Dorothy Malone, the Character Actor who Almost Stole the Show in The Big Sleep

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep”, 1956. Warner Brothers

 
Howard Hawks was a born storyteller and an “invisible director”, François Truffaut called him, because “his camera work is never apparent to the eye”. He was also a shrewd spotter of new talent. He “discovered or used effectively for the first time on the screen many actors,” says Todd McCarthy in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, from Paul Muni, Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth, to Montgomery Clift, James Caan and Dorothy Malone. The Big Sleep may be a Bogie and Bacall film and the film was clearly hewed to become a “suitably amorous and balanced vehicle for a Bogart and Bacall” after the success of To Have and Have Not, but being a noir film, we would be remiss if we didn’t look deeper. Especially at the supporting cast, the character actors who usually drive a film, especially a film noir. Because “hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts,” Robert Mitchum said before he himself became one of the stars.

Noir films were films for actors, not stars. The directors and cinematographers had to be inventive and innovative (it’s where many of them cut their teeth in and created their filmmaking style) because the budgets were limited and the time-frames were short. They presented a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life had low values and an even lower running time, a world where love is replaced by obsession and fatal desires, but found a streak of poetry in the light coming out of a street pole in a dark alley or in the smoke of the omnipresent cigar, captured the interest with an odd angle, a glowing haunted face or a sharp line of dialogue, got under the viewer’s skin with deadly femmes fatales. They were made on Poverty Row, but they revelled in their cheapness, creating their own language, honing such a distinctive and definitive cinematic style “where one did not exist before”. It’s more than a genre, it’s called making movies. Maybe that’s why, of all the genres, the classic noir films are those that still hold our interest more than any others. It’s that “making” thing, the realness, the true grit, the unique experience we are allowed of experiencing our dark side but only from a safe distance.

And the supporting actors were the gold mines of film noir. The Thelma Ritters (can you imagine Pickup on South Street and Rear Window without her?), the Elisha Cooks Jr., the Dorothy Malones.
 
 

“You begin to interest me, vaguely.”
Dorothy Malone to Bogart, The Big Sleep

 
 
The Big Sleep follows private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he picks his way through a corrupt labyrinth of gamblers, blackmailers, pornographers, hired thugs and murderers, who have attached themselves to the rich, elderly General Sternwood, and his two daughters, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers). It is one of the classics of film noir, heavy on great dialogue that simply doesn’t let up, it has wit and verve and style and an intricate and fast-paced plot, and where the time of day is appropriately night. It is a “deeply mysterious puzzle in which everyone is suspicious and most are guilty of something,” writes Todd McCarthy, and when the film ends you remain puzzled. I personally revel in its intricate, labyrinthine plot. And Dorothy Malone’s character falls perfectly into place.

She is the bookseller who makes a pass at Bogart. She almost steels the show of the entire film. It is her part that is truly memorable. It was Bogart and Bacall who the audience were waiting to see on screen, and on whom the producers placed their bets, but the surprise came from Dorothy Malone. The combination of mystery, lively curiosity and liberating departure from the faux feminine ideal that she projects grabs your attention, takes you by surprise. And isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place, what we hope to experience? “For the bookseller, Hawks was delighted with a nineteen-year-old Texas newcomer Dorothy Malone. Hawks said that the scene was never intended to be taken as far as it went, but they were able to do so simply because “the girl was so damn good-looking. It taught me a great lesson, that if you make a good scene, if we could do something that was fun, the audience goes right along with it.” Like Bacall, Malone was so nervous doing her first important scene that her hands shook while she attempted to get the drink, prompting Hawks to have the bottom of the glass filled with lead so she could handle it.”

Dorothy Malone, with her character here and other films that would follow, didn’t conform to stereotypes. She doesn’t even get a name in The Big Sleep, she is just the Acme Book Shop proprietress. But she breaths life into her character, just like Gloria Graham or Lizabeth Scott did in their noir roles. She doesn’t conform. She has presence, and this has nothing to do with the costumes she wears. It’s her wit and crafty personality, not her looks, that make for a female’s best guns. And she makes a pass at Bogie while talking about books… and then closes up shop for him. But maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, especially in a Howard Hawks film. The Hawksian woman is just as much part of Hawks’ universe as his tough men are.

 
 

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