Perhaps because I’ve worked as a bookseller, I’ve always felt a special affinity for Dorothy Malone‘s bookstore proprietress in The Big Sleep. In the film private detective Philip Marlowe investigates an increasingly confusing case that centers around a dysfunctional family. Clues keep leading him back to one blond sister or the other. The younger has gotten herself mixed up with an organized crime racket and murder, while the older treats Marlowe like yesterday’s trash and may have a gambling problem. While following up a lead, Marlowe stumbles into Acme Book Shop, and we meet Malone.
Dorothy’s role is small, but it’s a plum one. Despite being Plain Janed via glasses and pulled back brown hair, she looks gorgeous. Her thin-framed glasses make her look erudite, and they don’t hide a bit of that beautiful babyface. While her dress is conservative in neckline, sleeve length, and hemline, it’s mainly black, and as the widow’s color it hints at sexual knowledge. Dorothy’s dress’s overlay brings a modern, sharp, and narrow-waisted silhouette to the ensemble. It’s work wear, but executed in a femininely fashion-forward way. She’s the hipster book clerk predecessor to Funny Face and others. She’s the only female to interact with Marlowe as an equal in this film.
She not only passes Marlowe’s book test, but she gives him enough information that he can move on with his case. He tells her she should have been a cop due to her memory and descriptive ability. It’s always in that moment, that I wish the film takes a different turn. Let Bogart have Bacall in real life, but let him have Malone in this reel life. Their characters could have joined forces and become an alternate detective team to Nick and Nora. She’d have her own set of smarts to compliment his, and they could have shown what another, straightforward, screen adult relationship could be.
Alas, this was not to be. This was an instance where the film sticks closer to the book and doesn’t go off in a new direction. Instead we have these few memorable scenes of banter ladened with chemistry:
For those that like to read the subtext, then there’s an interlude that implies much that the Hays Code was against.
In the above scenes time has passed. People have tidied themselves, and the bookshop has re-opened. Marlowe goes back into the rain and on the hunt, but not before our bookseller tempts him to return and buy a book. She wants to see him again. Unfortunately for her and for us, he leaves with a so long and a pat on the arm. He’s not coming back. With that he leaves her and me wondering what if?
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