As the predicted and real-time effects of climate change grow more dire by the day, and Covid-19 continues to devastate the world’s most impoverished (predominantly black and brown) populations, due in large measure to a commercially oriented global vaccine regime, the prospects for communal life, collective liberty, and non-coercive happiness seem increasingly elusive.
Lately, however, I’ve sought solace, and sometimes found enlightenment, in so-called post-war American films that dramatise the appeal, ubiquity, and ramifications of social violence in the lives of nobodies, who are also everymen (and occasionally, women). Most of these movies were made between or alongside the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and the prolonged American carpet-bombing of North Korea, during the Korean war of 1950-53. They all tend to feel sick about the world, for one reason or another, and excited at the versatile potential of cinema to explore why.
The Big Sleep
Set in a universe that might be our own, where exploitation and murder are common fare, and mendacity is ripe, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) excels primarily in provoking delight in its viewers: at the frisson of its scripted sparring, and at the complicated glamour of cinema and its stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall among them. Raymond Chandler’s style of literate, sardonic street-speak is elevated, by Hawks, to film-content, and much of the plot is buoyed by the fast-talking perspicacity of Bogart’s world-weary Private Investigator, Philip Marlowe. The result is a thriller that charms, in which even the most disturbing crimes lead, sooner or later, to deadpan poetry.
Throughout the film, dramatic (and sexual) tension is sustained through quips and verbal ricochets. Even when drenched in sweat, Bogart is steady, his embered gaze and rhythmic delivery anchoring the neurotic lavishness of Marlowe’s dialogue. His retorts are relentlessly ornate and performative, and yet oddly beguiling. On being rebuked by Lauren Bacall’s Vivian, “I don't like your manners”, he replies:
I'm not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like ’em myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings….
Marlowe’s is the excessive eloquence of a man who doesn’t know how to talk, i.e. with other people. Following a “hunch”, Marlowe impersonates, with spoofy and even campy precision, a rare books collector, up-folding the rim of his hat and donning a pair of black-lensed glasses. His tone changes, but his sculpted, abrasive garrulity remains the same. “You could go on forever, couldn't you”, Vivian later remarks, all smoky intelligence and innuendo: she has his measure.
Bogart is the ideal player for the part. With his lean, nervy gait, and his thin, strangely malevolent smile, he makes Marlowe both tough and iconic; he wins our hearts. “You begin to interest me, vaguely”, says an assistant in a bookstore, speaking for all of us, as the weird charisma of Bogart-Marlowe fills the space between them, the faint grin on his face poised between languid attraction and suppressed menace. Most of Marlowe’s digressions are flirtatious, some are violent: Bogart’s magnetism is grounded in his ability to keep both of these dynamics alive for viewers, no matter the context.
Marlowe dominates the film. The result is that whatever insight we receive into his society is implicit and oblique: like the smoke he breathes, as he jousts and seduces his various adversaries into submission. The convoluted (and melodramatic) crimes Marlowe solves are less central than the fact he is solving them, focused and unfazed. We know that there are monsters in the labyrinth Marlowe paces through, but we have the reassuring pleasure of sensing that this particular outsider, a “guy who gets paid to do other people's laundry”, has seen them all before, in one guise or another. Marlowe was previously “fired for insubordination”, we learn: “I seem to rate pretty high on that”. He trades “shots” with Irish revolutionaries and heavies, and survives, somehow wholer than he had been to begin with. He walks and talks as though he needed no convincing of the potency of his own myths.
If this quality in great part accounts for the allure of The Big Sleep, it’s also a constricting frame. In Hawks’s adaptation of Chandler’s novel, the title seems to refer to Marlowe’s coy charisma and expressive intelligence. His restless eyes scan every room he enters. And he can ask, with mock-exasperation: “Don't you know any better than to wake a man up at two o'clock in the afternoon?” Hawks’s vision is immersive and entertaining, and considerably emptier than Chandler’s original creation. “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep”, Chandler’s narrator says:
you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now….
No such trouble haunts the exhilarated romance of Marlowe and Vivian at the close of Hawks’s picture. They love each other, and this is taken to dispel the “nastiness” (of murder, manipulation, blackmail, cover-up) that brought them together.
The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle (1950), John Huston’s knife-edge meditation on crime and anomie, cannot afford such glib resolutions. In spirit, it comes closer than The Big Sleep itself to sharing and fathoming Chandler’s intuition of a world gone wrong. For Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), life is both drabber and more desperate than anything Marlowe and Vivian experience, for all the abundant dangers of their tale. Every move made by Dix or Doll has weight and consequence; their chances of survival in post-Depression era America, whatever about attaining mutual connection or happiness, are always scarce.
Hayden, towering and impassive, has none of Bogart’s neurotic appeal onscreen. His almost expressionless performance nevertheless carries immense pathos. Dix is articulate only in brokenness, in contrast to Marlowe, whose rolling wisecracks synthesise every jagged or precarious situation that snares him into laconic prose. Dix is labelled “a hick” and “farmer” by his fellow hoodlums; his glazed anger and proficiency in physical force are both products of lifelong dispossession.
One scene, the hinge on which The Asphalt Jungle turns, observes Dix and Doll in close-up, locked in a conversation that seems more like a set of terse, parallel soliloquies. After recounting a dream of “Corncracker”, a horse on his family’s farm when he was a boy, Dix mutters:
[Dix:] ... you know somethin’, one of my ancestors imported one of the first Irish thoroughbreds into my county [in Kentucky]. Our farm was in the family for generations, 160 acres… [But then] everything happened at once. My old man died. And we lost our corn crop. That black colt I was telling you about, he broke his leg. And had to be shot. That was a rotten year. I'll never forget the day we left.
[Doll:] Growing up in a place and then having to leave must be awful. I never had a proper home.
[Dix:] The way I figure, my luck's just gotta turn. One of these days I'll make a real killing. And then I'll head for home. First thing I do when I get there, I take a bath in the crick, get this city dirt off me.
The filth of modernity, both moral and physical, surrounds these characters, and stains their vision. For all his street-savvy, Dix can only see what’s behind him, back in the past; and even in the company of Doll, he cannot hear or recognise the blend of empathy and quiet appeal in her words (“I never had a proper home”), or understand the intimacy they share: he is alone. Alienation hovers over him, and has invaded even the clothes he wears, and the skin of his body. All he wants, and cannot have, is to “take a bath in the crick, get this city dirt off me.”
“If you want fresh air”, shrugs Louis (Anthony Caruso), the locksmith, “don’t look for it in this town.” The city itself is a kind of corrupting monster, that depletes its denizens, and swallows them whole. It’s a recognition that comes too late to Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the scheming, bankrupt man-of-society, who sponsors the central heist, and then falls victim to the powerplay of doublecross and murder he himself has instigated. “Crime”, he reflects, before his fall, “is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.” Whereas Dix and his fellow heisters are doomed to die – by a combination of circumstance and tragic fallibility – Emmerich, who has emerged from the ensuing debacle physically unscathed, chooses death over the social disgrace his exposure as a (failed) criminal will elicit. He shoots himself in his study, while the police huddle incredulously on the other side of his door.
The Big Heat
The same motif sets the stage in the compulsive study in moral choice and endurance that is Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), which begins with the suicide (by gunshot) of Tom Duncan, a well-respected “cop” and head of the record bureau. “Everything Tom did was clean and wholesome”, feigns his widow (Jeanette Nolan), when Bannion, the formidably inquisitive detective, arrives on the scene. Like The Asphalt Jungle, however, Lang’s film depicts a society riddled with greed and ripped apart by violence: a culture in which nothing, and nobody, is “clean and wholesome”.
And yet, as Bannion slowly uncovers a complex network of corruption, we also glimpse a counter-current of anxiety, which neither The Big Sleep or The Asphalt Jungle ventures to acknowledge. Looking out over the bustling city at night, and pondering Bannion’s persistent and disruptive inquiries, mob-boss Lagana (Alexander Scourby) advises his sidekick against resorting (and drawing attention) to their standard methods of enforcing assent. “Never get the people steamed up”, he says, “they start doing things: Grand Juries, election investigations”, all of which would spell the end to his political reign. Popular wrath exists, even if only as a potentiality, within or just beyond the confines of this drama; and even the lord of the criminal underworld is afraid of its light.
Lagana addresses this counsel to Vince, a misogynist and killer played by Lee Marvin. Vince is laconic and violent in every casual glance he throws, except when his boss is around, which makes him watchful and obsequious, and Bannion, before whom he cowers. And we understand why. In contrast to Bogart (whose Marlowe more often than not wields wit and calculation as his preferred weapons), Glenn Ford brings a persuasive physicality to Bannion’s bristling rage and dogged commitment. When he fights, we believe his anger, and recognise his control. Even his impassiveness smoulders. “You can't set yourself against the world, and get away with it”, Bannion is told. And so he assembles a hand-picked team of former GIs, like-minded and loyal, to protect his daughter and assist himself. He thinks like a hunter, as Vince seems silently, instinctively intuits.
As the action unfolds, Bannion appears to draw subtle (self-)satisfaction from his application of righteous force. His courageous, vengeful approach to criminality and his (largely ineffectual) interludes of soul-searching both foreshadow the just vigilantism of cinematic figures as diverse as Travis Bickle and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”. As Nolan’s Batman trilogy in particular demonstrates, sometimes unwittingly, the violent, anti-crime heroism of such outsiders can easily shade into cruel retribution or authoritarian manhandling, in the name of order. The chirpy restoration of Bannion’s station and power (as police sergeant) at the close of The Big Heat does little to mitigate the punitive dimension of his project.
That we remain so firmly on Bannion’s side, however, is symptomatic of Lang’s masterful comprehension of the film’s driving emotional vectors. The car-bomb attack outside Bannion’s home, killing his wife (Jocelyn Brando), is so shocking partly because of the portrait of authentic and affectionate marital camaraderie that precedes it. In stark contrast to the guarded, elliptical amours of The Big Sleep and The Asphalt Jungle, the relationship between Bannion and his wife is defined not by innuendo, but by intimacy and even equality (we see them sharing the same can of beer and slice of steak, cracking jokes at each other over dinner).
The film is noteworthy, indeed, for its unflinching treatment of the savage and lethal violence inflicted on women, from Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), “found dead... after beating and torture”, with “cigarette burns on her body”, to Debby (Gloria Grahame), whose face is scalded with boiling coffee by her sometime lover, Vince. When reprimanded by Bannion as to her accommodating of Vince’s outbursts against other women, and her implication in Lagana’s crime ring more generally, Debby replies, matter-of-factually: “The last time I butted in, Vince worked me over.”
For all his avenging fury later, Bannion’s initial, presumptuous disdain towards Debby is arguably itself a form of complicity, in a contempt that Debby knows only too well. And Debby, the so-called blonde of the movie, perceives as much, astutely. “With you dead, the big heat falls: for Lagana, for Stone”, Bannion snarls at Duncan’s widow, with his hands around her throat. “If you had [killed her]”, Debby notes, “There wouldn't have been much difference between you and Vince Stone.” Both figures, Bannion and Vince, stalk and shadow one another, in their actions and even their drives.
Tellingly, aside from Bannion, and with far less vainglory, the only characters undeterred by mob coercion are women, who tip him off at every step, risking (and in most cases, losing) their lives along the way: Debby, Ms Parker (Edith Evanson), and Lucy Chapman herself. Appropriately, perhaps, it’s Debby who ultimately assassinates Bertha, thus ensuring that the truth of Lagana’s infiltration of the police department will come to light, as the Duncan papers are released posthumously to the press. “We should use first names, Bertha”, she smiles, glancing at the fur-coats they both wear, paid for by Lagana: “we’re sisters under the mink.” “It’ll burn for a long time, Vince”, she says softly, likewise, as she takes revenge on her previous assailant, flinging boiling water across him. Writhing in agony, he wheels on her in speechless rage, and shoots her dead. Debby has achieved the complexity and dynamism of a central protagonist; a crime apparently punishable by death.
It’s this roiling portrait, not just of political corruption, but of sexist violence, both intimate and pervasive, that makes The Big Heat so vivid and unsettling, and which raises it above Hawks’s earlier back-alley jaunt with Marlowe. Censored and forced into exile by Germany’s Nazi regime, Fritz Lang woke up in America, then went on to paint the living nightmare of the ferocities he found there.
Ciarán O'Rourke is a widely published Irish poet, living in Leitrim. His poetry appears in the Culture Matters anthology, Children of the Nation, and his first collection, The Buried Breath, is available here.