Friday, August 29, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Big Sleep

There’s a legend about the making of The Big Sleep that the filmmakers contacted author Raymond Chandler to ask who had killed the chauffeur in his Philip Marlowe detective tale. He replied that he had no idea. The story, true or not, illustrates the mind-bendingly complex plotting of this classic film noir that has enough plot twists, double crosses, and murders to fill three or four movies.

Humphrey Bogart is Marlowe, the private detective hired by the wealthy patriarch of the Sternwood family to deal with a blackmail scheme involving Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger of his two daughters. Vivian Rutledge, the elder daughter played by Lauren Bacall, involves herself, setting off a tension-filled relationship between her and Marlow for the remainder of the film. To try to recount the plot or even the basic story would result in a senseless explanation. As directed by Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep is an exercise in style. This is one of the great classic noirs, though it does lack a number of the genres hallmarks.


Marlowe is not a hapless dupe. He’s a witty and intelligent hero who usually manages to maintain a position a step ahead of his adversaries. Bacall is not a femme fatale, but a strong-willed woman caught up in over her head with a nasty crowd. Even thinking through the film after the fact, what I recall more than anything is the crackling dialogue that Hawks’ films were often known for, although this screenplay was written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, and the great murky atmosphere generated by the production design and lighting scheme by cinematographer Sidney Hickox.

The title refers to death, which pervades the entire story. Just about everyone Marlowe comes into contact with meets an untimely demise, all in various attempts by the one setting everything in motion to tie up loose ends. The great pleasure of watching The Big Sleep is in the dialogue. With a screenplay rather faithfully adapted from Chandler’s novel, this is snappy and witty writing of a first-rate variety. Bogart’s delivery is emblematic of the persona he was known for – that of the man with a sharp tongue, quick with, tough shell, and eyes that constantly size up his conversation partner, whether it’s General Sternwood, Vivian, Carmen, or any of a number of thugs and brutes that try to get the better of him.

The history of the film is somewhat complicated. There is an original 1945 version that the studio ordered recut to incorporate more interaction between Bogart and Bacall like what worked so well in To Have and Have Not. The resulting 1946 version is what’s come down to us, although the original cut was unearthed in the late 90s and offers an interesting comparison piece to see how minor changes can affect the overall tone and flow of a film. As a result of the Hays Production Code at the time, certain story elements more explicit in Chandler’s novel had to be made almost imperceptible through subtlety or else cut altogether. These include references to drug use, engagement in pornography, nymphomania, and homosexuality. So the film becomes an exercise in reading between the lines, which is an added challenge on top of the indecipherable plot.

With The Big Sleep, the best course of action is to go along for the ride, enjoying Hawks’ tight and racy direction and the wonderful interplay between its two stars. Bogart and Bacall were very much in love off screen, a fact that translates instantaneously on screen when the two are present in a scene. You’ll also want to watch for a great scene between Marlowe and a curious book shop clerk played by the Dorothy Malone, who would later go on to win an Oscar ten years later. The film is not exactly style over substance, because there is some meat to this story. It plays into the larger film culture of the post-war period of hard stories of desperation and crime with a bleak point of view. The film noir genre was an offshoot of the kind of crime novels that Chandler wrote and The Big Sleep is a classic example. The Maltese Falcon kicked off this style of storytelling and filmmaking a few years earlier and then Hawks set the bar against which others are now judged.

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