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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