Valentine’s Day is quite possibly my favorite holiday of the year outside of Christmas. I just adore a good love story, especially when it relates to classic film, so I knew that I had to use the holiday as an opportunity to get myself involved in some romantic discussions about Old Hollywood. While last year I decided to publish a ranking of my Top Five Most Underrated Onscreen Couples, this year I decided to participate in two equally fantastic tributes to love in the movies. Released earlier this week was perhaps my favorite episode so far of the Old Hollywood podcast that I cohost with Kristen Lopez and Drea Clark, Ticklish Buisness. The three of us had so much fun gushing about our favorite romantic pairings in all of cinema history! Today’s offering is another unique concept that I’m delighted to explore: my most beloved onscreen meet-cute, presented as part of The First Annual Valentine’s Day Meet-Cute Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies! Now at this point, you might be asking: what even is a meet-cute? A meet-cute is a scenario in which two characters meet for the first time in such a romantic, adorable, or extraordinary way that there’s no explanation for it other than that they’ve been brought together by fate. Meet-cutes are practically inevitable in romantic comedies, and once you see two protagonists converge this way, you know that the pair is destined to end up together. When I began to give some thought as to which classic movie meet-cutes stand out to me, my mind first ventured towards what sort of a meet-cute is my favorite in general. I, for one, am the type to dream of the day when I’m at my local library, reaching out for my favorite novel only to have the title be swiped by the man or woman of my dreams. Of course, a conversation about the book would ensue, and before long we’d be riding off into the sunset.
The introduction I recalled that resembled my ideal the most was an unconventional, but remarkable one: the standout scene in The Big Sleep (1946) in which private detective Phillip Marlowe interrogates and eventually spends a rainy afternoon with the proprietress of the Acme Book Store, which is across the street from a similar store that he’s investigating. As soon as the scene popped into my head, I couldn’t think of any others that I admired as much and knew that it was the meeting that I was destined to write about. But what’s the most fascinating thing about this interaction that separates it from all the rest? While nearly all meet-cutes result in a romance that the story focuses on throughout the remainder of the film, Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Malone share an entirety of three and a half minutes onscreen. That’s it. In fact, here’s the complete scene for your viewing pleasure. There’s no riding off into the sunset for them; no dates, flowers, or candy before or after their conversation. Phillip Marlowe and the nameless librarian don’t even end up together, and as far as the plotline goes, she’s largely forgotten in favor of Vivian Rutledge, portrayed by Lauren Bacall. So what makes Bogie and Dorothy’s scene in the movie interesting enough to be anyone’s favorite meet-cute, or even worthy of a mention? From the instant that the two meet, Phillip and the librarian share an immediate attraction, and in fewer than four minutes, the viewer could make the argument that they share more chemistry than Marlowe does with Vivian in the rest of the picture put together.
While she’s forthcoming with all of the detailed information that she has about the man he’s looking for, he’s just as forthcoming about his career and reasons for being there, even if he puts himself in danger by revealing his identity. That alone shows how much the two trust each other right from the start, and that trust quickly evolves into interest, and arguably even lust as the woman invites him to wait out the rain in her store before he goes off to tail his suspect. Of course he agrees, and she proceeds to close up shop just for him. It’s impossible to call the way that she lowers the shade on the door, locks up, and glances his way anything but suggestive. Bogie pulls a secret stash of liquor from his pocket for the two of them to share while Dorothy removes her glasses and lets her hair down in true Hot Librarian trope fashion. As the pair clinks their paper cups filled with rye and the screen fades to black, we know that they’re doing a lot more than shooting the breeze and waiting for the rain to let up. The screen fades back in moments later, but it’s clear that a significant amount of time has passed before the shop owner informs Detective Marlowe that his suspect’s car is approaching. They share a brief but tender goodbye, and while every other script would take full advantage of their connection and intimate moment, they never see each other again. But if you asked nearly any noir or classic movie fan which scene is the most memorable from The Big Sleep (1946), I’d argue that the majority would cite this one in particular. The nameless shopkeeper in particular is so vivacious and intelligent that she’s even considered among the best female characters in noir, while Dorothy Malone was given fifth billing for these three minutes alone. To me, it’s clear who Marlowe was meant to be with, just as it’s clear that this meet-cute deserves its rightful place in cinema history.