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Ask him to make a film about happiness and he'd have gone fishing, or got drunk, But give him a story about more, murders than anyone can keep up with, or explain, and somehow he made a paradise. Maybe he needed a cover, some way of seeming tough, cool and superior, it he was ever going to do happiness (1)
For a film that identifies itself as a detective story, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) strikes me as extraordinarily romantic. Whilst most genres contain a romantic thread, the romance forms the backbone of the film in The Big Sleep. It is the constant point of fascination around which the investigation is conducted. As David Thomson suggests, the murders are an excuse for the romance. The Big Sleep evades simple generic categorization. It is a film that exposes the deficiencies of genre theory. At the time of its production The Big Sleep was called a 'crime thriller' or referred to as a 'Warner's gangster film'. Since its release it has been categorized as a 'crime drama', a 'detective film' and retrospectively a 'film noir'.
Thompson acknowledges the difficulty of relying on the 'film noir' label exclusively. He writes, 'After all, The Big Sleep looks and sometimes feels like a film noir, which clearly is a mistaken or much less than adequate labelling of the movie'. (2) Whilst we should acknowledge that The Big Sleep bears marks of film noir in its characterization, mise-en-scene and narration, it is best understood as a 'hardboiled romance', a term that acknowledges its myriad of influences.
Hard boiled originally referred to how pulp novels are read: in the time it takes to hard boil an egg. It also refers to the snappy dialogue and the passion that reaches boiling point when characters like Marlowe and Vivian meet, constantly vying for the best lines. That the romance of The Big Sleep is also hard boiled is evident in its use of double talk, sexual innuendo, obsession and an undercurrent of violence. Romance is represented overtly in scenes involving Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and covertly in the symbols and 'negative spaces' of scenes that end with the suggestion of lust.
The Big Sleep begins and ends with identical, almost abstract images in which silhouettes of two amorous figures light up and then jettison their smoldering cigarettes into a glass ashtray in order to devote their full attention to kissing. Abstracting the image, occluding its details attracts interest and invites our participation by provoking questions. Who are the smokers? What do the cigarettes signify about the characters and why …