Max Steiner composed some exciting suspense music for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’s 1946 movie of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It is very effective, and so, in its way, is the swinging number Lauren Bacall and band perform at the casino run by racketeer Eddie Mars: And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine (music Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence, lyrics Joe Greene). The lyric locates us in noir central: “She’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted valentine.” But my favorite musical moment in The Big Sleep is subtle enough that you might not notice it the first time around. Bacall (as one of the notorious Sternwood sisters) and co-star Humphrey Bogart (as detective Philip Marlowe) are bantering in a restaurant. In the background, a piano player is playing two great jazz standards: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz) and Blue Room (music Richard Rodgers, lyrics Lorenz Hart). At first you might think that what you’re hearing is just tremendously appealing café music. Only later do you realize that the two songs themselves have captured, in a whimsical fashion, the structural meaning of the scene.
The Big Sleep will culminate in the image of two lighted cigarettes in an ashtray as the words THE END appear on the screen. It’s a fitting image for the romance of Bogart and Bacall, who like to smoke and drink and make witty repartee in a roadhouse café. The by-play between the two romantic leads is utterly charming, but it is also, for much of the picture, utterly incongruous because incompatible with the story-line. The movie needs them to be lovers, the audience expects them to flirt, to link, and to clinch, and this duly happens, but at considerable violence to the logic of the plot, which puts their characters on the opposite sides of a quarrel.
Though this duality may threaten the coherence of the picture, it makes the scenes between Bogart and Bacall doubly entertaining. The dialogue is full of double meanings and playful digressions. In the restaurant scene with the piano soundtrack, the two are nursing their drinks. They employ an extended racetrack metaphor to communicate their sexual interest. She: “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.” He invites her to take a stab at summing him up. “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.” He: “You don't like to be rated yourself.” She: “I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?” He: “Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.” She: “A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”
The ostensible purpose of the encounter is for Bacall to pay Bogart off – to pay him for the work he has done and get him to drop the case. Thus: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan. Once this plot requirement is out of the way, Bacall and Bogart get down to the real cinematic purpose of their being there: to tease and flirt and advance their budding romance. And now the piano player plays Blue Room, which idealizes the successful outcome of such a romance. Lorenz Hart’s lyric stars you and me and the prospect of our betrothal and a subsequent time ever after when “every day’s a holiday, because you’re married to me.” It’s a song second perhaps only to Tea for Two (music Vincent Youmans, words Irving Caesar) as an idealized fantasy of marriage so beautifully innocent it almost brings tears to your eyes.
The Big Sleep needs the two songs in the background, and not simply because they are in exact counterpoint to the course of the conversation between Bogart and Bacall. A soundtrack of popular songs by Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Irving Berlin, and the other great masters of the thirty-two bar song is as necessary in noir movies of the 1940s as the city streets, the silhouette in the window, the Mickey disguised as a highball, and the night spots the characters frequent, from Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca (1942) to Eddie Mars’s casino in The Big Sleep, where beautiful costumed girls check Bogart’s coat, offer to sell him cigarettes, and vie for the privilege of delivering him a message.
Nor do the songs suffer from being relegated to background music, shorn of lyrics. The solo piano renditions of I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan and Blue Room insinuate themselves in your consciousness. If you don’t recognize them, fine; if you know them, so much the better. When you listen to an instrumental version of a song whose lyrics you know and like, what you’re hearing is a metonymy of the song: a part standing for the whole. The text is not altogether absent if you the listener can supply it. (When the septuagenarian Frank Sinatra went up on the lines of The Second Time Around the audience helpfully sang them). But to make my point about the interdependence of Hollywood films and popular songs, let me offer this montage:
-- -- What better way to convey the faithful consistency of “iron man” Lou Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman who long held the record for most consecutive games played, than with Irving Berlin’s song Always? In Pride of the Yankees (1942), the song does double duty as the musical affirmation of Gehrig’s loving fidelity to his wife, Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright.
-- Johnny Mercer’s lyric for Tangerine (music Victor Schertzinger) extols the charms of a vain and fickle Latin beauty. To the strains of this song, Barbara Stanwyck plays the ultimate femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), who conspires with insurance man Fred McMurray to eliminate her husband. In a flashback in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the same song plays on the car radio when Stanwyck, playing a neurotic heiress this time, flaunts her father’s wealth to betray a friend and seduce Burt Lancaster. The great Jimmy Dorsey big band version of this song features Bob Eberle’s romantic solo followed by Helen O’Connell’s brassy satirical retort.
-- As David Raksin’s theme for Laura (1944) plays in the background, the homicide detective played by Dana Andrews becomes obsessed with the murder victim, a beautiful dame (Gene Tierney), whose picture hangs on the wall. Laura obligingly returns to life -- the corpse in the kitchen belonged to somebody else – and whenever in future we need to summon her up, we need only hum Raksin’s theme. Johnny Mercer added his lyric to the music months after the movie was released.-- To Have and Have Not (1944) is notable for being the first movie pairing Bogart and Bacall. It’s the one in which the foxy young actress seduces the hardened skeptic by teaching him how to whistle: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The song she “sings” in the movie’s nightclub scene is How Little We Know (music Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics Johnny Mercer). There are three things to keep in mind about the scene. 1) It is the composer who is playing the piano. 2) The song is an under-appreciated gem in the Carmichael – Mercer canon; I like it almost as much as Skylark. 3) It is said that the young Andy Williams enhanced the voice coming out of the throat of Lauren Bacall. (4) Jacqueline Bouvier loved the song, and during her junior year in Paris, she wrote out the bridge in English and in her own French translation for the benefit of one of her French hosts.
-- In The Clock (1945) office worker Judy Garland meets soldier Robert Walker on a two-day leave in New York City. At the moment they realize they are falling in love, the piano player in the restaurant is playing If I Had You (music Ted Shapiro, lyrics James Campbell and Reginald Connolly).
-- Somebody puts a coin in the jukebox in the diner and out comes I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me (music Jimmy McHugh, words Clarence Gaskill), triggering the recollected psychodrama in Edgar Ullmer’s strange reverie of an unreliable (unbelievable) narrator in Detour (1945). The movie is a paranoid masterpiece, and the very title of the song goes to the heart of its mystery. The viewer “can’t believe” the events he or she is witnessing, because the narrator is either delusional or a liar or both in some blend. The same song punctuates The Caine Mutiny, where it has a more conventional signification.
-- A drunken Fredric March still in uniform and his game wife Myrna Loy dance to Among My Souvenirs (music Horatio Nicholls, lyrics Edgar Leslie) on his first night back from the war in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Hoagy Carmichael tickles the ivories at the gin joint where the reunited couple have gone with their daughter (Teresa Wright) and returning airman Dana Andrews.
-- Rita Hayworth invites the American male in the form of tightlipped Glenn Ford to Put the Blame on Mame (music Doris Fisher, lyrics Alan Roberts) in Gilda (1946). In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the same red-haired enchantress seduces Orson Welles and coyly sings Please Don’t Kiss Me (same songwriters), a phrase that says one thing and means its opposite. Given the way Hollywood films wink at one another, it’s no surprise that we hear an instrumental version of Put the Blame on Mame in the background when tough-guy Glenn Ford sets out to foil the killers in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
-- The radio reliably pours out love songs in keeping with the plot twists in Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict with a new face who will escape to South America with Lauren Bacall if he can figure out who killed his pal and framed him for the murder. During the course of the movie we hear instrumentals of I Gotta a Right to Sing the Blues (music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler), I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz)\, and Someone to Watch Over Me (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin). “You like swing, I see,” says Bogart. “Yes, legitimate swing,” Bacall counters. When Dark Passage gets serious about the love story, we see a record spinning on Bacall’s record player and the golden voice of Jo Stafford sings Too Marvelous for Words (music Richard Whiting, lyrics Johnny Mercer) and legitimates the romance.
-- In Key Largo (1948), the fourth Bogart-Bacall movie on this list, Claire Trevor plays a washed-up night-club singer and full-time lush in the entourage of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Trevor sings Moanin’ Low (music Ralph Rainger, lyrics Howard Dietz) a capella, her voice faltering, and when she finishes the torch song, says, “Can I have that drink now, Johnny?”
-- Manipulative Anne Baxter supplants Bette Davis as queen of the stage in All About Eve (1951), and the romantic Broadway ambiance of New York City is communicated in background instrumentals of all-star songs by Rodgers and Hart (Thou Swell, My Heart Stood Still), Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (Stormy Weather), Arlen and Johnny Mercer (That Old Black Magic), and Ralph Freed and Burton Lane (How About You?).The last named begins, “I like New York in June.”
The use of Among My Souvenirs in The Best Years of Our Lives is exemplary. Edgar Leslie’s 1927 lyric communicates regret at the passing of time. Trinkets and tokens diligently collected and treasured offer some consolation but do nothing to stop the flow of tears. In the movie, when the U. S. army sergeant played by March comes home he brings souvenirs of the Pacific war as gifts for his teenage son. But like the knife in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” when it has become a souvenir on the shelf after Crusoe returns home from his island, the mementos of the global conflict have lost their meaning. They seem vaguely unreal, lifeless. In contrast, the photograph of his wife that a hung-over March looks at the next morning – another sort of souvenir – has all the meaning in the world for him. And Among My Souvenirs – played on the piano by Hoagy Carmichael, hummed in the shower by a drunken March, and heard as background music -- unifies the whole sequence and endows it with the rich pathos that make the song so durable a jazz standard. I recommend that you listen to Art Tatum play it on the piano or, if you can get your mitts on it, a recording of Sinatra and Crosby doing it as a duet on television in the 1950s.
-- A version of this essay appears in Boulevard, ed. Richard Burgin.