The Big Sleep is a true mystery—nothing is as it seems in this classic Film Noir. A simple investigation turns into a vast murder plot with legs in black mail, explicit images, and a missing wife. The women in The Big Sleep—and there are many—facilitate this confusing plot as a device to further confuse the audience. Carmen begins the film as a sweet, confused, child when she attempts to creepily seduce Marlowe in the first scene of the film. She then quickly transitions to a drugged, sexed-up women who is being used for her body. Even more quickly, we see her as a dark femme fatale: ready to shoot if necessary to defend her own honor—fully autonomous and separate from the child in that first scene.
Vivian undergoes a similar transition in The Big Sleep—from daddy’s good little girl who just wants the best for her father to singing in some sort of jazz club full of men. She then becomes a gambling wizard, unwilling to take no for an answer. This shiny daddy’s girl transitions to a scheming woman who plays a part in an intense black mail scheme, though it is revealed in the end that she herself was being blackmailed.
Even the peripheral women in this film serve to subvert traditional ideas of womanhood and confuse the audience. The bookshop woman goes from dowdy librarian to sexy, independent young woman with the simple removal of her glasses. The taxi driver, already an unusual job for a female, tells Marlowe that she’s his girl—“You can use me again sometime… night’s better, I work during the day.” This woman’s real job is not even driving her taxi, she does something else during the day—insinuating that her taxi services may go beyond that of just driving handsome young men around.
The film’s end tells us that women are weak, are to be used and seduced to uncover this mysterious plot. Each of these women need fixing and protecting in the name of the great American patriarchy—weather it was protecting their honor or making them into beautiful creatures. The film’s final lines speak to this thesis: Marlowe asks Vivian what’s wrong with her and she succinctly replies: “nothing you can’t fix.”