Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, archetypal hard-boiled private detective
Los Angeles, Fall 1945
Film: The Big Sleep
Release Date: August 23, 1946
Director: Howard Hawks
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The Big Sleep is often considered the apex of American film noir. Plot becomes secondary (and often disregarded) in favor of colorful characters made of private eyes, floozy femme fatales, and pornographers spitting snappy dialogue at each other against the backdrop of both the glamorous and seamy sides of the city. The same plot and characters from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 source novel are here, with the anti-Code elements like pornography and homosexuality all but removed.
Roger Ebert’s deservedly positive 1997 review, which describes the film as “a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandlers ability… to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance and yet is wry and humorous and cares,” includes many great anecdotes about The Big Sleep‘s production. Although the relatively faithful script was punched up by writers William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett, the studio’s insistence on reshooting certain scenes to focus on the blossoming romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall even further muddied the narrative waters. Ebert states: “It is typical of this most puzzling of films that no one agrees even on why it is so puzzling. Yet that has never affected “The Big Sleep’s” enduring popularity, because the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.”
In fact, it seems that very little attention at all was paid to the results, both in the novel and the film. Ebert shares a story about Bogart showing up on the set and asking Howard Hawks, “Who pushed Taylor off the pier?” referring to the death of unseen character Owen Taylor. As Lauren Bacall noted in her autobiography: “Everything stopped” because no one knew the answer. Hawks telegrammed Chandler to ask if Taylor’s death was a murder or a suicide, and Chandler himself was stymied, later recalling, “Dammit, I didn’t know either.”
The Bogart-Bacall focus also drastically changed the film, which had been filmed and set for release in 1945. About twenty minutes were reshot and edited back in to let fans appreciate the chemistry between the two stars. According to Chandler, the decision irked director Hawks to the point that he threatened to sue. As Chandler wrote to his publisher:
The girl who played the nymphy sister was so good she shattered Miss Bacall completely. So they cut the picture in such a way that all her best scenes were left out except one. The result made nonsense and Howard Hawks threatened to sue… After long argument, as I hear it, he went back and did a lot of re-shooting.
While I take umbrage with any criticism toward Lauren Bacall, there is no denying that Martha Vickers (the “nymphy sister”) delivered a top-notch performance in both versions as the flighty young Carmen Sternwood. Vickers still featured prominently in the 1946 recut, but the “electric” performance cited by Ebert has indeed been forcibly shaved.
Focusing on the film’s male lead, Ebert perfectly sums up what makes Humphrey Bogart so perfect for the Philip Marlowe role:
Bogart himself made personal style into an art form. What else did he have? He wasn’t particularly handsome, he wore a rug, he wasn’t tall (“I try to be,” he tells Vickers), and he always seemed to act within a certain range. Yet no other movie actor is more likely to be remembered a century from now.
Bogie had come a long way since he was a stock player at Warner Brothers, portraying the “sniveling bastard” as needed from Three on a Match in 1932 through The Petrified Forest up to his shared appearances with Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. He established himself in 1941 with High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon and firmly cemented himself in cinema history with Casablanca the following year. Finally, with The Big Sleep, Bogie adapted the “sniveling bastard” into a underdog we can’t help but to cheer on. It’s a high point in Bogart’s career, acting in the role he was born to play with the love of his life.
What’d He Wear?
Philip Marlowe wears three different suits over the four days of action in The Big Sleep, evidently cycling through Marlowe’s whole wardrobe as he ends up repeating his first suit on the fourth day. Since the film is black-and-white, it’s difficult to accurately determine what colors were involved in his outfits. The book is no help either, as the first paragraph of Chandler’s 1939 novel reads:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
… so clearly, the film didn’t use the book as a basis when dressing its protagonist in what appears to be a much more traditional combination of dark suit, light shirt, and dark tie. The attire that Marlowe describes in the book is surprisingly flashy for our cynical, straightforward private eye.
I’ve seen a few different colorizations of stills from The Big Sleep, including a very attractive green color for this suit created by “MsgtBob” for a Worth1000.com content. However, the most convincing colorization that I’ve seen colored the suit brown, the shirt tan, and the tie a dark red, created by an artist known as “BunnyDojo”.
The suit was proven to be a dark gray woolen tweed in a September 2015 “Profiles in History” auction, described in the listing as “Vintage 2-piece tweed suit… consisting of an immaculate gray wool tweed jacket with pewter-colored silk lining and matching trousers. With jacket retaining “Warner Bros.” bias label handwritten, ’10-10-44, 636, H. Bogart, Gar No. Cooke Size 40′, and pants with bias label handwritten, ‘H. Bogart’.”
Marlowe’s suit on film is a dark two-piece, constructed from a birdseye tweed suiting best seen when Marlowe is inspecting the empty camera at Geiger’s murder scene.
Matt Spaiser from The Suits of James Bond describes birdseye as: “a pattern of round dots on a diagonal grid… The pattern alternates two dark yarns and two light yarns in both the warp and the weft. In a larger scale the pattern looks like large circles with a dot in the centre. In smaller scales it looks like a simple pattern on dots on a diagonal grid.” Marlowe’s birdseye wool suit is an example of the smaller scale described by Spaiser, appearing solid from a distance and a grid of dots closer up.
As The Big Sleep was filmed mostly in 1945 when clothing was still mostly rationed for the war, Marlowe’s suit doesn’t feature any of the overly baggy fits or padding that were en vogue by the time of the film’s release a year later. The jacket is single-breasted with wide notch lapels. The notches themselves are large, and each lapel has a stitched buttonhole. The shoulders are lightly padded with only slight roping on the sleeveheads. The back is ventless.
Per Chandler’s description, Marlowe does wear a handkerchief in his breast pocket, but it’s a plain white linen handkerchief that he often uses to wipe his sweat in the intense heat of General Sternwood’s solarium and not the dark blue display handkerchief of the book. The breast pocket itself is welted, and the straight hip pockets are jetted with no flaps.
Marlowe’s suit jacket closes on a two-button front, but he always wears it open. There are also four buttons on each cuff.
The double reverse-pleated trousers of Marlowe’s suit are less minimalist than the jacket, mostly due to the fashions of the mid-1940s. They have a long rise with belt loops around the waist, secured by a slim brown leather belt. The belt appears to have some Western influence with its decorative tooling, metal tip, and the shape of its small metal single-claw buckle. He wears his keys on a chain that connects to his right front belt loop, carrying the keys themselves in the trousers’ right side pocket.
Marlowe also often keeps his hands in the on-seam side pockets of his trousers. When he takes off his jacket upon meeting General Sternwood, the pants’ baggy fit is evident around his hips and across the rear where there are two jetted pockets—the left closes with a button while the right is open. The generous fit continues through the trousers’ straight legs down to the cuffed bottoms.
Marlowe wears a light-colored cotton shirt that isn’t quite light enough to be pure white. Based on the contrast, it’s probably a lighter version of whatever color the suit is; now knowing that the suit is gray, the shirt is probably light gray or cream. It has a long point collar and a front placket. The square cuffs close with a single button, and the gauntlets also have a button. There is no pocket.
Marlowe’s silk tie is the simplest part of the outfit. It’s dark, short, and wide at the bottom. It has none of the vibrant prints or pizzazz that were characteristic of the decade’s later ties.
Even Bogart’s footwear deviates from Chandler’s description of Marlowe in the book. Rather than brogues and clock-patterned socks, Bogart’s Marlowe wears a pair of black calf cap-toe oxfords with plain black wool socks.
The classic fedora is now immediately associated with film noir tough guys, specifically Bogie. The Big Sleep is no exception, as he wears a dark felt snap-brim fedora with a wide black ribbon throughout the film. The “Royal Stetson” logo is clearly seen on the inside of the crown when it’s knocked off of his head during a confrontation with Eddie Mars’ thugs.
Bogart pokes fun at his own tough guy image when he poses as an effeminate antique book aficionado in the early stages of the investigation. He snaps up the front of his fedora’s brim and dons a pair of dark-framed sunglasses, affecting a foppish lisp as he grills Agnes about the “Ben-Hur, 1860… with the erratum on page 116″. Perhaps the lisp was a defense mechanism against his own natural lisp.
Although he only wears the sunglasses as part of a disguise (shades of North by Northwest!), Marlowe wears all of Bogart’s usual accessories. On the third finger of his right hand is the familiar gold ring with its ruby-diamond-ruby setting. Replicas are available at Royalty and Hollywood Jewelry in Naples, Florida as well as on Amazon.
Bogart’s square-cased watch is clearly seen, although it’s not the same Longines Evidenza seen in Casablanca. He wears it on a brown leather strap.
Marlowe also wears two different topcoats with this suit. His go-to topcoat is a Glen plaid wool knee-length coat with a single-breasted, four-button front, typically worn with just the bottom button done. It has a large collar, straight welted hand pockets, plain cuffs, and—interestingly—a ventless back.
However, he also encounters some rain over the course of his investigation and finds himself sporting a classic khaki trench coat. Just like the iconic one he wore as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, this belted raincoat is double-breasted with storm flaps, button-down epaulettes, slanted hand pockets, buckle-strap cuffs, and a long single vent in the back.
The manufacturers’ logo of Marlowe’s trench coat is visible when Norris eases him into it before he leaves the Sternwood residence, but I haven’t yet been able to identify it. It doesn’t look like either the Aquascutum or Burberry logos, but those could have been different in the 1940s.
Go Big or Go Home
It’s been said (by me) that a film noir gumshoe is only as good as his daily booze and tobacco consumption. Luckily, Philip Marlowe’s got that covered in spades (pun) from the very beginning. General Sternwood enjoys brandy but is no longer allowed to imbibe for health reasons so he takes his drinks “by proxy”, and Marlowe is more than happy to indulge by taking several drams on his behalf. He learn a little more about Marlowe when he stops off at a bookstore and, after some flirtatious banter with the foxy clerk (played by a scene-stealing Dorothy Malone), mentions to her that “It just happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket.” We see little of the bottle himself, so we’ll just have to accept Marlowe’s word regarding its quality. Still, it’s not too good that either Marlowe or the unnamed clerk are above drinking it out of her paper cups.
Marlowe’s cigarettes of choice are Chesterfields, unfiltered of course.
How to Get the Look
Marlowe’s suit is a perfect template for dressing a hard-boiled PI from the era. Simplicity is key—both due to wartime rationing and an uncomplicated attitude. So what if we don’t know what color it is?
- Dark gray birdseye wool two-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with large notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, straight on-seam side pockets, jetted rear pockets, and turn-ups/cuffed bottoms
- Light cotton dress shirt with long point collar, front placket, and squared 1-button cuffs
- Dark short silk necktie with wide bottom
- Brown decorative-tooled slim leather belt with small single-claw buckle and metal tip
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black wool dress socks
- Dark felt snap-brim Royal Stetson fedora with wide black grosgrain ribbon
- Dark plastic-framed sunglasses
- Square-cased wristwatch on brown leather strap
- Gold ring with two rubies and diamond
If it’s raining, opt for a classic khaki trench coat to combat the wetness. If it’s just a chilly night, a simple Glen plaid topcoat will add a touch of tough-guy class.
Like most films of its era, The Big Sleep appeals to wheel-gun lovers by featuring plenty of revolvers. Marlowe himself keeps two in his car—a Colt Detective Special and a Colt Official Police.
Both the Colt Detective Special and the Colt Official Police were developed in 1927 as double-action revolvers aimed at the police market. Both were primarily chambered in .38 Special and had swing-out cylinders and exposed ejector rods. The primarily difference is the barrel length; the Official Police was developed for general police issue and offered in barrel lengths of 4″, 5″, and 6″. The Detective Special, on the other hand, was meant to serve as it was named—for plainclothes detectives. It was one of the first modern “snubnose” revolvers developed for concealment with its 2″ barrel (although rare examples made with 3″ barrels have also been uncovered).
The climax of the film finds Marlowe tied up in a house outside Rialto in San Bernardino County. He frees himself and sneaks out to his disabled car, where he flicks a switch and—PRESTO!—a panel flips down with his 2″-barreled Colt Detective Special waiting for him. (Evidently, his Official Police has been misplaced.) Marlowe grabs the Detective Special and sets up a gambit for Vivian to help him corner and kill the nefarious Lash Canino.
Once Canino has been downed by Marlowe’s bullets, Marlowe has to put the last steps of his plan in motion. He arms himself with Canino’s own Colt Official Police and heads to the deceased A.G. Geiger’s house on Laverne Terrace to wait for Eddie Mars.
It’s with this Colt Official Police that Marlowe forces Mars to get what’s coming to him in the finale. Some have cited this as a continuity error since Marlowe clearly uses the shorter-barreled Detective Special in the shootout with Canino, but it’s more than probable that he just picked up Canino’s own Official Police to ensure that he’d have a much firepower as necessary when facing off against Eddie Mars.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie as well as Raymond Chandler’s 1939 book. Who cares if you get confused by the plot? Chandler himself wasn’t sure what was going on. Just enjoy some classic hard-boiled private eye noir.
I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.