THE SPIRIT OF STYLE: The Big Sleep

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), the Howard Hawks-directed film based on Raymond Chandler’s novel.

“The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed.”

Raymond Chandler isn’t known as a stylish writer in the fashion-savvy sense. His renown comes from his mastery of perfect similes like the one above, and for gifting the world Philip Marlowe, the private detective whose job description is usually preceded by the adjective “hard-boiled.” Chandler’s rep is that he writes about dames and gangsters, cops and criminals—he’s more visceral than visual.

But after reading The Big Sleep (1939)—my first on-the-page Chandler experience—I found him to be one of the most visual writers that I’ve ever read. He doesn’t drop designer names when describing a dress, but he can make you see it. His descriptions—of dresses, faces, streets—are alive to the impact of precise language, and are just as rooted in style as more traditionally glamorous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh.

These are his and hers descriptions, heavy on the fashion content.

“It seemed a long time before the door opened again and Vivian came in. She was in oyster-white lounging pyjamas trimmed with white fur, cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island.

She went past me in long smooth strides and sat down on the edge of the chaise-longue. There was a cigarette in her lips, at the corner of her mouth. Her nails today were copper red from quick to tip, without half moons.”

Then:

“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.”

Besides being great to read, it’s a reminder of the power of something purposefully chosen, whether it’s words or a sartorial equivalent, the exactly right shade of cerulean blue, the necklace that adds another dimension to that dress. It’s also so much more interesting to be serious about something. That’s when you can really have fun with it, like the Coen brothers did with The Big Lebowski, which was loosely based on The Big Sleep. Only with Julianne Moore instead of Lauren Bacall. And Tara Reid. Dude.

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