Amid all the mystery and mayhem of THE BIG SLEEP, there is one scene everyone remembers because it is HUMPHREY BOGART giving us a moment of humour. It’s been called ‘The Ben- Hur 1860’ scene.
Simply by turning up the brim of his hat and putting on dark glasses, Bogie’s Philip Marlowe disappears and this funny , slightly effeminate rare book collector is born.
In the still above, Marlowe smiles as he thinks of the pretence about to unfold.
Marlowe enters the Geiger rare book store ( which is really a front for a gang of blackmailers) and is greeted by SONIA DARRIN as Agnes Lowzier who knows as much about rare books as Marlowe does – though Marlowe has made a trip to the library recently !
Marlowe, speaking quickly and with a touch of a lisp, asks: “Would you happen to have a Ben – Hur 1860?”
Agnes responds, “A what?”
“A Ben- Hur 1860.”
“Oh, a first edition.”
Bogart gets well into character, speaking quickly – “No, , no ,no. The third, the third. The one with the erratum on page 116.
When she answers no, he says, ” How about Chevalier Audubon, 1840- full set of course.”
When Agnes again says no, Marlowe makes fun of her,
“You do sell books,Mmmm ?”
Referring to some books on a nearby table, the impatient Agnes snaps back: “What do these look like, grapefruit?”
“From here they look like books”, he responds.
Bogart does some business with the glasses as he looks at Agnes.
Marlowe enquiries about Mr. Geiger, the shop’s owner but Agnes says he isn’t there. After another man comes into the shop and she buzzes him through to the back room, Marlowe realises he is getting nowhere and quickly turns round and says:” I’m already late for my lecture on Argentine ceramics.” (He mispronounces ‘ceramics’.)
Agnes has really had enough of him by now and sarcastically answers, “The word is CERAMICS and they ain’t Argentine, they’re Egyptian.”
Marlowe gets the last word, “You did sell a book once, didn’t you!”
Marlowe makes for the door, saying he can try the shop across the road , ( the Acme bookstore where he meets Dorothy Malone and has an altogether pleasanter time!) She quickly confirms that the two editions he queried don’t exist.
In fact Ben-Hur wasn’t published till 1880 ,and the only reference I could find to Chevalier Audubon were two names – an ornotholigist called John James Audubon and a publisher J.B.Chevalier, both of whom had a connection in the 19th century.
It’s a funny scene which one can imagine Bogart had a great time doing.
Little known Sonia Darren, as Agnes, holds her own with Bogart. Sonia has a few more scenes in the film , as the girlfriend of one of the bad guys , Louis Jean Heydt. When Heydt is bumped off,she moves on to Elisha Cook.
Unlike Dorothy Malone, who has one scene in the film, Sonia’s name is not in the credits . Why her name is missing has always been a mystery. Sonia herself said she though her agent annoyed Jack Warner and he took it out on Sonia by leaving her name out.
Before her appearance in The Big Sleep, Sonia Darrin had several uncredited parts in It Started With Eve, The Corsican Brothers, My Gal Sal and Lady in the Dark. She did get a credit in Bury Me Dead and Federal Agent At Large, her last film in 1950.
Speaking to Lou Lumenick of the New York Post in 2016, the 92 year old Sonia said she has turned down many invitations to screenings of The Big Sleep.
Sonia was considered fo the part of Lauren Bacall’s sister, Carmen Sternwood, but lost to MARTHA VICKERS.
She said, “Bogart was very kind, polite and helpful to me.”
Sonia, who has resided in Manhattan for the past 50 years, left Hollywood in 1950, did some modelling before marrying and moving to New York.
The last survivor of The Big Sleep cast, Sonia has been described as ‘Awesome Agnes’ !
Considering her limited experience, she showed in The Big Sleep that she was capable of far more than Hollywood gave her to do.
On the set: Howard Hawks, Sonia Darrin, ..?.. Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Jean Heydt
Bogart advertises the film .