There are few films in the history of Hollywood as rapturously sexy as Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep. A loose adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep about the iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, the film was shot and finished, only to be re-edited to capitalize on the steamy chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yet, Philip Marlowe was never a one-woman man and Bacall is conspicuously absent from the film’s hottest scene.
Thunder cracks ominously before Philip Marlowe enters the ACME Book Shop. He walks straight up to the bookseller asking for a “very small favour.” The lithe, tall bookseller listens as he lists copies of rare books. She fiddles with a hardcover before telling him, those books don’t even exist. The small favour expands as he asks her for assistance in his case. Then, as the rain starts to pour outside, the small favour becomes a private agreement sealed with a kiss. The nameless bookseller was one of the first roles for Dorothy Malone and she steals the show.
Hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses were Dorothy Malone’s big eyes. With a downturned smile, she seems to take a better look at Marlowe, her gaze taking over her face. The glasses, like her wry sarcasm, feel like a mask for her true desires and intentions. More than protection, they serve as a filter between herself and the real world. She’s not hiding as much as she is unengaged. Until this handsome detective entered her shop, it had been a long time before any man was able to compete with the sensuous appeal of literature.
As things progress, she adjusts her hair, removes her glasses and raises her chin. Her dowdy polka-dot dress suddenly feels more filled out as she extends her toes and reaches towards Marlowe. As he turns away, she eyes him up and her mouth opens in a silent cluck of approval, her tongue almost perversely dancing between teeth as she measures his interest. She is not a reluctant spinster but a cat-ish predator ready to pounce.
In Chandler’s novel, Marlowe never shacks up with the sexy bookseller. It was inspiration from Hawks, who recognized the silver appeal of making noir sexy rather than cynical. While his contemporaries were overloaded on dark-lipped temptresses who brought down their men, Hawks preferred to view women as partners rather than Femme Fatales. From the earliest point in his career, the Hawksian woman was always one of the guys, feminine but willing to get down and dirty if necessary.
As the Girl in the Bookshop, Malone is not just a predator but an equal to Bogart. She is not meek or devious, but an intelligent, sexually voracious young woman. Women in The Big Sleep are not passive sexually, but active participants. When Marlowe flirts, they flirt back. They don’t play shy or coy, they step up to the plate. Women like the bookseller are not just a type defined by their job or circumstance, but a kind of imagined ideal of liberated sexual freedom decades before the sexual revolution.
Dorothy Malone’s star power would grow over the years, building on this one scene. She’d transform from dark-haired temptress to blonde sexpot rather effortlessly, and by the mid-1950s she was a technicolour queen starring in lush melodramas like Written on the Wind and comic-book homages like Artists and Models. In spite of her beginnings in black and white cinema, she had a look that seemed built for the rich, saturated colour of 1950s idealism. Her performances were always a little dangerous, edging on the side of the countercultural. Rather than be in synchronicity with the wholesomeness of 1950s culture, she was in tension with it.
No matter the role she played, however, she brought that sexual oomph she first demonstrated in The Big Sleep. Malone was always a little different than her contemporaries. Her sexuality was not shy or calculated, but confident. She brought a hunger that was normally only reserved for men. Dorothy Malone might have been a nameless bookseller in The Big Sleep, but she established herself as one of the great actors of her generation in the process.