We missed World Book Day (March 3) this year, but what the heck. Let’s celebrate all things literary anyway by re-presenting Paroma Chatterjee’s witty take on those two alluring cinematic spaces: The Big Sleep‘s Acme Bookshop and Geiger Rare Books, where you may get more than books.
* * *
“One of the many pleasures of The Big Sleep is the chance to see Geiger’s Rare Books and the Acme Book Shop in succession, and to weigh them mentally; what makes them work; what makes them both tick for Marlowe; why the ‘real’ clerk (Dorothy Malone) acts the way she does, and ditto for the fake one (Sonia Darrin).”
* * *
It was the best of bookshops; it was the worst of bookshops. The clerk knew everything; the clerk knew nothing. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) encountered the one, then the other, on a sunny afternoon fortuitously broken by a shower. Thus came about one of the best scenes in The Big Sleep (1946), and what many claim is one of the greatest scenes of casual seduction in the history of American cinema.
For a noir film, bookish allusions crop up with astonishing regularity in The Big Sleep. Books serve as the front for the fun activities that occur around Arthur Gwynne Geiger – pornography, blackmail, and murder. At other times, books (and their esteemed authors) show up in the crackling dialogue. When Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) sees Marlowe for the first time, she says she thought private dicks only ever existed in books. He tosses back a remark about textbooks on detecting, complete with diagrams and all. When she sees him after a long wait outside his office, she jokes that he’s like Marcel Proust, working in bed. Then she tells him he wouldn’t know who Proust was. (So why mention Proust at all? To score points with the French?) In between, Marlowe takes himself off to the public library to learn about first editions. We see him hunched over a book in a room filled with others of their sort.
And then, of course, there are the bookshops.
The rest of this essay will conduct a detailed comparison of them, the clerks, and their books. This is, admittedly, an exercise in self-indulgence, for one of the many pleasures of The Big Sleep is the chance to see Geiger’s Rare Books and the Acme Book Shop in succession, and to weigh them mentally; what makes them work; what makes them both tick for Marlowe; why the “real” clerk (Dorothy Malone) acts the way she does, and ditto for the fake one (Sonia Darrin). If fans of the movie often rewind and watch this section again (and again and again), then this essay will attempt to recreate some of its pleasures in writing. But in the process, it will also try and figure out the deal with the real clerk; how she steals the scene and why she’s there at all, other than as a tribute to the confident, wisecracking, game-for-a-roll-in-the-hay dame that director Howard Hawks loved to feature in his films.
Not that this comes as a surprise to any reasonably intelligent viewer. We know from the outset that things aren’t what they seem. What is interesting about this state of affairs, though, is the fact that nobody makes any bones about it. There is no mystery about the mystery. “You don’t put on much of a front, do you?” Vivian remarks on seeing Marlowe’s lair. This attitude sums up the entire film. Everybody is shady as hell, and even if one’s brains get twisted in one’s nether garments when trying to figure out who blackmailed and killed whom, one thing stands out firm and straight: nobody is clean.
We can expect no less from Geiger’s shop.
Stepping in, the customer finds himself in a spacious room dotted with antique furnishings and very few books. A Buddha statue reclines on a shelf, all the more incongruous for the contrast it provides to the clerk. She – bearing the quaint name of “Agnes” – shimmies over to help. Her exact words are “Can I be of any assistance?” This is the sort of old-world, gracious hospitality that one doesn’t expect from crooks. Conversely, it is exactly the sort of conversation that crooks and confidence tricksters use to cover their backs and is, therefore, patently false.
Agnes’ outfit is another dead giveaway. The high-necked, three-tiered cocktail dress might have worked if it hadn’t been accessorized with the ornate brooch and the hoop earrings. Something is off. This is a dame dressed for an evening out. She seems most at home in dark, smoke-filled interiors with men trooping in at odd times. And that is exactly what happens in Geiger’s establishment. If the darkness and the smoke are missing, the men more than make up for their absence. One can imagine an array of masculine types – the brawny and the scrawny, the gent and the thug – all making their way to the secret inner chamber of Geiger’s stashed delights. And Agnes points them the way with a remarkably economical wiggle of her wrist. That gesture, so swift and efficient and effective, bespeaks a thousand extracurricular talents that the dame probably harbors: throwing dice, counting cash, perhaps even throwing knives (a pen-knife would work nicely with the book motif) . . .
Expectedly, she knows nothing about the Ben Hur, 1860, third edition, or the Chevalier Audubon, 1840. But it is a treat to watch her field Marlowe’s inquiries. When she finally drops the pretense, one is exhilarated at seeing the “real” thing. “What do those look like? Grapefruit?” she quips, when Marlowe asks if it is a bookshop he’s walked into? He knows and she knows, and she knows that he knows, and he knows that she knows that he knows that it is not. The omniscience on both sides is precisely what makes the ensuing conversation even juicier, when Marlowe throws out a remark about going to hear a lecture on “Argentine cera-micks.” Agnes, now freely displaying her native tough-gal speech, gloats, “The word is cer-aaa-mics. And they ain’t Argentine, they’re Egyptian.” She’s so pleased at catching him out that it’s touching. For a brief moment here, Agnes resembles Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), that thumb-sucking bombshell who does baby-talk (and is, arguably, babyish in many ways, not least in her astounding self-centeredness).
My point is that Geiger’s Books, Agnes, and the conversation simply scream out the obvious: this is a shady place filled with shady people. And by the end of the exchange, Agnes is honest about it. She doesn’t hide her true style, speech, and mannerisms. The striptease is complete; the act is unveiled.
Such candor isn’t on display at the Acme Book Shop.
And this brings me to my next point: the real mystery of this mystery flick (if it can be called that) lies squarely within the environs of the Acme. For an incidental segment, it encompasses the very spirit of the genre of The Big Sleep, more even than the convoluted plot does. It is, ostensibly, a “straight” scene with no baddies; succinct and precise where the rest of the movie is baroque and mind-boggling. But in truth (which is always relative), it is the Acme Book Shop with its crammed interior and voluptuous clerk that throbs with enigma. It is here that we find the very heart of the twisted universe inhabited by the Sternwoods, Geigers, Marses and Marlowes.
So we cross the street over to the Acme, stopping to hear the crash of thunder overhead; a sign of explosive things to come. When we stride in, we see shelves and shelves and shelves of books. The clerk walks over. Notice how confident she is, how high and proud her chin. Here we find none of the (initial) subservience of the Geiger dame. This is not the threshold to a pleasure dome of female flesh; it’s a serious establishment. The clerk’s dress has a high neck, but falls in a straight A-line. It looks nothing like the darkly glowering wedding-cake that Agnes dons.
“Something I can do for you?” the girl raps out. A straightforward query without frills, accompanied by a direct gaze.
“Would you do me a very small favor?” Marlowe asks.
“I don’t know. It depends on the favor,” she responds.
But the girl is undoubtedly competent, as we discover when we ask for the nonexistent Ben Hur, 1860, third edition, with the duplicated line on page 116, and the Chevalier Audubon, 1840. Then she comes on all soft again when we inform her that her double, the girl in Geiger’s bookstore, didn’t know that they don’t exist.
“You begin to interest me . . . vaguely,” she says, leaning over. Again, that pause before “vaguely” hints at all sorts of concrete interests the dame pursues in her spare time. She really does sell books, but she does other things as well.
That directness, however, fades. Gradually, slowly, the glacier melts. The straight lines curve and the voice becomes softer and rounder.
Apart from the tonal variations she displays, notice how she moves her mouth, forming a series of luscious O’s of different sizes. If Agnes’ wrist hinted at a host of other activities, then this girl’s mouth suggests an equal expertise in arenas of life that have nothing to do with selling books. In fact, several factors justify us in wondering exactly what she did before landing up at Acme.
For one, there are those remarkable powers of observation. Not only can she describe Geiger’s height, mustache, and hat, she also knows that he’s “soft all over.” (She says this while giving Marlowe the once-over – and a detailed, unhurried gaze it is, too). Furthermore, she knows that Geiger has a glass eye. This hardly sounds like the sort of sketch a disinterested passerby would make of a neighbor, which is practically what the girl’s relation to Geiger is. Or ought to be, at any rate. But knowledge of the lack of his firmness “all over” and a fake eye hint at a degree of observation – or physical proximity – that is rather more intimate. Exactly how close is, or was, this girl to Geiger? Does she know him better than we imagine? Did Geiger, perhaps, visit her store to pick up a rare book once upon a time? (Is she, dear God, the inspiration behind his switch to pornography? This is not too huge a stretch of the imagination, in my opinion.)
When Marlowe expresses an interest in “getting wet in here,” she obligingly pulls down the shade over the door, bending as she does so. More pliancy, more flexibility. And notice the neat way she has of playing with a pencil as she speaks. She is also highly attuned to the comfort level of a man, even a strange man. To put Marlowe at ease, she doffs her spectacles, loosens her hair, and makes yet another – possibly the biggest – O with her mouth. Before the celebratory drink they share, she opens a box with an inlaid mirror to check her appearance. One doesn’t expect an object of this sort in the book-lined ambience of the shop. Just as in Geiger’s, things are not what they seem to be. No, things are definitely not as they seem.
The big difference, however, is that Geiger’s is upfront about this. The Acme, on the other hand, continues to tease until well after its moment is over. The girl sustains her mystery beyond the end of the movie, when the murderer (or murderers?) and bodies and love angles are revealed in all their blessed complexity. If the “Big Sleep” alludes to a never-ending orgy as much as it does to the Grim Reaper, then the events in the Acme may be said to deliver nothing but an extended piece of foreplay to the viewer, with no consummation at all. Nothing is revealed; nothing given. We never know her name. We never know if she’s a nymphomaniac of Carmen’s proportions, or if Marlowe is the only one for whom she closes shop. We never know how she knows so much about Geiger. We never know what a girl of that sort is doing amidst rare books. The real mystery lies in and all around her. This, I’d venture, is the point of the scene (apart from the fact that Hawks reportedly wanted it because Dorothy Malone was so damn good-looking).
If the sequence in the Acme is the sexiest part of The Big Sleep — and many would argue that it succeeds in upstaging Marlowe’s (pretty powerfully sexy) scenes with Vivian Sternwood – then by default one must throw the Acme’s books into the equation as well. Here it is worth repeating that the film abounds in bookish references. It is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel and the screenplay was scripted by William Faulkner, among others. But above and beyond these obvious details, there seems to be a weirdly elliptical, but nonetheless concerted, effort in the film to put books and sex in parentheses, in the same tantalizing domain. If the fadeout at the strategic point in the Acme sequence signals a sexual encounter between Marlowe and the girl, then one cannot, in all honesty, not wonder about the conditions under which they roll around in that space. On the cluttered table? Against the shelves? Behind the closed door? (The Acme has such a door, just as Geiger’s does). It is hard to escape the fact that wherever they did their business, they were amongst books. Indeed, the books are witness to a variety of acts, in both Geiger’s and the Acme. One may go so far as to say that the books, silent and one-of-a-kind, are the only beings in the movie and outside it who are privy to the secrets of the film – and the girl. They stand for wisdom (they are old, after all) and a kind of knowledge that eludes mere mortals.
When we fade back in to the Acme toward the end of the sequence, things are definitely mellow. The heat has cooled a bit. (There’s been a terrific thunderstorm, for one thing). Max Steiner’s score wafts over the scene like a garment lazily covering over things that no longer need shelter. Rain falls relentlessly. Through the window one sees the wet street, teeming with people. (She closed the shades on the door, but the upper half of the window remained open. Was that deliberate? Something to spice up the fun within?)
“I hate to tell you, but that’s Geiger’s car driving up,” she says.
Her demeanor is different now. She speaks like a cop’s accomplice – or a cop. Is she an undercover agent, perchance?
Marlowe asks who the man getting out of the car is.
“Geiger’s shadow. His name’s Carol Lundgren,” pat comes the reply.
Why did Marlowe assume that she’d know the guy? And how in hell’s name did she know? Was she one of Geiger’s accomplices who left and went across the street because she got interested in the real thing?
Only the rare books can tell.
Note: This article appeared previously, in somewhat different form, in Bright Lights issue 82, November 2013. Screenshots and youtube video added under the fair-use provisions of copyright laws.