The Big Sleep (1946)

Brief Intro

“The Big Sleep,” directed by Howard Hawks and released in 1946, is a film noir classic based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. Starring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge, this film is a labyrinthine tale of murder, blackmail, and seduction. The plot is famously complex, but the film’s appeal lies in its sharp dialogue, intriguing characters, and atmospheric style.

Literary Devices Used in The Big Sleep

1. Dialogue

Table 1: Dialogue

Movie SceneDevice Example
Marlowe’s first meeting with Vivian RutledgeThe sharp, witty exchanges between Marlowe and Vivian showcase Chandler’s skill in creating dynamic dialogue that reveals character traits and underlying tension.
Marlowe’s interrogation of Joe BrodyThe terse and biting dialogue highlights Marlowe’s relentless pursuit of truth and his ability to remain unfazed under pressure.

2. Symbolism

Table 2: Symbolism

Movie SceneDevice Example
The constant rain throughout the filmSymbolizes the murky and unclear nature of the investigation and the moral ambiguity of the characters.
The use of shadows and darkness in the mansion scenesRepresents the secrets and hidden dangers lurking within the storyline.

3. Foreshadowing

Table 3: Foreshadowing

Movie SceneDevice Example
The initial conversation with General SternwoodHints at the complexity and danger of the case Marlowe is about to take on, foreshadowing the entangled plot ahead.
The presence of the mysterious chauffeur’s carSignals future revelations about the chauffeur’s role in the broader conspiracy.

4. Irony

Table 4: Irony

Movie SceneDevice Example
Marlowe’s encounter with the bookstore clerkThe situation’s dramatic irony lies in Marlowe pretending to be clueless, while actually gathering key information.
Eddie Mars’ business front as a legitimate club ownerIronic because his respectable facade conceals his involvement in illicit activities.

5. Metaphor

Table 5: Metaphor

Movie SceneDevice Example
The labyrinthine plotActs as a metaphor for the confusing and deceptive nature of the criminal underworld.
Vivian’s enigmatic demeanorServes as a metaphor for the femme fatale archetype in film noir.

6. Allusion

Table 6: Allusion

Movie SceneDevice Example
References to classical literatureCharacters often quote or refer to classic works, enriching the dialogue with deeper cultural layers.
The portrayal of Marlowe as a modern knightAlludes to chivalric ideals, with Marlowe embodying a flawed yet noble hero.

7. Allegory

Table 7: Allegory

Movie SceneDevice Example
The complex interplay of crime and moralityServes as an allegory for the moral ambiguities and the often grey areas of justice.
The depiction of the corrupt wealthy eliteAn allegory for societal critique, highlighting the disparity between appearances and reality in the upper echelons.

8. Hyperbole

Table 8: Hyperbole

Movie SceneDevice Example
Marlowe’s exaggerated tough-guy personaHighlights the noir tradition of the larger-than-life detective.
The portrayal of the villains’ ruthlessnessEnhances the sense of danger and stakes within the narrative.

9. Imagery

Table 9: Imagery

Movie SceneDevice Example
Descriptions of the gloomy Los Angeles streetsVivid imagery that sets the tone and atmosphere of the film noir genre.
The detailed depiction of Sternwood’s mansionCreates a gothic ambiance, contributing to the film’s mysterious and foreboding mood.

10. Flashback

Table 10: Flashback

Movie SceneDevice Example
Vivian’s recollection of past eventsProvides context and depth to the plot, revealing crucial backstory elements.
Marlowe’s reflections on previous encountersHelps the audience piece together the puzzle of the narrative.

Character Analysis Through Literary Devices

Philip Marlowe

Table: Philip Marlowe

Literary DeviceExplanation
DialogueMarlowe’s quick-witted and sardonic exchanges reveal his intelligence and sharpness as a detective.
IronyHis outward cynicism often masks a deeper sense of justice and morality, contrasting his tough exterior.

Vivian Rutledge

Table: Vivian Rutledge

Literary DeviceExplanation
SymbolismVivian’s duality and mysterious behavior symbolize the femme fatale archetype, embodying both allure and danger.
MetaphorHer interactions with Marlowe serve as a metaphor for the dance between trust and deceit.

Eddie Mars

Table: Eddie Mars

Literary DeviceExplanation
AllegoryRepresents the corrupting influence of wealth and power, embodying the moral decay within high society.
ForeshadowingHis early actions hint at his deeper involvement in the criminal activities that unfold.

Character Dynamics

Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge

DialogueTheir exchanges are filled with double meanings and subtle flirtations, reflecting the tension and attraction between them.
SymbolismTheir interactions symbolize the constant battle between truth and deception, a recurring theme in film noir.

Philip Marlowe and Eddie Mars

IronyThe ironic contrast between Mars’ respectable facade and his nefarious activities highlights the theme of hidden corruption.
AllegoryTheir dynamic serves as an allegory for the fight between justice and criminality, with Marlowe representing a flawed but determined seeker of truth.

Thematic Analysis

Justice and Morality

Table: Justice and Morality

SymbolismThe constant rain symbolizes the murky moral waters Marlowe navigates.
AllegoryThe characters’ actions and motivations create an allegory for the complexities of justice in a corrupt society.

Deception and Truth

Table: Deception and Truth

MetaphorThe labyrinthine plot acts as a metaphor for the elusive nature of truth.
IronyThe frequent use of irony underscores the disparity between characters’ appearances and their true intentions.

Corruption and Power

Table: Corruption and Power

SymbolismEddie Mars’ dual identity symbolizes the pervasive corruption within the social elite.
AllegoryThe film’s narrative serves as an allegory for the corrupting influence of power and wealth.

Cinematic Techniques That Enhance Literary Devices

Table: Cinematic Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
SymbolismLighting and shadowsThe use of chiaroscuro lighting enhances the film’s symbolic use of darkness and light to represent good and evil, knowledge and ignorance.
ImageryCinematographyThe detailed and atmospheric cinematography creates a vivid picture of the noir world, enhancing the descriptive imagery found in Chandler’s writing.
IronyMusic and soundThe contrast between the upbeat jazz soundtrack and the dark, tense scenes adds an ironic layer to the narrative.
DialogueClose-up shotsClose-ups during key dialogues intensify the emotional impact and highlight the subtext within the characters’ exchanges.

Key Scene Analysis

Scene: Marlowe Meets Vivian for the First Time

YouTube Link: Marlowe Meets Vivian

Scene Breakdown:

  • Dialogue: The rapid-fire exchanges between Marlowe and Vivian are filled with wit and innuendo, showcasing their verbal sparring and immediate chemistry.
  • Lighting: The interplay of light and shadow in this scene underscores the themes of mystery and deception.
  • Symbolism: Vivian’s elegant yet enigmatic presence symbolizes the allure and danger she represents.

Scene: The Final Confrontation

YouTube Link: Final Confrontation

Scene Breakdown:

  • Irony: The confrontation’s setting in a seemingly safe environment adds irony as hidden truths are revealed.
  • Cinematography: The use of tight framing and dramatic angles heightens the tension and emphasizes the characters’ emotions.
  • Symbolism: The final revelation acts as a symbol of the ultimate uncovering of truth, despite the web of lies that preceded it.


Interactive Multiple Choice Quiz

Test your understanding of the literary devices in The Big Sleep:

  1. Which literary device is primarily used in the dialogue between Marlowe and Vivian?
  2. What does the constant rain symbolize in the film?
  3. How does Eddie Mars serve as an allegory in the film?
    • A) He represents the hardworking middle class.
    • B) He symbolizes the corruption within the upper class.
    • C) He is a metaphor for justice.
    • D) He represents the ideal hero.


  1. C) Irony
  2. C) Moral ambiguity
  3. B) He symbolizes the corruption within the upper class.