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Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

Cheyenne (June 6, 1947)

Cheyenne
Cheyenne (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most of the time, when people say “adult western,” they’re talking about the more psychologically realistic western dramas that stood apart from the fray of Saturday matinee singing cowboys. They’re talking about the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann, and TV series like Gunsmoke (1955-1975). Raoul Walsh’s Cheyenne is a different kind of adult western.

While tame by the standards of today’s R-rated movies and cable TV, Cheyenne is a feast of double entendres and sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue. The film stars Dennis Morgan — doing his best impression of George Sanders — as James Wylie, a gentleman gambler who’s impressed into the service of the law by private detective Webb Yancey (Barton MacLane).

Yancey offers to cut Wylie in on the $20,000 reward being offered for “The Poet,” who’s responsible for a series of stagecoach robberies along the Wells Fargo line. Wherever the Poet strikes, he leaves a piece of paper with a few lines of verse, such as “I’m happy the frontier is settling down / With a thriving bank in every town / Let the riders and nesters deposit their pay / So I and my gun can take it away.”

Cheyenne co-stars Jane Wyman (back when she was still Mrs. Ronald Reagan) as a woman named Ann Kincaid. Ann is married to a Wells Fargo banker named Ed Landers (Bruce Bennett), but their marriage is on the rocks, and she’s clearly attracted to the dashing and roguish Wylie. Of course, for the sake of propriety (and the Hays Code), she acts as though she can’t stand Wylie.

There’s plenty of lighthearted, sexy banter, and great lines like, “How did I know she was the sheriff’s daughter? I couldn’t find a badge.” Or my personal favorite, “You know how women are. Like bears. They never get enough honey.”

Ann and Wylie’s situation is complicated when they fall in with a gang led by the Sundance Kid (Arthur Kennedy). Kennedy plays his role with brio. Sundance is a snarling badass who shoots first and thinks later. When a young punk in his gang stands up to him, and says that the Sundance Kid may have all the other members of his gang buffaloed but he doesn’t fool him, Sundance kicks him to the ground and shoots him dead.

Wylie tells Sundance that he is in fact the Poet, and offers to cut him in on the take from his robberies. He also claims that Ann is his wife, which leads to some sexy playacting. Maybe too sexy. As one of Sundance’s gang says, “He kissed the gal like he liked it. That ain’t like no husband.”

When they go to bed in the same room because some of Sundance’s gang are outside watching, Wylie says, “I’ll sleep with one eye open.” Ann responds, “What do you think I’m gonna do?”

The sexual suggestions aren’t limited to the dialogue. The old spinster housekeeper’s look of regret when Ann says “You know how men are” is priceless. And even I couldn’t believe the scene in which Ann complains about back pain after the night she spends with Wylie.

Janis Paige

The sexiness doesn’t stop with Jane Wyman. Janis Paige gives a good performance as a voluptuous saloon singer named Emily Carson. The two songs she performs in a black bustier, dark stockings, and high heels — M.K. Jerome & Ted Koehler’s “I’m So in Love” and Max Steiner & Ted Koehler’s “Going Back to Old Cheyenne” — were a high point of the picture for me.

I enjoyed Cheyenne quite a bit, but it’s not as interesting as Raoul Walsh’s previous western, Pursued (1947), and it suffers from wild shifts in tone. Most of the film is sexy and playful, but the action scenes are surprisingly dark and violent.

Cheyenne is definitely worth seeing for fans of westerns and aficionados of its prolific and talented director. The actors are all fun to watch, especially Arthur Kennedy, and Max Steiner’s bombastic score does a nice job of propelling the action during the film’s shootouts and chase scenes.

Pursued (March 2, 1947)

Pursued
Pursued (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

In the territory of New Mexico at the turn of the century, a handsome, sloe-eyed man named Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is hunted across a desolate landscape by gunmen. He returns to the cabin where he was found as a boy and prepares for a showdown. The mountains that surround the cabin are drenched in shadows, and they tower above the tiny human figures below them like skyscrapers. As Jeb waits, he is plagued by nightmares of boots on wooden floors — boots with jangling spurs — but he can’t make sense of his strange visions.

Welcome to the world of Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. It’s an oneiric film about a man who is haunted by the past. Mitchum narrates the film, sounding like someone who knows he is doomed. (“I always have a feeling something’s after me,” he says.)

Pursued is a western, not a film noir, but it has all the hallmarks of noir, including stunning black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, Freudian relationships up the wazoo, the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present, a man on the run, plenty of sinister characters packing heat, and a story mostly told in flashback.

Young Jeb Rand (played by Ernest Severn) survived the massacre that killed his family and was taken in by Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has two children about Jeb’s age — Thor (short for “Thorley”) and Adam. They’re played by Peggy Miller and Charles Bates as kids, and by Teresa Wright and John Rodney as adults.

Jeb often complains that his head hurts. Nothing about his past makes sense, and his present is equally confusing. Thor and Adam don’t treat him as a brother. (His separation from them is represented visually as well as thematically. In one scene in which the family gathers, Mrs. Callum stands in the center, with Thor and Adam on one side of her and Jeb on the other.) Adam hates his adopted brother Jeb. Thor loves Jeb, but her love seems more romantic than sisterly.

One day, someone shoots young Jeb’s horse out from under him. Mrs. Callum tells him it was probably just careless deer hunters, but Jeb is convinced that it was Adam.

We eventually learn that Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law, Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), led the attack on Jeb’s family. Grant’s brother (Mrs. Callum’s husband) was killed in the attack, and Grant was wounded and had to have his arm amputated. Grant vowed not to rest until every last Rand on earth was dead. Mrs. Callum, on the other hand, considers the events of that night Providence — the Lord may have taken her husband, but He delivered unto her a second son.

Jeb, Thor, and Adam grow to adulthood. When the draft board demands that at least one young man from every family in the territory enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War, Jeb and Adam flip a coin. Jeb loses.

Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright

He returns home from the war to find that little has changed. Adam still hates him, and Thor still has romantic feelings for him. “I want you to come courtin’ me,” she says. “I know that seems silly when we grew up together, but I want to pretend we didn’t.”

Mrs. Callum doesn’t have a problem with Jeb and Thor marrying, but she refuses to ever talk with Jeb about the night his family was killed, no matter how much he pushes her. “I’m giving you my daughter for your wife,” she says. “Isn’t that enough for you? Doesn’t that show you that you’re loved?”

Grant Callum dogs Jeb’s every move, sending shooters after him even though he clearly just wants to be left alone. After he’s forced to kill two men in self-defense, Mrs. Callum and Thor shun Jeb, and tell him that he’s dead to them.

“Right then I knew I had to have you,” Jeb says in voiceover as he watches Thor at a funeral. “I’d have to climb across two graves to get to you, but nothing in the world would hold me back.”

Pursued has a happy ending, but that doesn’t stop Jeb and Thor’s semi-incestuous love from having a doomed quality. “There was a black dog riding my back and yours,” Jeb tells Thor as they reminisce about their past while waiting in the burned-out cabin together for Grant Callum and his gunmen to arrive.

This noirish sense of doom pervades the film. So many scenes take place at night or indoors — in smoky saloons and casinos — that the film has a powerful sense of claustrophobia. And the fact that Jeb is a returning combat veteran plagued by nightmares gives him more in common with many of the protagonists of post-war film noirs than it does with the cowboy heroes of most post-war oaters.

The Man I Love (Jan. 11, 1947)

The Man I Love
The Man I Love (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Loving the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love, but it sure helps.

If you don’t like old pop standards (I do, and found myself humming “The Man I Love” constantly for about a day after I watched this movie), then you’d better like “women’s pictures,” because that’s what this is. (I’ve seen The Man I Love called a film noir, but it’s not. Half the movie takes place in nightclubs, and there’s a hint of criminal malice every now and then, but that alone does not a noir make.)

The most prominent tune is the one that gives the film its title, George and Ira Gershwin’s sublime “The Man I Love” — both as a smoky nightclub number and as a constant refrain in Max Steiner’s lissome score — but there are plenty of other great songs, like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” and James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer’s “If I Could Be With You.” There are also tunes just tinkled out on the piano, like George Gershwin’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” and Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” suffusing the film with a nostalgic languor that’s a nice counterpoint to all the melodrama.

When New York nightclub singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) packs her bags for Los Angeles to visit her siblings, she’ll find love, lose love, flirt with danger, and leave things a little better off than she found them. The poster for The Man I Love features the following tagline: “There should be a law against knowing the things I found out about men!” This is a bit of an overstatement, since most of what Petey finds out about men in this picture is what most clear-eyed women already know; most of them are rotten, some are crazy, some are sweet but naive and dim-witted, and the few you fall for are probably in love with another dame who they’ll never get over.

Petey’s sister Sally Otis (Andrea King) has a young son and a husband, Roy Otis (John Ridgely), who’s languishing in a ward for shell-shocked soldiers. Sally lives with the youngest Brown sister, Ginny (Martha Vickers), who’s 18 and should be enjoying life, but instead spends most of her time caring for the infant twins of their across-the-hall neighbors, Johnny and Gloria O’Connor (Don McGuire and Dolores Moran). Joe Brown (Warren Douglas) — the girls’ brother — is hip-deep in trouble. He’s working for a slimy nightclub owner named Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) and seems destined for a one-way trip to the big house.

There are a few potentially interesting stories that never really go anywhere, such as Ginny’s attraction to Johnny, whose wife is two-timing him, and Sally’s relationship with her mentally ill husband. For better and for worse, Lupino is the star of The Man I Love, and her dangerous dealings with Nicky Toresca and her doomed romance with a pianist named San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) who’s given up on life dominate the running time of the picture.

The actors are all fine, and the stories are involving, but it’s the music that elevates this picture. Ida Lupino expertly lip synchs her numbers, which were sung by Peg La Centra (who can be seen in the flesh in the 1946 film Humoresque, singing and playing the piano in two scenes in a dive bar).

There’s also at least one allusion to a popular song in the dialogue. When Petey sees the twins and asks “Who hit the daily double?” Gloria responds gloomily, “Everything happens to me,” which is the title of a Matt Dennis and Tom Adair song first made popular by Frank Sinatra when he was singing for Tommy Dorsey’s band. There are probably other little in-jokes like that sprinkled throughout, but that was the only one I caught.

The Beast With Five Fingers (Dec. 25, 1946)

Robert Florey’s horror flick The Beast With Five Fingers begins with the following words: “This is the story of what happened — or seemed to happen — in the small Italian village of San Stefano — nearly fifty years ago.”

Normally in my reviews I try to avoid spoilers. I’ll summarize the plot, but only up to a point, and I try to talk around any big twists. But since The Beast With Five Fingers is pretty up-front about its unreal elements right from the start, I’m just going to give everything away about this movie willy-nilly. So if you don’t like spoilers, stop right now and go read my review of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. I totally don’t give away how hot Brenda Joyce looks in it.

Anyway, The Beast With Five Fingers is based on a short story written in 1919 by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937), an English author who is also famous for penning the story “August Heat,” which was memorably adapted for the radio show Suspense in 1945, in a show starring Ronald Colman.

The script for the film was written by Curt Siodmak, who intended it to be a vehicle for Paul Henreid. Henreid turned it down, however, reportedly saying, “I’m not wild to play against a dead hand.”

Peter Lorre, in his last film role for Warner Bros., was cast instead. Siodmak felt this casting was less effective, since the audience immediately assumes that Lorre is a psychopath, which they wouldn’t when presented with a handsome, self-contained actor like Henreid. I tend to agree, especially since Lorre does nothing to disabuse the viewer of the notion that he’s a raving maniac. From his very first scene, Lorre does what he did best; act completely creepy and insane.

Lorre plays Hilary Cummins, an astrologer who takes his work very seriously. He’s employed as secretary to partially paralyzed concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), but if Hilary does any actual work for Ingram, we don’t see it. He’s unashamed to admit that he wants Ingram’s nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King), to constantly dote on him so he can be left alone to discover a “key to the future,” which Hilary claims was known only to the ancient astrologers, but has been lost since the burning of the great library at Alexandria.

There are other hangers-on in Ingram’s Italian villa, such as Ingram’s attorney, Duprex (David Hoffman), and Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), a small-time con man and composer who seems stymied by his association with Ingram. Conrad transcribed some Bach pieces, modifying them to be played by a one-handed pianist, and ever since, has been unable to write anything.

Ingram is a petty tyrant and thoroughly unpleasant man. His right side might be paralyzed, but his left hand is incredibly strong, as he demonstrates in a memorable scene in which he strangles Lorre — who is more than capable of the histrionic puffing and wheezing required of him when Ingram finally lets go.

One dark and stormy night, Ingram rolls around the villa in his wheelchair, pitifully crying for Julie. He pitches down the stairs, and the fall kills him.

His death brings a few greedy relatives (played by Charles Dingle and John Alvin) out of the woodwork, eager to hear the reading of the will. They’re not happy when Duprex informs them that Ingram recently changed his will to leave everything to Julie.

For most of its running time, The Beast With Five Fingers is a fairly standard haunted-house mystery, but it has a strange premise that’s always bubbling beneath the surface, namely that you’re going to see some kind of five-fingered beastie scuttle around for at least some of the picture.

This odd premise is delivered on eventually. After Duprex is murdered, the other occupants of the villa open the sarcophagus holding Ingram and find him clutching a push dagger in his right hand, his left hand missing … cut off.

Enter J. Carrol Naish as commissario of police Ovidio Castanio. It’s one of many “ethnic” roles Naish sunk his teeth into (see also Humoresque and the radio show Life With Luigi), and like everything else in the film, it’s more silly than scary, but Naish is a good actor, and he gets one of the film’s best moments, during the last minute of the picture.

The eponymous crawling thing doesn’t show up until almost an hour has passed. The final 20 minutes of The Beast With Five Fingers, however, deliver what the audience paid to see … a phantasmagoria that only exists in Lorre’s mind. He watches Ingram’s disembodied hand float over the keyboard, playing Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as arranged for the left hand by Brahms (who was friendly with composer Max Steiner’s family back in Vienna). He then rips apart the library to find the crawling hand and attempts to stop it by nailing it down. It’s classic Lorre … all bug eyes and feverish gasping. And although it probably played pretty gruesomely at the time of the film’s release, it’s all campy good fun now.

Florey directed the silly proceedings in a solid, professional fashion, with plenty of fluid camerawork and smooth dolly shots. Time magazine said in their review of the film that Florey was “plainly untroubled by considerations of taste,” but the worst thing in this picture is a disembodied hand that crawls around on its fingers, strangling a few people here and there. It’s an effective special effect, but too ridiculous to ever be taken seriously. This is one you can watch with the kids during prime time.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.

The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

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