My Favorite Scenes: The Big Sleep
Film noir offers countless scenes that stick out in my mind – scenes that, any time I run across them while scanning cable channels, I have to stop and watch, no matter how many times I’ve seen them before. The Big Sleep (1946) is rife with such scenes – here’s one of my favorites.
The scene begins at the Hollywood Public Library. Our hero, Philip Marlowe, is seated at a table inside, studiously copying down information about a first edition tome. When he returns his reference material to the fair-haired, bespectacled librarian, she remarks that he doesn’t look much like a man who’d be interested in first editions. Without missing a beat, Marlowe rejoins, “Well, I collect blondes in bottles, too.” The offhand remark earns a bemused second glance from the librarian.
When next we see Marlowe, he’s outside of the establishment of Arthur Gwenn Geiger, owner of a rare books shop. Adopting a disguise on the fly, Marlowe dons a pair of shades, flips up the brim of his fedora, and strides inside, affecting a lisping accent and foppish manner to inquire about a series of books. The inquiree, a tall, well-groomed brunette, is terse and impatient, denying that they have any of the items he’s seeking. Their exchange keeps a smile on my lips – after being twice rebuffed, Marlowe gazes over the top of his glasses and asks, “You do sell books, hmm?” And the woman – abruptly abandoning her elegant façade – shoots back, “What do those look like, grapefruit?” Then, after telling Marlowe that the owner is not in, a rather nervous-looking character enters and with a cool gesture of her hand behind Marlowe’s turned back, the woman directs him to the closed office inside. As Marlowe’s gaze follows the man’s entry into the office, the woman takes a defensive step toward Marlowe, informing him again that Mr. Geiger is not in. “I heard you,” Marlowe replies in a slightly offended tone, “you needn’t yell at me.”
Leaving Geiger’s joint and removing his “disguise,” Marlowe heads across the street to another book store (the “Acme” bookstore, no less), where he is greeted by an employee inside, another glasses-clad female, with her brown hair pulled back into a severe ponytail. Marlowe is quickly impressed by her knowledge of rare books (unlike the woman in Geiger’s store), and she earns his further admiration with her meticulous description of the man Marlowe is shadowing: “Geiger’s in his early 40s, medium height, fattish (at this, she shoots a glance at Marlowe’s midsection, which he promptly sucks in), “soft all over, Charlie Chan moustache, well-dressed, wears a black hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn’t any, and, oh yes – I think his left eye is glass.” Her attention to detail elicits high praise: “You’d make a good cop,” Marlowe tells her.
With a sudden, full-on thunderstorm now raging outside, the woman invites Marlowe to stay in her bookstore to watch for Geiger – after giving a cursory consideration to waiting outside in his car, Marlowe quickly agrees, confessing that he has a bottle of rye in his pocket. “I’d a lot rather get wet in here,” he says with a crooked grin. The woman doesn’t waste any time in closing the door and seductively pulling down the shade. “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon,” she practically purrs. Moments later, she’s removed her glasses and shaken her hair out of her ponytail. “Hel-LO,” Marlowe offers in appreciation as he takes in the transformation of his congenial host.
Much later (what goes on in the interim, we’ll never know), the woman reluctantly informs Marlowe that she has spotted Geiger’s car pulling up in front of the store across the street. Marlowe bids her farewell, giving her a pat on the arm and telling her, “So long, pal.” She gazes after him wistfully as he exits into the rain.
And . . . scene.