Howard Hawks, 1946
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
Philip Marlowe: "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go."
Vivian Sternwood: "Depends who's in the saddle."
The aged, wealthy General Sternwood hires private detective Philip Marlowe to settle a case of blackmail – a local bookseller, Arthur Geiger, is trying to get money out of the General on the behalf of his wild youngest daughter, Carmen, and her gambling debts. The General’s almost equally wild oldest daughter, Vivian, thinks her father has hired Marlowe to locate Sean Regan, a missing friend. Marlowe quickly learns that Geiger is using his bookstore as a front and is really in the pornography business. Marlowe follows him home and finds a drugged Carmen, a dead Geiger, and an empty camera – Carmen is obviously involved in the pornography racket, if not worse. He takes the unconscious Carmen home and returns to Geiger’s house to find the body missing. This plunges Marlowe into a complex web of blackmail, murder, gangsters, and a mounting number of bodies.
Helmed by classic director Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo, Bringing Up Baby), The Big Sleep is perhaps most famous because of the personalities involved. At the time of its release, star Humphrey Bogart was in his post-Casablanca boom and reveled in fame that would last till the end of his life. He had recently married his co-star, Lauren Bacall, and the two were one of Hollywood’s most beloved couples. This was the second time Bogie and Bacall starred in a film together – after To Have and Have Not (1944), also directed by Hakws – and it marks their reunion during Bogart’s divorce with the violence, alcoholic Mayo Methot. Though they began a relationship during To Have and Have Not, they split/stayed apart because of Bogart’s marriage. Fortunately for them both, Bogart and Bacall were married soon after The Big Sleep’s completion. Their relationship became the forefront of the film and inspired other noir efforts, including Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). While I love this film and their onscreen charisma, the focus on their relationship does take away from Raymond Chandler’s excellent and far bleaker novel, where there is no punishment, no redemption, and no happy ending.
The script was primarily co-written by Leigh Brackett and famed novelist William Faulkner. Brackett, a crime novelist not yet 30 years old at the time, went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading female screenwriters, and had her hand in everything from Rio Bravo (1959) to El Dorado (1966) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). She and Faulkner were hired to write the script because Chandler was under contract to Paramount and unable to adapt his own novel for another studio. Brackett, Faulkner, and Hawks worked to keep the script as close to the book as the Production Code would allow, even using his dialogue where appropriate.
The plot is absurdly complex, particularly in the film version. It’s difficult to keep track of all the characters and to tell difference between General Sternwood’s dead chauffeur and his dead drinking buddy, both of whom never appear on screen before their murders. Several characters don’t appear, have very limited run time, no dialogue, or only exist as corpses. But the meandering, needlessly complex plot doesn’t hinder the film’s popularity with both new and old audiences. What makes the film so enjoyable is the incredible cast, hard boiled script, and witty dialogue that keeps things compelling, even though no one really bothers to figure out who killed the chauffeur. The film’s ending, which was restricted by the Hays’ Code, also unfortunately watered down the shocking if more implausible ending from the book.
While Bogie is excellent as the tough, but sensitive Marlowe, Bacall provides a great foil. The two have excellent on-screen chemistry together, even if their love scenes do change some of the novel’s plot. There are some great side actors, including film noir regular Elisha Cook Jr., who appears here as a brave stoolie, willing to die in order to protect his girlfriend. John Ridgely (Arsenic and Old Lace), Regis Toomey (Spellbound), and Charles Waldron (Stranger on the Third Floor) all put in welcome side performances.
Martha Vickers, who was phenomenal in her few scenes as Carmen, was screwed over by the 1946 recut/re-filming. Apparently she upstaged Lauren Bacall so much that many of her important scenes were cut in order to take away from Carmen’s character and put more of an emphasis on the budding romance between Marlowe and Vivian. Vickers got her start with small roles in a number of Universal horror films, including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Captive Wild Woman, and The Mummy’s Ghost. She should have gone on to stardom after The Big Sleep, but instead she quickly faded away, appearing briefly in another film noir – The Burglar (1957), an adaptation of David Goodis’ novel of the same name – before retiring in 1960.
In addition to some great performances and major personalities, The Big Sleep is known for being an early, influence film noir. Though it was filmed in 1944, the movie wasn’t released until 1946, when the war was over and Hollywood had released all its WWII-themed films while they were still fresh in public interest. The first Chandler adaptation, Murder, My Sweet (1944) with Dick Powell as Marlowe, was released earlier the same year, along with a slew of other major noir films, including Laura and Double Indemnity (with a script co-written by Chandler). I can’t help but wonder what The Big Sleep’s impact would have been if it hadn’t been held back two years. It doesn’t seem to be overly damaged by its late release -- more Chandler adaptations immediately followed it, including The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Brasher Doubloon (1947, an adaptation of The High Window), and Lady in the Lake (1947).
While The Big Sleep will always stick with me more as a Bogie film than specifically as film noir, it certainly has many elements of the latter. The shadowy sets include foggy nights, dark, wet roads, and Geiger’s gloomy, perverse cottage at the center of it all. The film (and even more so, the novel) is still surprisingly perverse, a relevant tale of drug use, pornography, insanity, sex, blackmail, and illicit relationships. Sexual motivation – and opportunity – is everywhere, drowning every scene of the film. It’s amazing Marlow gets anything accomplished, as women throughout the film are all after him – he exchanges sexual witticisms with Vivian, Carmen throws herself at him numerous times, and nearly all the female bit players lust after him, including a bookshop clerk, a taxi driver, and a hat check girl.
It is worth making a note about Carmen, though this paragraph contains some spoilers. In many ways, she is the ultimate femme fatale. On one hand, she's rich, educated, beautiful, and oddly innocent. But then she has another side. Her character is still marginally shocking (by today’s standards) in the film: she takes a copious amount of drugs (laudanum is suggested), throws herself at Marlowe and other men and is clearly a nymphomaniac, is involved to some degree with a gay man running a pornography ring, and does not act in any fashion that could be described as lady-like. In the novel, her actions are – to borrow a phrase from Morrissey – enough to make Caligula blush. She makes Bridget O'Shaughnessy (of earlier Bogie film The Maltese Falcon) look like a shyster school marm.
When Marlowe finds her in the novel, she is naked, wearing only jade earrings. It is implied that she allowed herself to be photographed naked and is even more of a promiscuous nymphomaniac than is implied in the novel. She breaks in to Marlowe's apartment and waits for him, naked in his bed. She was also responsible for nearly all the murders, simply because men rejected her random, inappropriate sexual advances and then she had some sort of rage-induced seizure. And she is never punished for her actions.
Because this plot twist was too much for the Hays’ Code, there were actually two versions of The Big Sleep filmed. The first version, made in 1944, doesn’t neatly wrap up the conclusion and there is less of an emphasis on Vivian Sternwood. Due to a number of issues, parts of the film were re-shot, reducing Martha Vickers’ role, increasing the scenes with Bogie and Bacall, and tidily wrapping up the ending in a manner that reassured audiences that Vivian was never guilty of murder (it is all blamed on Eddie Mars).
Though the original version was missing for years, a number of people – led by Hugh Hefner – paid for the film’s restoration after an original was discovered in the ‘90s. There are several versions that now contain both the original Hawks’ version and the Hollywood version. The Big Sleep comes highly recommended despite its dizzying plot. It is available on DVD, but I’d still like to see a Criterion-level special edition sometime in the future.