There is an anecdote widely told about the film “The Big Sleep,” a gloomy and confusing noir made by Howard Hawks in 1946. The plot of the film is famously convoluted, and thoroughly — but maybe not significantly — altered from the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler. Basically it is the story of a blackmail attempt, involving pornographic pictures, made on the overindulged daughter of an aged oil baron, and the wisecracking attempt by the detective/misogynist/homophobe Philip Marlowe to crack the case.
Naturally, there are complications. In the course of some-200 pages, five people die, always in cynical circumstances. And the story goes that, on the set of ‘The Big Sleep,” the stars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart and the director Howard Hawks were lounging around, and somebody — probably Ms. Bacall, after demurely taking a cigarette out of her mouth — realized that one of the deaths did not have a corresponding culprit.
They were stumped.
So they got Mr. Chandler on the horn and asked him, and he was stumped, too.
As widely as this anecdote is told, it is just as widely disputed. Myself, I can believe that Mr. Chandler enjoyed relating a story like that, and I can even believe he told Mr. Hawks that he didn’t know the answer. Mr. Chandler was, I think, not happy with how the script had turned out, and you can imagine a catlike grin spreading on his face as he slurs boozily over the phone, “Gee, I don’t know.”
But the fact is, the novel provides a convincing answer to the question; and because the circumstances of the death are mostly unchanged in the film, it suffices in that case, as well. Whether or not Mr. Chandler knew the answer when asked, the answer itself is clear.
The death in question is the second of the book. What happens is, the oil baron’s chauffeur, a fellow named Owen Taylor, borrows the old man’s car without permission and then drives it off the Lido Pier. Cause of death, a broken neck. This happens early in the story, and the event serves principally — in my view — to jolt Mr. Marlowe out of any complacency he might have about what seems to be a rather dry case.
What you eventually learn (SPOILER)……is that Mr. Taylor had fallen in love with the younger of the baron’s daughters, Carmen Sternwood. In a futile attempt to either win her affection or protect her from embarrassment, Mr. Taylor confronts the blackmailer and kills him. He takes the dirty snapshots and, you know, ends up in the drink.
There are plenty of mysteries in the story, but how Mr. Taylor ends up where he does isn’t one of them.
On Pages 47 and 48 of my Vintage Books (1992) edition, a police diver tells Mr. Marlowe and another detective what he makes of it.
“I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide.”
The cops at first think something fishy is going on. Mr. Taylor’s body has a lump on the back of the head, and to the police that looks like murder. But the nameless diver has two reasons it doesn’t.
“First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly.”
The pier in question does not exist in real life, but to be called a pier it had to be of some length. And navigating a car along a narrow wooden track would require deliberate action.
“Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square.”
Mr. Marlowe never really revisits the question, which seems like another reason to believe it was suicide. Mr. Marlowe, who grinds through several explanations of the case and his behavior to various characters, is not known for leaving things unsaid.
But this being a noir, there is at least one suspect.
Mr. Marlowe eventually tracks the pornographic photos to a man named Joe Brody. At first, the reader is left to imagine that Mr. Brody might have killed Mr. Taylor in an effort to tie up loose ends. But Mr. Brody, after a prolonged conversation with Mr. Marlowe, has a convincing explanation.
“Beyond Beverly Hills he skidded off the road and had to stop and I came up and played copper. He had a gun but his nerve was bad and I sapped him down. So I went through his clothes and found out who he was and I lifted the plateholder, just out of curiosity. I was wondering what it was all about and getting my neck wet when he came out of it all of a sudden and knocked me off the car. He was out of sight when I picked myself up. That’s the last I saw of him.” (Pages 94-95.)
In any event, Mr. Marlowe concludes that Mr. Brody didn’t have the sand to be a killer, he was too small time. The question then becomes, What is more likely? That the chauffeur, already distraught and guilty of murder, kills himself, as has already been plausibly suggested; or that another character or a person unimagined by Mr. Chandler did it?
When Howard Hawks began filming Raymond Chandler’s crime noire masterpiece, The Big Sleep, he realized that the book never resolves the question of who killed Owen Taylor. via Raymond Chandler and the Lido Pier « Reservoir Road.
As A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax write in “Bogart,” “Hawks sent Chandler a telegram asking whether the Sternwoods chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was murdered or a suicide. Dammit I didn’t know either, “ Chandler recalled. via The Big Sleep :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies.
The case of Owen Taylor is an excellent example of this. Though Marlowe spends a great deal of time collecting data concerning Taylor’s possible motive for killing Geiger and anyone else’s for killing Taylor or Taylor’s for killing himself, we are never told who done it. via Killing Owen Taylor: Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past.
“I remember,” Chandler wrote to Hamilton, “several years ago when Howard Hawks was making [“The Big Sleep”], he and Bogart got into an argument as to whether one of the characters was murdered or committed suicide. They sent me a wire there’s a joke about this too asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either. Of course I got hooted at. via The Big Sleep 1945.
He replied “Damned if I know.” It’s an amusing anecdote but I know that from my experience when developing a screenplay with producers and development executives that you must have an answer for everything and that nobody would be impressed with a reply like that. via Avoid Coincidence In Storytelling | Screenwriting Blog.
- More Grappling With Raymond Chandler (theatlantic.com)
- Raymond Chandler’s Private Dick (theatlantic.com)
- Grappling With Raymond Chandler And The B.I.G. Sleep (theatlantic.com)
- 1001 Books/The Classics Club – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (swampofboredom.com)