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IN HOWARD HAWKS' THE BIG SLEEP (1946), Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe repeatedly returns to the scene of a crime. The scene is the house of Arthur Gwynn Geiger, a dealer in contraband (implicitly pornographic) books who is currently blackmailing General Sternwood under the cover of uncollectable (because illegal) 'gambling debts', purportedly incurred by the General's youngest daughter, Carmen. Though neither we nor Marlowe directly witness the event--we see a burst of light in a window, hear a scream and three gunshots, closely followed by a shot of feet running down stairs, then of a car speeding away, then another car--we come to understand that Geiger was gunned down in the act of covertly photographing a drugged-out Carmen and that the killer was her jealous boyfriend, Owen Taylor, the family chauffeur. More than a few critics have seen Marlowe's 'return' as having Freudian implications, as if Marlowe or the film were obsessed; as if Marlowe's return to the scene is in some way a 'return of the repressed' or a return to the repressed. (1)
To judge by the eloquent tradition of criticism on the film (not to mention the copious scholarship devoted to Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel, which William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and Philip Epstein helped Hawks recast into screenplay form) Philip Marlowe's is not the only obsession, nor Geiger's house the only scene of criminal fascination. (2) Indeed, for all their differences, the film's critics agree that its 'private eye' plot remains a puzzlement and that this puzzlement bears some underlying connection to the most striking difference between Chandler's novel and Hawks' movie: the fact that Vivian Rutledge (Vivian Regan in the novel) and Philip Marlowe become, or are from the very start, a classic 'Hollywood' couple.
Both strains of the film were forecast by the promotional trailer that is available on the recently released DVD of the movie. The trailer opens at the Hollywood Public Library with Bogart browsing through the mystery section, looking for something 'off the beaten track, like The Maltese Falcon'. An obliging female librarian picks The Big Sleep off the shelf and avows it would make a wonderful film. Bogart asks to have a look and begins reading aloud--as if from the novel--from the point in the story when Philip Marlowe first enters Geiger's cottage, and then Bogart's voice becomes a voice-over as we dissolve from book pages to Bogart/Marlowe coming through Geiger's front window: 'Sometimes I wonder what strange fate brought me out of the storm to that house ...' The scene is promptly associated with mysteriousness and death--'... every clue told me a different story, but each had the same ending: murder'--and then, 'suddenly', the scene shifts to Vivian and Marlowe kissing in his coupe--' I like that, I'd like more'--while the narrator function is taken over by large-font titles announcing: 'They're Together Again!' 'They' are subsequently revealed …