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Killing Owen Taylor.· Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past Dean DeFino It often seems to this particular writer that the only reasonably honest and effective way of fooling die reader that remains is to make the reader exercise his mind about the wrong problems, to make him, as it were, solve a mystery (since he is almost sure to solve something) which will land him in a bypath because it is only tangential to the central problem. —Raymond Chandler, "Casual Notes on The Mystery Novel" To determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema. —Sergei Eisenstein, "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form" In Raymond Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich old man named Sternwood to protect his reckless young daughter, Carmen, from a blackmailer and pornographer named Geiger. But before Marlowe has any lead into the case, Geiger turns up dead. Shortly after, the Sternwoods' chauffeur, Owen Taylor , is fished out of the ocean in the family car, with sap marks on his head and his foot tied to the accelerator. Marlowe learns from a friend in the district attorney's office that Taylor was an ex-con who had once run off with Carmen and fallen in love with her; then, when she tossed him aside, JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.3 (Fall 2000): 313-331. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 314 JNT stayed on with the family to protect her. Marlowe figures the case like this: Taylor murdered Geiger when he found out that Geiger had been taking dirty pictures of Carmen, then either committed suicide by driving into the ocean or, more likely, got himself killed by one of Geiger 's associates. We do not know for sure because the novel never tells us. Satisfied with his theory, Marlowe lets the matter drop midway through the text. Where Taylor 's alleged murderous act serves a plotting function (Geiger's death exposes a network of corruption that implicates the Sternwood family at several levels), his own death merely symbolizes the folly of a man consumed by a lost love. Taylor, and his vision of Carmen, is finally swallowed up in "the big sleep," death, toward which all the novel's illusions speed. When Howard Hawks set about adapting Chandler's novel to film in 1946, he made substantial changes to the text. Warner Brothers had bought the property as a romantic vehicle for its two stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and so Hawks added several scenes to accommodate a love story between detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) and Carmen's older sister , Vivian (Bacall). He also removed all references to drug abuse and pornography, in accordance with the Hays Code, and did away with Chandler 's brooding pessimistic coda on "the big sleep" when studio executives insisted upon a morally uplifting ending. Though the film maintains much of the tone of Chandler's novel—the menacing criminality, the cynical humor—it makes something of a patchwork of the plot. But one piece Hawks finally decided to include in this patchwork was the strange death of Owen Taylor. Hawks recalls: We were having an argument one time about who killed Owen, and no one ever knew who did it. After we had argued about it a lot I sent Chandler a wire and said, 'Who killed him?' and he said 'So and so.' He couldn't have, he was down at the beach at the time. So we didn't bother about it—we just tried to make good scenes, (qtd. in Goodwin 31) Hawks might have easily invented his own explanation for Taylor's death, or even written the character out entirely (the chauffeur is never mentioned until he turns up dead), but instead he chose to include it. But why, when all it offered (particularly without the larger context of "the big Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past 315 sleep") was another confusing plot detail? Hawks' flippancy about the matter—that he "didn't bother about it" and "just tried to make good scenes"—suggests a sort of contempt for the laws of narrative continuity. In order...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 313-331
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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