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150 Films #14 & 15: The Big Lebowski (1998) / The Big Sleep (1946)

My original plan for this essay was to combine The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep, because (1) I’ve fallen behind on these essays, and (2) they share in common a pitch-perfect depiction of L.A. culture that most other L.A. movies don’t quite catch. Even sprawling, L.A.-set ensemble epics like Short Cuts or Crash or future 150 Films entry Magnolia have a tendency to make demographic separations that aren’t quite as neat in Los Angeles. The oddest and most entertaining aspect of my brief stint in L.A. was observing the elbow-rubbing of these many varied walks of life.

In The Big Lebowski, bowling brings together an inebriated hippie, a right-wing Vietnam vet, a dullard who is frequently out of his element, and a flamboyant Latin pederast. A bogus kidnapping plot ties together a wealthy wannabe-plutocrat–who, it is revealed late in the film, is far more incompetent and beholden to others’ largesse than he lets on–his porn star trophy wife, his avant-garde artist stepdaughter, a collective of German nihilists, and a shady porn kingpin and his hired goons. A misadventure involving a joyride in a beater leads to the dunce son of a famous television writer trapped in an iron lung. All this weirdness seems perfectly normal if you’ve lived in L.A. for awhile.

Lebowski, as many know, was a conscious pastiche of Raymond Chandler’s ideas, so it’s fitting that his novel The Big Sleep similarly ties together threads of humanity who, in any saner city, would be unlikely to find each other in such close proximity. It starts, like Lebowski, with a wealthy, wheelchair-bound man and a blackmail scheme. This plot brings into the wealthy Sternwood family’s orbit: the eldest daughter’s missing bootlegger husband, the drug-addled youngest daughter, a gangster club owner, a pornographer, said pornographer’s gay lover, and a handful of shady characters from all social strata. One detail contained in the book not retained for the movie is the notion that General Sternwood was a Mexican immigrant who changed his name but retains a dark complexion.

I got that out of the way, in brief, because I think it’s an interesting facet of both stories. But as I rewatched the movies, back to back, I realized very quickly that they both make an even more important point as it pertains to my development as a human person, an aspect I touched on in essays about Above the Law and All the President’s Men: the importance of the truth. Of course, the way each film manages to get at the truth—operating as extensions of its central characters—is very different, but I would say the reason they’re both equally satisfying, in their different ways, is because of my desire for truth and justice in a world that often lacks either.

Alphabetically, I know I should start out talking about The Big Lebowski, but autobiographically, it doesn’t quite work. I came to Chandler earlier, and if I’m being honest, the first few times I saw The Big Lebowski, I didn’t like it at all. I dismissed it as a stoner comedy that had the same sort of languid, borderline-incoherent rhythm of talking to a stoned person. I admired the Coens for pulling that off in a film, but I didn’t actually enjoy it. It wasn’t until the cult audience started to build, and the numerous times I was subjected to it during film school, that I began to appreciate how well the Coens manage to combine a pitch-perfect Chandler narrative with ’90s L.A. culture and a dash of stoner ambling.

So let me start with The Big Sleep and my general love of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s indelible, incorruptible investigator. The Marlowe of the books is slightly different from the Marlowe of the film version of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s backstory very simply explains who he is: a former insurance investigator and D.A.’s office investigator, repeatedly fired for insubordination before striking out on his own. The major difference in the film version is that he is catnip to women, a strange addition that I have to assume came at Warner Brothers’ insistence–in their first starring vehicle together, director Howard Hawks had to make it believable that short, middle-aged, not-very-hunky Humphrey Bogart could land Lauren Bacall, a bombshell less than half his age.

Many actors have played the role of Marlowe over the years. Chandler’s personal choice for the role was Dick Powell, who played him in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet. I still can’t fathom this choice; Powell is fine, but if we’re talking the definitive 1940s star to play the definitive 1940s detective, it has to be Bogart. Bogart’s persona nails the wise-ass, takes-no-shit dialogue better than just about anyone, and he’s one of a very small number of actors who can project being both the toughest and smartest guy in the room at any given time. (Powers Boothe, who played Marlowe for a short-lived HBO series, is the only other actor who has come close to nailing the role.)

So while it’s a little goofy that Hawks adds cartoonish sex appeal to Bogart’s Marlowe, The Big Sleep remains just about the best adaptation of any of Chandler’s books, for two major reasons: first, Bogart’s performance captures Marlowe’s integrity and persistence, and secondly, Hawks’s direction captures Chandler’s frequent descriptions of the tedium of investigation, making it clear that the exciting parts of the story are the exception rather than the rule.

Throughout the film, characters try to push Marlowe away from the truth. Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), especially, telegraphs to Marlowe that he knows plenty, but he wants Marlowe to stop digging into the truth. The closer Marlowe gets to the truth, the more danger he faces; most of the time, that’s the only way he knows he’s on the right track. And he just keeps going, no matter how dangerous the job gets, until he’s solved the case. Once he makes a commitment to his client, as long as he believes they themselves aren’t criminals and he keeps getting paid, Marlowe can’t be flattered or tricked, bought or intimidated, or otherwise dissuaded from uncovering the truth.

In much the same way, but for very different reasons, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) can’t be dissuaded from uncovering the truth. The Coens have to do a lot of heavy lifting—which they do quite deftly—to put an apathetic slacker into the role of a man who wants the truth. It starts with a soiled rug, continues with a “ringer” provided by his friend Walter (John Goodman), and keeps going until The Dude has uncovered a truth that will clear his own name and rid him of the weirdos that keep attacking him. But for The Dude, the search for the truth also has to do with justice: thanks to Walter’s switch with his ringer, The Dude fears that actions forced upon him might have led to a woman’s death.

There are elements to The Dude’s character, and Bridges’s performance, that add several shades of nuance that often go ignored by even the most ardent critics and fans. For all the running gags about White Russians and smoking joints and repeating others’ dialogue as if it’s an original thought, The Dude is neither a stupid man—evidenced by his acerbic wit, his ability to cut through others’ bullshit and get at the truth, and his alleged writing of the Port Huron statement—nor an unfeeling man. The Coens understood a mere goof-off slacker stoner couldn’t fit into a Chandler-esque narrative without tapping into those feelings; The Dude needs a reason to care about finding the truth.

The masterstroke, though, is the Coens’ recognition that Marlowe learns more from bad guys tipping their hands than from actual investigation. Sure, Marlowe’s investigations tend to lead him to the wrong place at the right time—but moreso than any physical evidence, it’s the people he encounters, often in the form of threats, beatings, or attempted bribes—that let Marlowe know he’s on the right track. So The Dude gets harassed by Jackie Treehorn’s (Ben Gazzara) goons, beaten by Maude Lebowski’s (Julianne Moore) thugs, harassed by the German nihilists and their marmot, harassed again by Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, and so on—it’s these characters, who believe The Dude knows more than he does about everything that’s going on, who keep bringing The Dude into the story. It’s their forceful behavior that, ironically, allows The Dude to put all the pieces together and unravel his own role in a sort of goofy conspiracy. More than anything, the Coens managed to make a film anchored by a passive character, and it actually works!

In the end, though, neither The Big Lebowski nor The Big Sleep would succeed nearly as well if they didn’t have characters who want the truth. In one case, an incorruptible man has devoted his life to uncovering it; in the other, a goofball slacker needs to know he and his idiot friend didn’t cause the death of a mostly innocent woman. Soon enough, we’ll encounter some films in which the truth is either never discovered, or it’s more devastating than believing the lie. “The truth hurts,” they say, and that can be true a great deal of the time, but I’ve never understood why people would rather live in ignorance—or worse, with a lie. The truth may hurt, but the active refusal to know it destroys.

Then again, they also say “the truth will out,” and that’s a lie. One reason I love Chandler is that he places Marlowe in a world, similar to our own, bereft of anyone who will seek the truth no matter the cost: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, political, whatever… And then, at the center of that sad world stands a lone hero who makes anyone reading hope for the day that there are more people like him than like everyone else. In a weird way, I feel the same about The Dude. Like The Stranger (Sam Elliott), I take comfort in knowing he’s out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners. He’s less outwardly heroic, less clearly motivated to do the right thing, and if he has any sort of code of ethics, it would not in any way resemble a man like Marlowe’s. Yet, he exists in the same plane of awful people willing to look past the truth and prop up their own delusions: those they want others to believe, and those they want to believe themselves. The Dude himself numbs the world with drugs and alcohol, but when push literally comes to shove, he will step up and do what’s right.

That, sadly, is a rarity.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Keep or Sell? Keep

The Big Sleep (1946)

Keep or Sell? Keep

Next Up: Blood Simple (1984)

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