The Big Sleep (1946)
“It’s a smash!”
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely
Synopsis: Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich family. Before the complex case is over, he’s seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love.
Now this one really is a mystery — even after watching (and re-watching) The Big Sleep through to the final credits you’ll be hard pushed to figure out just what was going on. The plot’s impenetrability is rightly famous, and is largely the result of Warner’s decision to shoot additional scenes featuring Bogie and Bacall at the expense, it seems, of key scenes which would apparently have explained much of what was going on. Not that such trivialities as an intelligible plot will do anything to dampen your enjoyment of what is undeniably an assured and absorbing piece of work.
Humphrey Bogart plays Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe, although he does little to alter his own tough-guy screen persona to accommodate the part. Bogie was always just Bogie, no matter what part he played, and he does little different to accommodate the character of Marlowe other than to tug on his right ear lobe when he’s thinking. If anything, Bogart’s Marlowe is probably a little more approachable than other Marlowes of the era, more of an average guy rather than someone who is immersed in the projection of toughness at all times. The ladies certainly seem to like him: Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the sluttish daughter of the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who employs Marlowe to find out who is blackmailing her, tries sitting in his lap while he’s standing; an accommodating bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone) provides him with an afternoon quickie during a lull in the plot; a pert female taxi driver offers him her card, preferring, she says, that he phone her out of working hours, and cigarette girls in nightclubs come at him in twos…
Of course, none of them have a chance when Lauren Bacall’s around. With that sultry, smoky voice and those languorous eyes she blows the opposition away, especially as she’s so adept at trading saucy double entendres with her hubby-to-be. She plays Vivian Rutledge, the General’s older, slightly less flighty daughter whose efforts to protect her little sister result in her becoming embroiled in the scandal surrounding her.
To be honest, The Big Sleep is so densely plotted that it’s almost impossible to give a meaningful synopsis that describes much beyond the first half-hour. This impenetrability isn’t helped by the fact that writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman were forced to considerably tone down plot strands from Chandler’s novel which involved homosexuality, drug abuse and pornography in order to bring the picture to the screen. But the fact that The Big Sleep is still so highly regarded demonstrates that the storyline isn’t really that important when compared to the dark, noirish atmosphere created by director Howard Hawks and cinematographer Sid Hockox, and the sexual chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.
(Reviewed 5th December 2012)