The character Mrs. Vivian Rutledge
) spends the duration of Howard Hawke
’s The Big Sleep
evolving, or one might say devolving. At the film’s inception, her father General Sternwood
) introduces her as a “spoilt, smart, exacting, ruthless” woman. And when she first appears in the film, she asks Detective Philip Marlowe
) into her room and proceeds immediately to insult him:
Vivian: …My, you're a mess, aren't you?
Marlowe: I'm not very tall either. Next time, I'll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.
Vivian: I doubt if even that would help...
Neither does she offer Marlowe anything to drink. In contrast, by the film’s end, Vivian has become much more retiring and subordinate
, to the point where Marlowe kisses her protectively on the forehead as he prepares to confront Eddy Mars
. This is, of course, a transformation
that Vivian asks for, as when, meeting Marlowe in a club for a drink, she compares herself to a horse to be ridden and whipped:
Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet who could do it (rate her). Any suggestions?
Marlowe: ...I don't know how, how far you can go?
Vivian: That depends on who's in the saddle. Marlowe. I like the way you work. In case you don't know, if you're doing all right.
Marlowe: There's one thing I can't figure out.
Vivian: What makes me run?
Marlowe: Uh huh.
Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won't work. It's been tried.
Be this as it may, as Vivian changes, the film uses costume, blocking, sound, and repeated shots to depict her transformation, i.e. from pants to a skirt, from rude to responsive and getting physically closer and closer to Marlowe. It also uses setting to foreshadow Vivian and Marlowe’s eventual romance, as when a scene in which Vivian verbally combats Marlowe is set incongruously in her bedroom
foreshadowing occurs in Vivian’s first onscreen appearance in the film. The scene, in which she calls Marlowe into her room, trying to find out what her father has hired him to do, is set in her bedroom. While a simple Hollywood romance
of the 1940s
might have had its protagonist spend the duration of the film pursuing a woman, with the intent of eventually getting into her bedroom, it would never have explicitly shown the gratification of this aim. The bedroom would have been sexualized, even taboo
, or set up as two twin-size bed with a night-table (!) in between them. But in The Big Sleep, the camera, moving in the same direction that Marlowe does as he enters the room, views Vivian’s bed before it even views her. The bed is clearly large enough for two people, and it is elaborately frilled with pillows and satin, and yet it is all right to film because, as a divorced woman living in her father’s house, Vivian would have expressly been the only person sleeping in it. In this way, the elaborate bed, as well as a heart-backed chair glimpsed soon afterwards, foreshadow the love
that will grow between Marlowe and Vivian, even as the bedroom setting contrasts strongly with Vivian as she is at the film’s inception, closed-off and asexual
In this, the first “bedroom” scene, Vivian relates to Marlowe on an intellectually antagonistic level. She is trying to get certain information out of him that he will not relinquish, while making no use of her sexuality
as a tool to distract or seduce
him. While doubtless there are those who will assert that Vivian is sexually desirable because she is beautiful, she is doing nothing in this scene to make herself sexual. And her costume
, long pants and high-necked blouse, reflects this. The pants, atypical for a woman in 1946, would symbolize her “male” strength and initiative, and the blouse seems to me to close her off from any male advances. (Contrast this with the Acme
bookstore clerk with whom Marlowe has a brief sexual interlude: her blouse was fastened with a bow and would have been easy to open.) Later on, the robe that Vivian wears when Marlowe brings a drugged Carmen
home in the middle of the night seems to subvert the popular cliché
of a woman made vulnerable by her state of undress. Following costume designer William Ware Theiss
’s “Theiss Titillation Theory
”, in which the degree to which a costume is considered sexy is directly proportional to how likely it seems to fall off, nightclothes in film or television are sexy not because they are revealing but because they seem precariously affixed. But Vivian’s robe not only covers her from neck to toe as she strides purposefully towards the door, it also is fastened securely and in no danger of slipping. However, from her third appearance on, Vivian wears only skirts. One of these is memorably used to sexualize her body: In the scene in which she visits Marlowe’s office, she wears a knee-length skirt
, which provides a transparent excuse for the camera to catch a glimpse of Vivian’s thigh when Marlowe urges her to “go ahead and scratch
”. The brief revelation
of this small bit of skin draws attention to Vivian’s body, especially as the scene’s blocking has her sitting on the corner of Marlowe’s desk, upstage and with the area of thigh she will uncover near the center of the frame.
The film also uses diegetic sound
to emphasize certain key moments in the evolution of Vivian’s relationship with Marlowe. For instance, when Vivian first asks him to come to her room and speak to her, and Marlowe enters and asks “You wanted to see me?” Vivian disdain
fully ignores him until she is finished pouring her drink. For a span of a few seconds, the only sound to be heard is that of her flowing alcohol, and then of the solid clink as she places the bottle on the tray. The enhanced sound of her ignoring Marlowe intensifies the effect of her disregard for him, as the void where her response should be is made all the more gaping. And in bringing the alcohol
into sonic focus, the sound also brings attention to the fact that Vivian rudely neglects to offer any of it to Marlowe. Similarly, a thunderclap, and the accompanying lightning, confers tremendous importance on a later moment when Marlowe grabs Vivian’s hands and holds her still (more on that particular shot later). And the film’s very last sound, the off-screen diegetic sound of an approaching police siren in the last scene, corresponds to the final cementing of Marlowe’s destiny to Vivian’s. That is, Marlowe has just lied to the police
about Sean Regan
’s killer, so that if they- symbolized by the siren
heard ominously approaching- find out that Carmen is really the guilty
party, Marlowe will be in trouble. In this way, while the film at its end is not entirely resolved, Vivian and Marlowe have been allied. The police siren serves as a closure to the Marlowe-Vivian love story, uniting these previously competing characters against the rest of the world.
Camera shots, and their repetition with variation
, most directly lend continuity to the progression of Vivian and Marlowe’s relationship, and to his expanding control over her. For instance, when Marlowe grabs Vivian’s hands to keep her from slapping him in anger, he begins the process of domesticating and reducing her. Immediately following the lightning and thunder, they are standing close together, and the camera frames just the two of them in a medium shot. As far as the action goes, Marlowe has been restraining Vivian, creating an overtone of domination
. And yet she does not appear to be struggling against him. This shot- Marlowe physically restrain
ing a not unwilling Vivian- is repeated later on when Vivian and Marlowe meet at her club. Here, as they stand to leave their table, a stranger jostles Vivian so that she falls forward into Marlowe’s arms. Again, he is holding her, but the shot is varied and strengthened beyond its first appearance. This time, he holds her upper arms, not her hands, so that he limits the movement of practically her entire torso and not just her distal extremities. The two of them are framed in a medium-close up
- instead of just a medium- shot. This repetition-with-variation parallels the way that the film’s romantic subplot proceeds more or less linearly, with Vivian and Marlowe falling deeper and deeper in love, and can be physically seen in shots like this to stand closer and closer together. As a culmination of this, the film ends with another shot, not a medium or medium-close, but a close-up, of just Marlowe and Vivian’s faces, and Marlowe’s hand redirecting Vivian’s gaze, and by extension her thoughts, from the approaching siren, back to him.