Among the most tortuous of all the films noir, The Big Sleep is also somehow one of the very best. This 1946 motion picture is directed by Howard Hawks and based Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same name, with a screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. There is a lot of sound and even fury to Hawks’ movie and whether it signifies anything is still a matter of debate.
Word around the campfire is that neither the director nor the screenwriters knew whether certain characters had been offed or had offed themselves, with Chandler himself unable to figure it out. This convoluted essence doesn’t harm the flick. Instead, it contributes to the characters’ plight as they move through the miserably seedy mire.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Philip Marlowe, the private detective. He is summoned to see General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants to pay off the gambling debts of one of his daughters. Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian (Lauren Bacall) turn out to be quite a handful, with the latter questioning her father’s motives in calling the private dick and the former a randy little thing who gets in trouble.
Marlowe follows a trail through a world of rare books to come upon a bookseller named Geiger, but Geiger winds up dead before anyone can say “dirty pictures” and the whole thing goes belly up. Marlowe also discovers that the Sternwood’s driver is dead, plus there’s a little blackmail involving Carmen and those aforementioned pictures. A gangster named Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) also factors in.
So what the hell is going on here? That’s tough to pin down, even in repeat viewings. The plot wanders where it must, with Marlowe tracking things and drawing conclusions and such. There are events that occur and there are characters like Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) who matter in their own little ways, but the grand thrust of The Big Sleep is found in Marlowe’s raw appeal and Vivian’s pure cool.
The Bogie and Bacall phenomenon was in full swing, of course. Things grew between the two starting with To Have and Have Not, Hawks’ 1944 picture, and their chemistry was the major selling feature here. There are even two versions of The Big Sleep, one from 1945 that features fewer scenes between the power couple and the 1946 outing reviewed here. The latter is the more popular version.
It’s easy to see why The Big Sleep crackles and why Bogie and Bacall were such a hot item. The screenplay commands it, with so much cunning infusing the words that it’s impossible not to sound hip. Marlowe and Vivian exchange barbs constantly, each one more sexual than the last. Their games finally culminate in a heated conversation about “horse racing.”
Without a doubt, the wordplay of The Big Sleep smacks and smacks hard. Marlowe releases more than his fair share of electric lines, like how he explains that Carmen “tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up” or how he bemoans the glut of guns around town and the lack of brains. There is even a shaving of self-effacement, revealing Bogart’s personal touches.
The film noir quality of The Big Sleep is found in how the words and deeds of the characters create never-ending tangles. Marlowe has little choice but to hop from one scenario to another. He hopes to string together some sort of clue, but one gets the impression that he’s hiding the best stuff for himself. The audience wonders what he knows, wonders what’s behind the façade.
This sends him into all sorts of places, like when he picks up the stunning Dorothy Malone in a bookstore when waiting out Geiger or when he always seems to acquire the services of staggering brunettes. This allure to fall into the right kind of trouble comes from Bogart’s chemistry, not his looks or his height. He stumbles through the world and still comes through in upright fashion, cigarette lit all the while.
And if one considers that one of the fundamentals of noir is the fine art of keeping one’s cool, The Big Sleep carries the day. Bogart and Bacall never let up, never tilt their hands. They’re in love, maybe. They’re in lust, for sure. They’re steering the disorganized world of whatever with everyone else, pushing through the tyranny of guns and death and smoke in the only way they know how.
Some are frustrated with The Big Sleep and rightly so. The plot is a corkscrew. There are better films noir to check out if one’s purpose is to follow a straight line and to reach a destination. But there are few better movies if one desires to take a journey, if one wants to slink through the muddled shadows of hunger, fire and sex that bud between Bogie and Bacall along the tortured road.