In 1939, at the age of 51, former businessman Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, a dark, complex mystery following hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe as he wends his way through a series of murders and disappearances tied to a blackmail and pornography racket. Chandler is one of the great stylists in American literature and a giant in the genre of detective fiction, but there is no doubt that a solid measure of his fame stems from director Howard Hawks’ film noir adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946). The film capitalizes on the tough, anti-hero charisma of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Philip Marlowe and spices up the mix by pairing Bogie with Lauren Bacall. The two were then in the midst of a torrid affair and that chemistry is splashed all across the screen — in some ways it actually saved the movie from potential box office disaster (we’ll get into that below). In many respects The Big Sleep is a tangled mess of a film. It’s not really the best place to go for a coherent narrative or earned plot twists, but it is blessed with some of the best dialogue of any noir fiction. And while the film as whole might not make much sense, individual scenes sparkle with sexual tension or slang-ridden bravado. It’s the rare murder mystery where it doesn’t really matter a damn who done it. Being along for the ride is more than enough. (115 minutes)
J. – I am definitely a fan of The Big Sleep, but I think it is fair to say that the movie is all over the damn place. Although this is not entirely the fault of the filmmakers. The writers of the film (who included Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner) were so perplexed by aspects of Chandler’s plot that they had to ask the author who killed one of the book’s many victims — ultimately Chandler didn’t even know. And in some ways that’s just how this movie works: There’s a whole bunch of stuff that just doesn’t make much sense. Take Arthur Geiger, the man who kicks the plot into motion by apparently attempting to blackmail the Sternwood family. Geiger is shot and killed in his house and Marlowe is the first on the scene. When Marlowe returns to the scene a bit later Geiger’s body is gone. Then when Marlowe comes back to the house yet again Geiger’s body is laid out on his bed like a gaudy vampire in his coffin. This disappearing/reappearing body is never adequately explained.
In part this choppy narrative is the result of 1940s Hollywood being unable to depict what Chandler set down in his book. I have read the novel, and in the above instance, for example, Geiger is a gay man and his body was taken and then enshrined by his lover who is out to revenge Geiger’s death. This lover character is in the movie, but the relationship between the two men is never dealt with and only the subtlest of hints are dropped to denote Geiger’s sexuality. The same can be said of the character of young hellion Carmen Sternwood (played with woozy intensity by Martha Vickers). In the book she is a truly wild creature — murderous, whacked out on heroin, and stark naked more often than not. The film can only hint at all of this and I think that only fuzzies up what is already an overly complex and unclear plot. But I’m not so sure that really matters, because the film is always enjoyable in the moment, which I believe to be due largely to the strength of the characters.
S. – This film is like a series of vignettes placed together somewhat haphazardly while remaining consistently enjoyable. Each little segment is a wonderful scene brimming with sass and verve that is thrilling to watch. It is only when you try to link things together, a natural impulse in a film representing itself as a murder mystery, that you realise things don’t really add up. So how can a “Whodunit” that doesn’t really make sense become one of the most loved films of all time? It has got to be the chemistry. The scenes snap with tension between the characters, whether it is Bogie and Bacall as private detective and enigmatic socialite heating up the room with their banter or Marlowe generally butting heads with whomever he encounters. Frequently the dialogue doesn’t make a lot of sense either, but it is all delivered with such confidence and purpose that the effect is magnetic. Criticizing the exchanges for being offbeat seems downright petty. I didn’t understand this world, yet the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the cool kids do their thing was thrilling.
J. – Yeah, apparently Hawks was a filmmaker dedicated more to the scene than to a film as a whole. I think it was Hawks who defined a good movie as being a film with three good scenes and no bad ones. By that reckoning, The Big Sleep is definitely a good movie, ’cause it has well more than three good scenes and no clunkers. But even so, I feel like something is missing from this movie, and the lack of narrative coherence is a big part of it — I mean, there’s one point where Bogie tries to shock Bacall with the news that Sean Regan had run off with Eddie Mars’ wife, the script apparently forgetting that Bacall is the one who told him that bit of info a couple of scenes earlier. So while the film is always great to witness in the moment, it feels a bit empty by the end.
But that’s only on a story level because, as I said above, the characters are generally great. Philip Marlowe is a super cool character and played by Bogie with a lot of charisma and humor. It could be easy to view Bogart’s performance as being a retread of his earlier turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). But I think they are very different characters. Marlowe is more fun than Spade. There is a certain puckish quality to Marlowe that is very appealing. And while I might not buy the idea that every woman in LA falls for the guy at first sight, there is something much more upbeat and nervously endearing to Marlowe than most of Bogart’s other tough guy characters. But Bacall gives my favorite performance in the film. She really walks that fine line between no-goodnik and aristocrat so well. There is something imperious and distant about Mrs. Rutledge when the situation calls for it, but also a sly and forward element to the character and the performance is utterly appealing. I think Bacall very literally saved the picture, as the initial cut of the film did quite poorly with test audiences and their solution was to bring her and Bogart back in for a few scenes of sexy banter. Those added scenes kill, particularly the entendre-filled chat about horseracing. And however much fun Bogart is in those scenes, it is Bacall that really sets the mood and drives the interaction.
S. – Bacall is absolutely my favorite thing about this movie. I am a Bogart fan, but I have to agree the idea that he has women swooning over him the moment he enters the room is a tough sell. I have always found it is the persona presented by Bogart’s characters that make him memorable, it is hard to believe that his weary, crinkled looks do that much for the bright young things he encounters all over town. Bacall, on the other hand, delivers on all counts. She is certainly radiant, a quality often considered enough for star-billing in Hollywood. Almost in spite of her stunning looks she also provides the complexity of a character who slips between numerous guises depending on the circle she is moving within. By comparison Agnes Lowzier, one of the other female characters embroiled in duplicity surrounding the death of bookseller Arthur Geiger, comes off as a one-note schemer (although she does get to deliver the line “I got a raw deal”, to which Marlowe replies “Hey, your kind always does” with just the right amount of cynicism). Bacall makes Vivian Rutledge shine in every scene she is in and manages to keep the viewer totally off balance in the attempt to figure out if she is good, bad or both with a whole lot of variation in between.
J. – I will say that however unlikely it may be that the women in the film would fall so hard for Philip Marlowe, the cast of female secondary characters is wonderful. Agnes may be a one-note character but actress Sonia Darrin seems to be having a great time playing her, and there is definitely something appealing about her weary toughness. And big kudos go to Dorothy Malone in her short scene as a bookstore proprietor who shuts up the shop to have some fun with Marlowe (who, being a courteous drunk, offers to share the bottle of rye he has in his pocket — ha!). Malone’s forward demeanor and barbed sense of humor are perfect for a noir world of guns and dames — even the bookish girl is a secret femme fatale. And while the film may be coy about the pornography ring aspect of the novel, it is still quite forward in its notions of sex, particularly the desires of women. Sure, Carmen “she tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up” Sternwood is something of an over the top morality tale waiting to happen, but most of the other women are in no way looked down upon for their desires. And I think this is something of a staple feature of Hawks’ films — at least his other list films. Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and even Only Angels Have Wings all have very strong female protagonists who know what they want — women who are much more forceful than the pushovers or damsels in distress one usually finds in American films of the day (and sadly today). But also none of those other Hawks films have any antagonists, which perhaps explains why The Big Sleep‘s nominal villain, Eddie Mars, was the only character that didn’t do anything for me at all.
S. – Unfortunately Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) was fairly low impact as the bad guy here, many of the other players are easily more intimidating, even when they are trying to be nice. To a degree the Mars role is undermined by the sloppy story editing, but this is not entirely to blame as peripheral characters, such as opportunistic crook Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), were able to establish an aura of menace quite effectively. Ridgely just comes across as a bit too mild-mannered for a noir crime drama, leaving him out of place in scenes dominated by intense performances from all other quarters. Marlowe is supposed to be the good guy and I found his presence far more threatening than Mars’.
There is so much to like about The Big Sleep, the quotes alone are awesome, plus Hawks contrives some wonderful, shadowy scenes. I imagine a large part of the legend of this film has grown out of the snappy exchanges and the sinister and jaded style of the many acquaintances Marlowe makes while trying to unravel how much trouble the Sternwood daughters are in. These aspects of the film are tremendously appealing and entertaining. Perhaps even the audacity of Hawks to make a private detective flick that doesn’t add up contributes to its fame. I just wish some of the darker elements had been fleshed out a little more and that more care was taken to maintain a story thread. There is a lot to admire here, yet the slushy narrative keeps it well short of greatness for me.
J. – I’m inclined to agree, S. The dialogue is whip smart, the characters are (mostly) excellent, and the settings appealingly photographed and staged, but it is a film that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Absolutely well worth seeing, but I’m not necessarily sure it is more essential that some of the other fine American film noir movies from the era. And we’re going to explore just that in a future yammer as we pit The Big Sleep against two other noir classics that did not make the Sight & Sound list: the aforementioned Maltese Falcon (1941) and the Raymond Chandler-scripted Double Indemnity (1944). So keep an eye out for that little roundup in coming days/weeks.