The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, adapted by Bill Morrison

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BBC 7, 27 September 2008

Another adaptation of a Chandler novel by Bill Morrison with Ed Bishop in the title role, The Big Sleep is perhaps one of the best-known and yet most incomprehensible of the Marlowe cycle. The plot is complicated beyond measure, involving a General (Robert Beatty), his two wild daughters (Diana Olsson, Liza Ross), a gangland leader (Paul Maxwell), a cynical cop (Harry Towb) and assorted hoodlums and other Californian lowlife. The famous 1946 version of the novel with Humphrey Bogart in the title role made little sense, even though it contained memorable performances.


As I listened to this adaptation, I realized once again (as with The Lady in the Lake) that questions of plot really don’t matter: what Chandler is more interested in is images of masculinity and femininity, and how his characters either conform or fail to conform to such images. The elder Sternwood daughter likes to think of herself as a sophisticated vamp, someone who eats men for breakfast; in truth she is nothing more than a spendthrift. The younger Sternwood willingly strips for the camera, and later on takes her clothes off for Marlowe in the hope of getting him into bed. When she is rebuffed, however, she becomes like a spitfire, believing that her only way of taking revenge is to shoot him. Eddie Mars, the local neighbourhood gang-leader, perpetually addresses his listeners as “soldier” or “shamus” as if perpetually trying to live up to his tough-guy image. And even Marlowe himself tries to convince us that he is a cynical private eye, remaining blissfully detached from the action as he tries to solve the case. The irony of course is that he cannot help getting involved, either willingly accepting the elder Sternwood’s advances, or listening to the words of a hopeless small-town blackmailer. It seems as if there is a considerable distance between what the characters would like to believe of themselves, and what they actually are, which makes for fascinating listening. In the noir world of late 1930s America, where morality no longer exists and everyone is out to feather their own nests, established gender distinctions no longer prevail.


The cast was almost uniformly excellent: the late Ed Bishop is so good as Marlowe, with his dulcet tones wrapping themselves round Chandler’s idiomatic English, that I was almost persuaded to forget Bogart in role. Almost – but not quite. Perhaps I need to listen to another radio adaptation before I am wholly converted.