give up, punishing him for looking into their affairs and threatening him. Primarily through the film’s villain when Marlowe is ambushed and attacked in an alleyway by thugs. Another aspect of repression revolving around Marlowe was altered for the film but originally existed within the novel. The illicit object of desire he sought after was originally Vivian who he never became truly involved with and later parted ways to continue investigations within other stories. In the film adaptation they display far more chemistry and a closer attachment to one another, remaining with Vivian until its end.

To conclude, it is clear that censorship had a major impact upon the 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep. It limited many aspects which were significant to it’s story and ultimately resulted in the film relying extremely heavily upon suggestion of events to tell its story.
The aspects of repression within the film stem primarily from its characters and the Freudian aspects contained within its plot, sharply contrasting to the background excesses of gambling, drinking, pornography and Carmen’s lifestyle.

Scarface (1932)
Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Lady From Shanghai (1947)
Dixon of Dock Green (1955)
The Brothers Warner (2008)

Ahearn, W. (2008) The Big Sleep (1945) <> [Accessed 11th December 2011]
Bynum, M. (2006) The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code) <> [Accessed 11th December 2011]
Cooke, L. (2003) British Television Drama: A History, London, British Film Institute. pp. 29-30
Faulkner, W. Brackett, L. and Furthman, J. (1944) The Big Sleep Screenplay. Available through: <> [Accessed 19th December 2011]
Khun, A. (1994) The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. pp. 77-85
London, F. (2000) Censored: Wielding the Red Pen. [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11th December 2011]
Munby, J. (1999) Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 59


  1. Thanks for these insights. I have enjoyed watching this movie multiple times and your essay gave me some new perspective.

    1. You're more than welcome. Thank you for taking the time to comment and show me people read some of the essays on here.

  2. Great article. I just saw The Big Sleep last night and it made little sense, now I know why - very helpful and informative blog post, and makes sense.