Scratch When It Itches (The Big Sleep, 1946)


When private detective Philip Marlowe first enters the mansion of his new client Mr. Sternwood (an older man hiring him to look into a blackmailing case that might have something to do with one or two of his wanton daughters), he walks into daughter one, Carmen. Who, after coyly inspecting him, greets him teasingly: “you are not very tall, are you?” soon after which she throws herself in his arms and calls him cute. Rather unmoved by Carmen’s childlike coquetry, Marlowe shrugs her off and tells the butler, on the way to the greenhouse where his client awaits him: “you should ween her, she’s old enough.”

After a one-on-one with Mr. Sternwood, the butler notifies Marlowe that daughter two, Vivian, would like to see him. Overheated from the greenhouse temperature and a hefty confrontation with what anemic old age looks like, Marlowe walks into the room where Vivian stands, pouring herself a drink.

Nothing about Vivian reminds of the first Sternwood sister Carmen. Whereas Carmen was wearing a doll-like playsuit, accessorized with batting eye lashes and thumb biting, Vivian is dressed head to toe in military fashion. And then, she opens her mouth… “So, you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My you’re a mess aren’t you.” she says, without a pause or tinge of doubt in her voice. 

Marlowe’s response is an amused snort. After all, this is a man who has alluring women falling at his feet wherever he goes (a fact made clear all through the movie). He definitely is not used to being talked down to or challenged by a woman. To her snide welcome he replies: “I am not very tall either.”

Yes, he is amused as well as agitated and captivated.

After a torrid exchange of mutual insults and probing one another for details, their first meeting abruptly ends on a sore note. What follows is a delectable cat and mouse game, which, as the plot unravels takes a joyous and heartwarming turn. What contributes to this cat and mouse game being so enjoyable is the growing absence of resentment, it adds light to the noir of it all.

As we go along in Marlowe’s investigating case, we slowly find out what’s going on and why miss Vivian is so testy. We also start seeing Vivian through Marlowe’s eyes while he falls in love with her. 

The scene marking the truce between Marlowe and Vivian is that in which Vivian, while visiting Marlowe at his office, makes an elaborate effort to hide an itch she has just under the hem of her skirt. Marlowe’s no nonsense approach breaks the tension: “go ahead, scratch.” What he is telling her is that he sees through the decorum and act, and that she is safe to drop her guard, be herself and trust him. Without blinking an eye she lifts her skirt ever so slightly above the knee, and goes for the scratch. It is a bold move on either side that has the suggestion of sex and comradeship all over it, precisely because it is a declaration of faith in the other. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Film Noir if the detective wasn’t faced with some more hurdles to jump in order to overcome the Femme Fatale. 

As we struggle along with Marlowe to solve the case and secure the dame, we learn that Vivian and Marlowe eventually form a pact together, an inevitable move, perhaps, as their interests have become all mixed and muddled in the name of love, but a wise move all the same. 

bacallbogart(off-and-on screen romance, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were deeply in love while filming ‘The Big Sleep’)

The Big Sleep is one of the few Film Noirs with a happy ending. The finale could even be considered frivolous if it didn’t grab you by the heart every single time, with those grandiose last words and the undeniable chemistry between the detective and this truly unique Femme Fatale. 

As an audience we are granted a look into what might be between the sexes, if they could overcome and embrace their differences and fuse their strengths. That, and the potential of a once in a lifetime romance, should you be so lucky to walk into that one person who allows you to scratch your itch. 

© Barbara Timmers. Article Prepublication. All rights reserved.