Saturday, August 23, 2014


Warner Bros., 113m 51s

With the passing of Lauren Bacall on August 12th at the age of 89, one of the last of the classic Hollywood screen legends has left us. Born Betty Joan Perske, Bacall was just 19 years of age when the tall, slender actress stole scenes in her screen debut, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), directed by the great Howard Hawks. Her appeal was so obvious that her original role actually expanded while filming progressed. What more famously expanded was her relationship with her co-star Humphrey Bogart, who would become her husband in 1945. Bacall would be matched with her husband next in the film noir under review here, with Hawks again directing and co-producing, despite the fact he did not much care for the personal relationship between Bogart and Bacall.

The Look

As convoluted as THE BIG SLEEP becomes, its exposition is straightforward enough. Recently fired by the D.A. for insubordination, 38-year-old P.I. Philip Marlowe (Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood residence in LA. Almost instantly he is greeted by the flirtatious but vacuous Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). Adorned in short shorts, she throws herself at Marlowe even before he gets to meet the family patriarch who has requested the detective's services. General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), paralyzed in both legs, is the polar opposite of his youngest daughter. The film noir landscape is rife with crippled males, and Gen. Sternwood is probably the preeminent example. He has more in common with plants than he does people; his blood is so thin he and his wheelchair are confined to the greenhouse. Sternwood is being blackmailed—again—and wants Marlowe to look into his youngest daughter Carmen's alleged gambling debts.

Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) finds Carmen (Martha Vickers) in a mind-altered state

It would be futile to attempt to explain much beyond the abbreviated plot summary above. THE BIG SLEEP truly seems new every time you see Marlowe follow the trail of the dead. Noir conventions get started early and are persistent throughout the narrative. After reckless female sexuality is made perfectly clear, the tone-setting noir motif of rain soon punctuates Marlowe's investigation, and a maddeningly complex plot structure settles in, generally in nocturnal settings. There is also a WWII-era distrust of all things Oriental, as personified by the mysterious character Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz).

Based on the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler, his first to feature Marlowe, THE BIG SLEEP was adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. No doubt the sheer number of contributors added to the film's disjointed structure, but the source material was itself an amalgam of different Chandler stories. No matter, it's the hard boiled dialog that really makes this production get up on its feet. Bogart makes a terrific tough-talking detective, as he had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). No matter the situation, Marlowe knows how to react effectively. He plays whatever is in front of him for all it's worth. No wonder Carmen and her big sister Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) are not the only women who express an interest in Marlowe. Other attractive women offer him a green light, including a schoolboy-fantasy book shop owner (Dorothy Malone) and a cute taxi driver (Joy Barlow).

Of course, only one female character is of serious interest to Marlowe, and she is played by Bacall. Interestingly, Bacall's character was developed further while a version of THE BIG SLEEP completed in early 1945 was getting lonely on the shelf at Warner. While the studio rushed more time-sensitive war stories to the theatrical market, Bacall's agent Charles K. Feldman lobbied Jack L. Warner to revise THE BIG SLEEP to include more of Bacall, who had received alarmingly bad notices for CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1945). One of the new scenes interjected has become one of THE BIG SLEEP's best remembered:  the sexually-charged conversation between Bogart and Bacall about horse racing. Bacall is in sexual beast mode here, and it’s easy to forget that even with the additional material created for the 1946 release, THE BIG SLEEP is really Bogart’s vehicle. Another great scene that combines the two is also playful, with the duo antagonizing the police desk over the phone. The one chink in Bacall's armor was her singing voice, which is average at best as she offers her rendition of "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."

"A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

Sharing a fun moment

Despite rewrites, reshoots, and an extremely delayed release, theatrical audiences didn't seem to object to the final product. THE BIG SLEEP became the third-highest grossing Warner release of 1946. Warner paired up Bogart and Bacall again in the mediocre DARK PASSAGE (1947) and the superb KEY LARGO (1948). Most of THE BIG SLEEP was shot on Warner backlots by cinematographer Sidney Hickox (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, DARK PASSAGE, WHITE HEAT [1949]). As of this writing, the Warner Home Video DVD is readily available, and it contains both the 1945 prerelease version (116m 12s) and the more familiar 1946 version, as well as a brief featurette that helpfully documents the major differences between the two.

Darkness sets in on Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart)

Director Michael Winner remade THE BIG SLEEP in 1978, with Robert Mitchum starring as Marlowe. Definitely worth a look, especially for fans of the revisionist noir movement of the 1970s.

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