Bogart, Bacall and the Sparrow in the Hall…

Lately I’ve been thinking about The Big Sleep.  I think about this film quite a bit, though not when I’m sleeping.  The sleep of the title is a hard-boiled reference to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy which talks about the “sleep of death.”  The film, based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, tells of detective Phillip Marlowe, who has been hired to settle the gambling debts of Carmen Sternwood, wild young daughter of old General Sternwood.  Well, it wouldn’t be a hard-boiled detective story if there wasn’t a body, and soon there is.   And ultimately it is the fate of former bootlegger, Sean Regan, that becomes the mystery Marlowe wants solved.  There is a legend about the film — William Faulkner worked on the screenplay, and he discovered that he couldn’t actually figure out who did the murders in the book.  He and the other screenwriters approached Chandler, who admitted that he too couldn’t figure it out.  And, in the movie, we’re not really sure who did what. 

And yet, it remains one of my favorite films.  Part of my joy in watching the film is Bogart and Bacall.  It’s because of Bacall (and Barbara Stanwyck)  that I cannot resist some tough-talking babe.  And the banter between Bogart and Bacall in this film is as good as such banter gets. 

But the reason this film sticks in my mind, and has remained in my top ten film list for as long as I’ve had such lists, is the film’s lighting and the final scene of the film.  That final scene takes place in the living room of Arthur Gwynn Geiger, the pornographer who got killed about 20 min. into the film.  In this final scene, lit apparently only by the ambient lighting of the room (all desk lamps, no overhead lighting), Bogart is trying to figure a way whereby he can solve the case and get himself and Bacall out of the house alive, for the bad guys have the house surrounded.  That scene is powerful, but, I imagine the hold the scene holds on me is the tiny illumination in a world of dark.  The danger is not overwhelming — this is pretty common in detective novels that the detective be stuck in a situation from which s/he must extricate him/herself, and such extrication does take place — but in a film that largely takes place at night, this scene, a brief spot of light in a world of dark really grabs me.  I suppose it must be one of the dominant metaphors that rule my psyche.

I got the same feeling when I heard the story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity.  A pagan king, he had been approached by some wandering monk, who spoke glowingly of Christianity.  In consulting with his fellows, the metaphor of the “sparrow in the hall” was used.  Imagine our lives to be like that we live now, in the warmth and brightness of a great hall, safe from the storms outside.  A sparrow, flying about outside, flies into the hall, lingers a while, and then flies out again.  For Edwin’s counselor, that is what life is — we come from the darkness, spend our lives in the light (the light has varying degrees) and then die and return to the darkness.  If Christianity offered a hope of some other realm beyond, adhering to Christianity would have much to commend it. 

And I see the appeal of such a belief, and can see why Christianity won so many followers — in a world of uncertainty, with only the certainty of death ahead, and greater uncertainty beyond, who wouldn’t want the promise of a joyous afterlife? 

I see it differently — I appreciate the beauty of the afterlife promised, but I cannot vouch for it.  In the face of the doom ahead, I find little comfort in such a belief.  That may seem a downer, and sometimes it does feel so.  On the other hand, I find myself thinking of that sparrow while s/he’s in the hall.  It’s bright, and warm, and, for a short time, glorious.  Once that bird leaves to go back into the winter storm, I don’t have hope for it, but if I can reflect on that terrible moment ahead, I can also reflect on the beautiful moment of the here and now.  And if I am aware of the dangers Bogart and Bacall face, and whenever I watch the film, I am aware of the danger (and I know how it all turns out), still  I can focus on the here and now — Bogart and Bacall beautifully lit, together in a moment of incredible intimacy, as it is those two against the dangerous world, and the potential danger beyond can, paradoxically, heighten the joy of living now, especially of living now with another.  It is the evanescence of the beauty that heightens it and makes it even more valuable.

So what if Christianity is right and there is this great beauty to come — well, that’s just a great bonus.  And, if not — if we leave the light and go into the dark of nothingness.  Well, we’ll always have Paris.

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