The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep (1946).  Adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, The Big Sleep has endured for a variety of reasons: the obvious being the chemistry of the juggernaut romance of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the almost hysterically confounding plotline (the film suffered so many re-edits, re-shoots, and re-writes that the end product could only be described as “confusing”), and the final direction of Bogart by Howard Hawks (Ball Of Fire, Rio Bravo, To Have And Have Not).  A lurid tale of corruption, sex, and lies that splashes so chaotically across the screen the black and white surrenders to grey, The Big Sleep endures as a hallmark of the film noir genre, and a highlight of both Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s career (it also catapulted sexpot Dorothy Malone into the limelight).  As a story, it only makes sense if you don’t think about it.  As a film, it’s a powerhouse.

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Hired by a millionaire being blackmailed over the vices, secrets, and lies of his two young daughters, private dick Philip Marlowe (Bogart) falls headfirst into a complicated mess of murder, drugs and… y’know.  All that.  One of the functions of Howard Hawks’ detective picture is the detection itself: the best joys of the film are found watching Marlowe dig deeper and deeper into a conspiracy, surrounding himself with angry, greedy, vile things that hardly pass for human beings.  Another potent entertainment (though it detracts somewhat from already overstuffed narrative) is the burgeoning romance between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood-Rutledge (Bacall).  Bogart’s rapport with his future wife Lauren Bacall was already firmly established with Hawks’ previous work To Have And Have Not (possibly the subject of a future review, you never know), and here it’s almost at the focal point, and with good reason.  At the time of this film’s release, Lauren Bacall was the subject of a slight scandal: her follow up to To Have And Have Not was a widely reviled piece of forgotten cinema known as Confidential Agent (co-starring Charles Boyer).  Most critics of the time blasted the 20-year-old actress for acting that was politely referred to as “sub-par”.  Producers at Warner Bros. made a stink about re-shoots to counter any further dragging through the mud of one of their up-and-coming investments.  To make matters worse, the actress portraying Bacall’s younger sister Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) was considered to have given the better performance by the film’s producers.  The re-shoots ruffled Hawks’ feathers, but they were shot at any rate, and the film’s plot was forced to take five anytime a newly shot scene of love-having was shoehorned, and most of the scenes with Carmen were shortened, or omitted entirely.

All the same, The Big Sleep fires along, intrigue and bullets zipping at all angles (and usually over all heads), but the charisma of Humphrey Bogart anchors the proceedings.  Warner Bros. cornered the market on the darker side of cinema during the film noir era (as far as this writer is concerned), and when a story needed told about men upholding the law by bending it ’til it broke, few spun yarns as good as Howard Hawks.  Essential viewing.

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