The Hays Production Code notwithstanding, The Big Sleep portrays homosexuality, murder, pornography, blackmail, gambling, casual sex, smoking, and drinking, and strongly intimates the future possibility of adultery. In the film’s greenhouse scene, General Sternwood tells Phillip Marlowe of his need to enjoy his “vices by proxy”; soon thereafter the camera focuses on the General’s wincing face, and the sound plays his heightened “Mmm” while Marlowe downs a shot of whiskey. Here and elsewhere, camera work, sound and lighting cue the audience as to their reaction to the specific vice portrayed. In this case, Marlowe’s drink is enjoyed vicariously by General Sternwood, an enjoyment dwelt upon by the camera and sound in order to heighten it for the audience, creating a voyeuristic effect. And as the film is saturated with incidents of general debauchery, indulgence, and sin, there are many occasions for a voyeuristic audience to enjoy “vices by proxy”. Indeed, the experience of movie watching in general, consisting as it does of staring into a screen in the dark, is not unlike looking in through a window at somebody else’s glamorous or ugly or sinful life.

The Big Sleep’s final scene, set as it is in Geiger’s house, perpetuates the decadent and debauched mood. The set design of Geiger’s house is opulently exotic, foreign and unfamiliar, as well as not a little cluttered, and the house is typically very dimly lit and full of shadows. The resulting tone is one of confusion, dread, and even fear, initially associated with Geiger and his “perverted” ways. However, this scene portrays the culmination of the evolving romance between Marlowe and Vivian, perhaps the film’s only coherent subplot. The final resolution is, on the surface, wholesome, familiar and satisfying. Marlowe has even destroyed the strange and ultra-Eastern Buddha statue that had earlier sinisterly harbored a camera. Vivian has been so wholly reduced form her original “spoilt, smart, exacting, and ruthless” self that she says that there is “nothing (wrong with her) that you (Marlowe) can’t fix”, while Marlowe grasps her arm with a typical male-over-female proprietorship.

And yet, even as this resolution subverts its decidedly unwholesome setting, it is itself subverted by the offstage sound of sirens. These represent the arm of the law come to punish Marlowe and Vivian, for covering up Carmen’s murder of Sean Regan, as well as potentially for committing adultery (Vivian is married, and Marlowe is probably married as well; he wears a wedding ring). When reproduced in stereo, the siren sound physically comes from the right of the screen, so that when Vivian glances hesitantly in that direction, the audience’s attention is drawn there as well. The viewer and the character focus on the same sound at the same time, heightening the overall voyeuristic effect in which the viewer experiences the uncertainty inherent in the characters’ point of view.

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