February 08, 2011
The Big Sleep (1946)
Considered as a classic example of the film noir genre of filmmaking, Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" is famous not only for the complexity of its convoluted plot, but also for the high quality of its dialogs (and its rapid fire delivery) as well as the legendary coupling of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Oddly enough, the movie's most famous traits were not in the film's original version, and became the result of a series of changes and additions Hawks did to the film after the main shooting ended. The original version had less romance, and a better explained plot; it was only after the success of the two stars as a couple that it was decided to add more scenes between them, and the final version of "The Big Sleep" as we know it was born. Time proved that the changes were worthy, as now that both versions are available it is easy to pick a favorite. This review of "The Big Sleep" is based on the 1946 final version, as it's hard not to prefer the explosive pairing of Bogie and Bacall over the less convoluted original (but definitely less fun) cut.
In "The Big Sleep", private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) makes a visit to Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an old handicapped man who has a case for him. Sternwood tells Marlowe that he wants him to take care of the gambling debts of her younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), as she is being blackmailed by a bookseller named Geiger (an uncredited Theodore Von Eltz). Marlowe takes the job, but before leaving he is confronted by Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who wants Marlowe to find out what happened to their former employee (and her father's friend) Sean Regan, who simply disappeared under mysterious circumstances a month earlier. Marlow finds Geiger and follows him home, but the plot thickens when he finds Geiger dead in his home, killed by a mysterious man and Carmen in the crime scene out of her mind while high on drugs. A hidden camera with an empty cartridge is in the crime scene and soon Marlow will discover that Geiger's death is only the tip of the iceberg. And it all seemed like a simple blackmail case.
Based on Raymond Chandler's influential novel of the same name, "The Big Sleep" is definitely one wild ride to a dark world filled with gangsters, femme fatals, pornographers and drug addicts; in simple words, the epitome of the Film Noir kind of stories with the character of Philip Marlow achieving his status as one of the genre's biggest icon. The script (by the excellent team of William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) follows closely the novel's story, but of course, with some additions, most of them being the exchanges of dialogs between Bogart and Bacall, added in an attempt to further exploit the couple's popularity with the audience. It is in this series of dialogs where the true magic of "The Big Sleep" is, as with the focus turned to the relationship between the couple, it becomes more enjoyable to navigate through the complex ambiguity of the plot. Now, this is not to say that the plot is boring, on the contrary, the delightfully perverse darkness of the complex plot in "The Big Sleep" is a top notch example of the dark worlds of film noir.
As usual, Howard Hawks' direction is direct, natural and straightforward, with the dialogs having major importance. Hawks lets the dialogs flow and drive the movie, while at the same time remaining true to the Noir style of its hard boiled source novel. It is easy to notice that Hawks considered the characters to be more important than his story, as the film focuses entirely on their actions instead of the results of those actions. It is this style what makes the film work, as he makes sure that the many supporting characters of the film receive a moment to shine in scenes of great emotion and juicy lines of dialog. However, Noir is also, a very visual style, and in this aspect Hawks doe snot disappoint, making "The Big Sleep" virtually a textbook of how to make a movie in the Noir style; with the excellent cinematography by Sidney Hickox being a major highlight of the movie, and the subtle yet appropriate score by Max Steiner creating the proper atmosphere of decadence that runs through the film as Marlowe gets deeper and deeper inside this dark world.
Being that the screenplay makes the characters the main focus, the performances by the cast are essential for the film. Bogart's portrayal of Raymond Chandler's best-known character, Phillip Marlowe, easily ranks as one of the greatest icons of the Film Noir genre, in a legendary performance only equaled by Lauren Bacall's Vivan Sternwood. Bacall's Vivian may not look as strong as other "Hawksian women" at first sight, but Bacall makes her a vivid force of nature. Bogie and Bacall's chemistry on screen was explosive, and Hawks knew exactly how to use it for his benefit. "The Big Sleep" is certainly one of the best (if not THE best) film with the legendary couple. As many have pointed out, Martha Vickers is a highlight of the film, stealing every scene she is in with her delightful portrayal of the wild spoiled brat Carmen Sternwood. A remarkable group of actors make the supporting roles of the film to come alive, each one of them adding their talents to the movie with excellent results. Dorothy Malone and Elisha Cook Jr. stand out among the rest by stealing the small scenes they appear.
The overtly complex plot may be considered by many as a flaw of the movie, specially as it is quite hard to follow at first and may even give the feeling of running through a constant series of plot holes. However, this ambiguous way of unfolding the story is just another device Hawks uses to keep the story character driven. It may seem at first that Hawks doesn't care too much for the plot, but this overtly complex puzzle reflects what Marlowe himself is experiencing, and in many ways makes the audience to identify with the detective and his work trying to solve the mystery of who is blackmailing who. In the end, what Hawks seems to go after is in building a relationship between Marlowe and the audience, with his case and his relation to Vivian getting more and more complicated each time. So, it is not the actual case what matters, but its effects in the characters. True, it is certainly difficult to follow the plot at first, but the way Faulkner and company have written the script certainly makes up for this difficulty.
Probably "The Big Sleep" may not be everybody's cup of tea, with its ambiguous story, dark cynical tone and overall bleak view on the world; however, I personally think that anyone interested in the history of cinema should give it a try. Granted, it's not an easy view, but it's a quite rewarding one. There's a certain magic in the Bogart-Bacall pairing that's captivating even to these days, and the whole visual style, classy and obscure, just oozes unadulterated noir. It also showcases some of the best performances by Bogie and Bacall ever and shows director Howard Hawks, that famous Jack-of-all-trades of Hollywood, proving his talent and versatility in the Film Noir genre. It certainly would be advisable to check the original cut as well, if only to get a different take on the film as a whole. Filled with unforgettable characters, "The Big Sleep" is one of those films that truly have earned a place amongst those movies one can simply label as: A real classic.