In the classic films of the 1940s and 1950s, filmmakers tended to use very strict representations of gender in their characters. Women could be either virgins or tramps and men could be either heroes or villains. There was very little transgression of the stereotypical boundaries of character. Society as a whole during this period was heavily masculine. Men made up the executives and the politicians and of course the majority of the powerful filmmakers. Consequentially, the perspective of most films and literature of the era was decidedly masculine. Female characters were heavily marginalized and forced into one of the two categories listed above. In two works from the period, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, the women characters are portrayed as useless or as venomous and evil. Some scholars have speculated that the reason behind such portrayals is the basic male fantasy which is a world without women. In both of these texts, it is obvious that the men in the world would be better off if women were not part of their lives.
Gender, as opposed to the physical classification of sex, has always been based upon societal construct. The current psychology of the masses dictates what proper or improper behavior for the given genders is. This has always been the way of things. Things have progressed, but there is still a vast difference between the roles and responsibilities of males and their female counterparts. The conflict of the modern age often stems from an intersection of gender and ethical dilemmas, both based upon societal rules. Fictional characters are written by flesh and blood human beings. Thus, the norms of the social order will bleed into their fictional creations. Female characters in a fictional work will have the same gendered notes as a human being. So too, male characters in fiction will often have the gender norms of human males. If they do not prescribe to the norms of their given gender, it is always for an artistic purpose which functions as the purpose of the piece. When the characterization is not the point of the story, then males will usually be masculine and females will be feminine. In the Raymond Chandler novel and the John Huston film, the characterizations of gender are extremely important and indeed, men are very manly unless otherwise stated and women are quite womanly. Gender identification is integral to both stories and the idea of woman as daughter of Eve and thus sinful is important.
In Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep, there are male characters without moral fiber. There are pornographers, illegal gamblers, and blackmailers to no end. However, these men are only red herrings in the mystery that surround Detective Philip Marlowe. The good detective has been tasked by Colonel Sternwood to deal with a man named Geiger who is blackmailing his youngest child. Very little information is provided, showing that the colonel wants the situation dealt with, but that this is also not the first time he has had to deal with such circumstances. His children are wild women who do what they want with no reprobation from him. It is not the colonels' position that he should become involved in his children's behaviors and instead merely cleans up after them. This is true for the other men in the story who have any feeling for the Sternwood girls. They use them and abuse them, but really are at the mercy of the machinations of the young women. Although the men in the story may have committed crimes, they only do so because they have been led to action or forced into action by the Sternwood sisters, Vivian and Carmen.
Vivian Sternwood is the older sister and she is an insatiable gambler who spends much of her time at Eddie Mars' illegal casino. She has married a man named Rusty Regan who has disappeared, presumably with another woman. Her interests are solely venial, money and men. Outside of her sister and herself, it appears that Vivian does not really care for anyone, like it is implied, is true of most women. Vivian has intelligence and ruthlessness, according to her father but neither of these things has seen her progress in life (Marlowe 6).
The more violent and vicious of the two women is Carmen Sternwood, the younger sister. Carmen is sexually promiscuous and enjoys drinking and narcotics. When she is introduced, Carmen is described as both beautiful and dangerous. "She had little sharp predatory teeth" (Chandler 2). At various points in the novel, she is intoxicated. She is being blackmailed by Geiger over pornographic pictures of her although it does not seem that she really feels ashamed or embarrassed that someone has taken pictures of her. Carmen's whole identity is wrapped up in her sexual appetite and in the appeal she has to men. When a man is foolish enough to reject Carmen's advances, the girl turns deadly. She is responsible for having murdered her brother-in-law and intends to kill the hero detective Marlowe. Philip Marlowe is a man who does not want to be encumbered with women. There is nothing to indicate that he enjoys sex or that he wants the companionship of women. In Carmen's case, quite the contrary is true. When he goes home and finds her in his bed, not only does he throw her out, but he then tears apart his bed sheets. The female presence has contaminated his resting place and her memory must be eradicated in order to recreate the masculine space.
The only woman in the novel who behaves "properly" is Mona Mars. The people of the community believe that Mona has run off with Vivian's husband because that is what Eddie Mars told her to make them believe. She has been hiding in a house behind an old dirty garage for a fairly long period of time and would continue hiding there for as long as Eddie tells her to. Mona Mars does not care for sex or thrills like the Sternwood girls and would never be in a compromising positions. She may be married to a criminal, but her wifely devotion is of such strong a magnitude that she would abide by his demands, whatever they may be. In the plot of this novel, the best things she can do as a good and dutiful wife is to disappear, making her the ideal example of the male fantasy. She turns Eddie's life into a world without women as much as she is capable.
John Huston's version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is another story wherein the male protagonist is constantly hampered by the presence of selfish women. Sam Spade, like Philip Marlowe seems to be surrounded by women who do not understand their "proper" social place. Sam is a hard working private detective who tries to do the right thing even under morally ambiguous circumstances. Although he may commit some immoral transgressions, such as adultery, he has a rigid code of ethics regarding his fellow men, not his women. It is in the pursuit of justice for a fallen man that Sam meets and then rejects a woman whom he could fall in love because, it is established, that the fraternal bond between male partners is more important than love between man and a woman.
The first woman to attempt to usurp a place of importance in Sam's life is his partner's wife Iva. Miles Archer was tasked with trying to help a young woman who entered their office the day before and now he is dead. Iva mistakenly believes that Sam killed Miles so that the two of them could be together. Sam must not only deal with the death of his partner and the unraveling of a mystery, but the misguided beliefs of this besotted female. Sam Spade and Iva had been engaged in an adulterous affair behind Miles back, although Miles himself was not monogamous with his wife. There were never any promises on Sam's side of the relationship and he has no intention of either marrying Iva or of even continuing the sexual relationship now that Miles is dead. According to William Ahearn, the affair is just a plot device used to paint Sam as morally ambiguous. "The affair with Iva Archer paints Spade as a 'bad man', so his questionable actions later in the book aren't given the benefit of the doubt and we're easily convinced he might sell out O'Shaughnessy to Gutman for his own gain. The affair is a setup meant to confuse morality, legality and criminality based on the reader's perspective" (1). Thus, Iva is a means to an end, but not a woman of real substance. Iva is very much life Vivan Sternwood, selfish but of no real consequence to the rest of the story, merely another inconvenient woman.
The other woman in the story is much more complicated. First, she introduces herself as Ruth Wonderly and then as Ruth's sister Brigid O'Shaughnessy. There is a group…