Historical Circuit: The Big Sleep (1946) (★★★)


The_Big_Sleep_posterBy 1946 actor Humphrey Bogart fit into the role of detective Philip Marlowe so perfectly it might as well have been his favorite pair of shoes. Though this was Bogie’s own time playing the detective, The Big Sleep was a culmination of his past films coming together in perfect unison. He’d played another famous literary detective, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, hunting down “the stuff that dreams are made of” in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, and had worked with director Howard Hawks and future wife Lauren Bacall the year before adapting Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. The Big Sleep is a noir so convoluted even original author Raymond Chandler didn’t wrap everything up, but a cavalcade of fantastic stars and a gritty premise – as gritty as it could be for 1946 – create a tale worth owning Warner Archive’s beautiful new Blu-ray for.

Detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is tasked with hunting down a blackmailer intent on ruining the lives of the wealthy Sternwood sisters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers). As Marlowe gets more involved in the case bodies start piling up, leading the detective to wonder if the women know more than they’re saying.

My favorite film of the four Bogart and Bacall made together – Key Largo comes in second – The Big Sleep gets slightly easier the more you watch it. Though Bogie and Bacall are impeccable, the script – credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman – is a twisted web of names and shadowy figures that forces you to craft a diagram in order to keep things straight.

At one point, when the Sternwood chauffeur ends up dead, the screenwriters determined that Chandler’s original novel never stated who killed the character. They found the perpetually sloshed Chandler and asked him, only for him to reply he had no idea!

The Big Sleep conveys atmosphere and the high caliber of the noir. By 1946 the noir genre hit its peak, and the detective tomes of Marlowe and Spade were the benchmark of the genre, bringing us everything we expected from noirs including shadowy underworld figures, cynical detectives, dames (both good, bad, and somewhere in-between), all of whom pepper Hawks’ landscape.

I’ve watched Humphrey Bogart rock a variety of guises, but I adore his interpretation of Philip Marlowe (James Garner and Elliot Gould’s takes on the character tie for second, with Dick Powell third); it’s snarky, seductive, and tough with Bogart convincingly pulling off every emotion.

He’s also a master of innuendo, which the script is filled with. Despite being required by the Hays Code to clean up the book’s world of pornography and drugs the dialogue runs on the navy side of blue. Some of Marlowe’s more audacious lines: “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” And, my personal favorite, an invitation to hunker down with a bookstore clerk (played by a homely, pre-fame Dorothy Malone) during a rainstorm because Marlowe would “rather get wet in here.”

Of course, because this is a 1940s detective novel Marlowe is a man women go mad over. Literally every woman in the film – and Marlowe’s world is filled with women, including lady cab drivers – goes gaga over the man as if they’re the thirstiest women in the desert. Then again, a man could only dream of the caliber of women interested in Marlowe.

Lauren Bacall – only 22 and in her third movie – creates a character slinky and suspicious. Her chemistry with Bogart is utterly delicious and playful. Watch them fleece a police man with a prank phone call; they’re perfectly in sync. It’s been claimed Martha Vickers, who plays Bacall’s sister, had a larger role that was cut down to avoid competition with Bacall. Either way, Vickers steals several of her scenes as the flirtatious Carmen Sternwood. Where Bacall’s Vivian is shiny and gossamer, Carmen is childish and coy, right down to sucking her thumb when things get tough; it’s a trait that never seems out of place in a film like this. The emphasis on character aids in the lack of coherence with the plot. By the time the shootings start happening and a missing wife is revealed your head could be in knots.

The Big Sleep can’t be contained to mere words – mostly because it’s too damn confusing. It needs to be experienced, preferably on Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray which looks utterly beautiful. Hawks’ adaptation of Chandler’s novel mystifies, enchants, and creates enough tension, suspense and confusion to keep you engaged for the nearly 2-hour running time.