First Draft: Lessons in Plotting Film Noir, From The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski and The Nice Guys

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


The Nice Guys follows private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) as they team up on the trail of a missing girl—a case which leads them deep into the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles. Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi’s script uses a lot of film noir tropes; one of the most prominent of these is the complex, spiraling plot into which our heroes are drawn.

On top of this plot, the film focuses on the way the case develops the characters of March and Healy, and on the buddy humor dynamic between the two—a lot of levels for a script to have to work on. In order to explore how the screenwriters balanced these elements, it’s useful to look back on some of the film’s antecedents, starting with one of the cornerstones of the noir genre: The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep

Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, The Big Sleep is adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler, perhaps the best known author of hard-boiled detective fiction. Humphrey Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s iconic detective, who is hired by the elderly General Sternwood to find out who’s blackmailing his daughter.

It’s a case that keeps on escalating and soon involves several murders, a casino run by a gangster, and the gangster’s missing wife. (Chandler’s novel also has Sternwood’s blackmailed daughter involved in the pornography business, but the Hays Code demanded this was only alluded to in the movie).

Fans of the author will all agree that Chandler was an expert at plotting out a mystery; in fact, he wrote his own “Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel” (published in The Book of Literary Lists: A Collection of Annotated Lists, Statistics, and Anecdotes Concerning Books, edited by Nicholas Parsons):

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law… If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep adheres to these rules: Character motivations are clear, methods of murder never test belief, and the villain gets his comeuppance. The reveals are well paced, and elements that will later become relevant (such as the absence of Sternwood’s former employee Sean Regan) are planted early on, as well as some red herrings. Indeed, the initial blackmailing plot is itself one huge red herring, largely unrelated to the final revelations about the covered-up murder of Regan and the other blackmail which has been going on regarding this murder. If you can get your head around all that, it’s a satisfying ending.

But if you can’t… well, don’t feel too ashamed. The Big Sleep most definitely follows Chandler’s sixth rule, and arguably breaks the fifth; the notorious complexity of the plot can be seen as a burden.

There’s a famous anecdote about Bogart asking Hawks to clarify whether Sternwood’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, had been murdered or had killed himself, and it turned out no one on set actually knew. Hawks sent Chandler a telegram, only to receive a reply saying the author didn’t know either.

This amusing example points to a larger contradiction going on with the story of The Big Sleep: Viewers having just seen the movie for the first time would be hard pressed to recount all the plot’s twists and turns, which did lead to some negative reviews from confused critics upon its release, and yet the film is still regarded as a classic.

Bogart, Bacall as Vivian Rutledge and Louis Jean Heydt as Joe Brody in The Big Sleep

In his Great Movies review of The Big Sleep, Roger Ebert got to the heart of why this is, asserting that the movie is “about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” The appeal of The Big Sleep, then, is not in one Poirot-type moment in which all the plot strands come together, but in watching Marlowe go about his business. And isn’t this the same point Chandler was making in his fourth commandment?

The point applies doubly to the film adaptation. After screening the first cut in 1945, the producers decided to re-write and re-shoot some of the movie in order to develop Lauren Bacall’s character and to utilize her flirtatious chemistry with Bogart—the “Bogie and Bacall” phenomenon. Thus, a long expository sequence in which Marlowe and an employee of the District Attorney go over the details of the case was removed and extra scenes between the romantic leads added—a clear example of character trumping plot.

The added scenes include this interaction in a nightclub, as euphemistic as 1940s Hollywood would allow:

VIVIAN

Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.

MARLOWE

Find out mine?

VIVIAN

I think so.

MARLOWE

Go ahead.

VIVIAN

I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

MARLOWE

You don’t like to be rated yourself.

VIVIAN

I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

MARLOWE

Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but, uh… I don’t know how—how far you can go.

VIVIAN

A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

And with sauciness like that, can you blame viewers for not remembering who killed whom?

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