The Big Sleep was published in 1939 and at the time the hardboiled gumshoe genre was just coming into its prime, although it had been maturing in the pulps for a good decade or more. (Chandler himself published his first story in 1933 in "Black Mask," a thriller pulp.) So it would be kind of silly to talk about The Big Sleep being full of clichés (such as the first person narration with a world-weary and battered would-be idealist hero whose forays into the seamy underside of the rich and glamorous are as jarring as a bad simile … or something like that). After all, The Big Sleep and its siblings are where the clichés were born.
On the other hand, for a book that's going on 70, The Big Sleep is remarkably contemporary. Los Angeles is recognizable, the people talk and for the most part act like real people ... add cellphones and the internet and it could have been written yesterday. I was also surprised at how close the Bogie/Bacall version followed the book for most of it, right down to the snappy patter. Hollywood in the '40s was not a place where things like "an author's vision" or "fans on hand to make sure it's done right" were done.
However, the two creatures — the book and the movie — are not the same, no matter how closely related they are. The first real hint of it is when "Geiger's Rare Books" is a front for a porn shop; the next is when Carmen Sternwood has her first of multiple nude scenes. The fact that Lauren Bacall's character is "Mrs. Rutledge" in the movie and "Mrs. Regan" in the book is a subtle shift, but points at the kind of changes that were made. There was a kind of systematic pruning of the seamiest or roughest bits, cleaning it up so it would play in Peoria, as they used to say.
I was fine with all of this and having a great time until somewhere in the middle, where Marlowe has got the drop on Carol Lundgren and takes him back to Geiger's house — at which point Marlowe suddenly turns very ugly. Geiger and Lundgren were a gay couple it seems (also left out of the movie, or at least discreetly not mentioned), for which Marlowe beats the crap out of Lundgren after goading him into a fight by throwing slurs at him. Like when I'm reading R. E. Howard and find myself cringing at his forays into creepy racial attitudes, finding this scene in the middle of what had until then been a breezy detective thriller put me off in no uncertain terms. (Oh, and apparently, Lundgren was completely unable to fight, 'cause y'know, pansies have got no iron in them. Cripes.)
However, the book was written when it was written, and unfortunately that was the prevailing mode of the day. Eventually, with some effort, I got past it and kept on reading. I even eventually started enjoying it again, helped by passages such as:
"Mr. Cobb was my escort," [Mrs. Regan] said. "Such a nice escort, Mr. Cobb. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but not forgotten — when Larry Cobb was sober."
That's the kind of moment when The Big Sleep is at its best, making fanciful asides or turning clever phrases. Not played so broad as to be a comedy, but not letting its mean streak show through, either. And in a strange way, that almost fits with a recurring theme of the book — being light and breezy on the surface but having a dark side that pokes out unexpectedly and leaves you feeling vaguely disgusted.
One last observation, for the moment: I commented on how close the movie follows the book, with a few noticeable variations. This is true up until the moment Marlowe gets caught in the garage in Realito — at which point the book turns right while the movie takes a sharp left. Hollywood, of course, had to "get the bad guy," and so the final scene in Geiger's house was created whole cloth and tacked on from there, putting in lots more Mrs. Regan/Mrs. Rutledge in order to put Bogie and Bacall together for the big finish (and with Mrs. R* being a wholly sympathetic character). I don't want to spoil anybody's reading, but I will go as far as to say that ain't what happens in the book. You do find out exactly what happened to Regan, however, and how. From what I gather, Chandler fans tend to prefer the book ending to the movie; I'm not sure one way or the other, myself.
I do wish that either version had made it clear who killed Owen Taylor, tho.