Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The plot of the film adaptation of The Big Sleep was so convoluted that not even the screenwriters fully understood the plot.
Howard Hawks’ 1946 film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is an excellent film…
The original novel is quite good, as well..
Right from the start, it’s worth noting that the film IS very convoluted (I suppose a kinder word is that it is “complex”).
However, the degree to which the film is convoluted has been overstated over the years to the point where it is just, well, false.
To wit, Allmovie.com‘s review of the film states:
Any further attempts to outline the plot would be futile: the storyline becomes so complicated and convoluted that even screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthmann were forced to consult Raymond Chandler for advice (he was as confused by the plot as the screenwriters).
(As a quick aside, yeah, it’s pretty cool that William Faulkner co-wrote such a great film).
That is just not true.
It’s really a pretty straightforward case of a simple tale getting exaggerated over the years until it sounds a lot bigger than it really was.
Chandler WAS consulted during the filming of the movie, but not by the screenwriters, but rather by the director Hawks and the star, Humphrey Bogart (playing Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe).
Bogart and Hawks sent Chandler a telegram telling him that they had been arguing over whether a particular character had been murdered or committed suicide, so they figured they’d ask Chandler, who told a friend in a letter that he told them “dammit I didn’t know either.”
From the tone of Chandler’s letter (which was collected in Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane’s The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959), it does not appear as though Chandler was giving a serious answer, but rather a sort of “Why are you bothering me with such a question?” In the very same letter, he tells his friend that apparently a studio executive found out how much the telegram had cost to send and drilled Hawks over wasting studio funds on such a frivolous pursuit.
But even if he was being serious, he was not corresponding with the screenwriters, and there is no record of any other such correspondence. And since the story about Hawks and Bogart telegraming him is pretty much exactly the story that has been told about the screenwriters asking him, and it seems pretty darn likely that the one is being confused/conflated with the other. In other words, the only evidence that the screenwriters had any problem understanding the plot of the film is the “they consulted Chandler” anecdote, which is not true. So absent any evidence that the screenwriters contacted Chandler or any other similar evidence of them expressing confusion over the plot of the film then I do not think it is fair to rule anything but that the legend is…
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