Thursday, February 25, 2016

THE HUNGER: Blu-ray (MGM 1983) Warner Archive Collection

An ageless Catherine Deneuve, underutilized David Bowie and some mildly exotic art house lesbiana masquerading as incongruous, if occasionally bone-chilling Goth horror/suspense, are likely the best reasons to indulge in director, Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983); a fairly mindless, if immeasurably stylish excursion into vampirism. Is it just me or is everyone in this bungled cinematic revamp of Whitley Strieber’s miraculous and tantalizing novel smoking enough cigarettes to give Philip Morris lung cancer? Political incorrectness aside, the screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas all but jettisons the novel’s back story, devoted to principled but lonely sophisticate, Miriam Blaylock; a centuries-old vampire who has seduced scores of lovers with the promise of immortality. Cleverly, the novel never refers to Miriam as ‘the undead’. Actually, she’s not. She is very much alive – sustained on the blood of hapless victims who are attracted as moths to her eternal flame of peerless porcelain beauty. Refreshingly, Strieber’s incarnation of the vampire bears little resemblance to the supernatural, exorcised ad nauseam elsewhere in the lore of the blood-sucker. Nor are they insidiously intent on destroying mankind with their magical blood-letting powers simply because they can. Rather, Miriam has evolved from a highly intelligent and secretive humanoid species, having coexisted alongside our own for as long as time itself. She feeds her more perverse ‘hunger’ merely to survive, the same way we must kill and eat other animals to sustain ourselves.  Periodically, the feasting results in a sexual détente as Miriam takes lover(s) first converted to human/vampire hybrids with a modest exchange of her blood.
One problem – even immortality has its limitations and expiration dates. The reason, Miriam is not human. She was born a vampire like her Egyptian mother before her. Except for the ankh worn about her neck, doubling as a small impaling device with which to slash open the throats of her unsuspecting victims, and the briefest of flashbacks, inserted by Tony Scott as part of his penultimate montage, depicting an Egyptian queen gorging on the bloody entrails of some poor unsuspecting concubine, no reference is made in the movie to this ancient past, leaving the viewer wondering exactly what in the hell is going on. Buried somewhere, perhaps in the Blaylock’s upstairs attic – a billowy-curtained and dove-infested atrium where this eternal seductress has stored the decomposing remains of every lover she has ever taken to her bloody bosom - is a pseudo-intellectual social commentary about contemporary society’s exploitation of each other expressly for the rank pleasures of the flesh. Alas, Scott’s movie waffles between endeavoring to be a ‘message picture’, a stylish suspense/thriller, and a gory horror flick – achieving lasting status as none of these three, either by merit of its virtues – or vices – depending on one’s point of view.  Given its gruesome subject matter, The Hunger remains an un-remarkably subdued affair, its one saving grace, its style – moodily uninhibited, but never going beyond the quasi stages of blood-sharing foreplay.
In belated passing, we acknowledge the epic loss of a truly original artist; perhaps the last towering figure to emerge on the music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century and, alas, an under-exposed figure in American movies: David Bowie, with his angular, almost anorexic bone structure and piercing hypnotic stare through wounded eyes; a descriptive visage uncannily designed to be loved by the camera. It bows well for Bowie that he also managed, seemingly with effortlessness, to move from seismic shifting/gender-bending pop sensation to credible ‘legitimate’ actor. The notion he could be both must have appeared unlikely to his critics, despite his early studies in avant-garde theatre and as a mime under Lindsay Kemp. Indeed, Bowie would prove much in demand in the movies, appearing as the brutalized POW in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence this same year, desired by the producers of the James Bond franchise to play the villain, Max Zoran in A View To A Kill (1985) – a part he declined – and lending his presence, charm and musical stylings to the popular children’s fantasy, Labyrinth (1986). Arguably, acting was Bowie’s first love. Unquestionably, it ran a parallel course with his music career – the more dominant strain of his life’s work as time wore on. By 1983, Bowie had already appeared in numerous theatrical and TV productions in both the U.K. and U.S. Yet, it is in The Hunger that he first emerges a full-fledged star, despite Tony Scott’s varying misshapen attempts for him to remain the film’s ‘best kept secret’; briefly glimpsed in his prime, before being plastered over in Antony Clavet’s stipple and latex appliances that effectively transform Bowie’s youth into a rapidly gnarling mess of human decay. 
Regrettably, as John Blaylock, the victimized boy toy/vampire-human hybrid, Bowie is given only a few choice scenes in which to distinguish his acting abilities. This, he effectively does; particularly in the silently played moments John suddenly realizes the accelerated and irreversible aging process has already begun; his hastened physical decrepitude causing him to frantically seek out Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who, understandably, does not believe this jowly and balding gentleman is actually a man in his mid-thirties, or rather, mid-thirties plus 200 years.  Promising to address his concerns in less than fifteen minutes, Sarah instead quietly dismisses John as a crank, forgetting all about him for several hours during which he continues his rapid decline. Understandably shaken by his metamorphic transformation, Sarah endeavors to make a mends for her rudeness. But John is insolent as he storms out of her clinic, hurrying back to the brownstone he shares with Miriam. In a last ditch and very desperate attempt to stave off his disease, John murders Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers), the child protégée violinist who has come to practice her craft with the Blaylocks. She is unsuspecting this fate at first, and quite unable to recognize John in his present condition. John drinks of her blood. But even this does nothing to halt the aging process. John disposes of Alice’s body in the basement furnace and later in the evening, when Miriam returns, confesses to the murder.
But his pleas for Miriam to love him as before are shattered when she, repulsed by his disfigurement, retires John instead to a storage box in the attic – the cruel final resting place housing all of Miriam’s moldering lovers; rotting and skeletal, but still very much – if barely - alive. Not long thereafter, Miriam is visited by Lieutenant Allegrezza (Dan Hedaya) who is investigating Alice’s disappearance. She is cagily smooth and mostly successful at dissuading Allegrezza from discovering the truth. But Miriam is now attracted to Sarah who has managed to track John down in the hopes of making a formal apology for her earlier arrogance. Miriam lies to Sarah about John having gone away to Switzerland, presumably for treatment. Sarah is understandably perplexed, but accepts Miriam at face value. The two establish an unsettling friendship. Having earlier quarreled with her own lover, Tom Haver (Cliff de Young), Sarah falls prey to Miriam’s hypnotic sway, dissolving into a steamy lesbian seduction. Drawing blood during their love-making, Miriam allows Sarah to return to Tom. But Sarah fast begins to suffer from inexplicable cramps, night sweats and convulsions. Colleagues at her clinic analyze a sample of her blood only to discover two unique strains of plasma within her fighting for dominance.
Miriam’s psychic persuasion draws Sarah back to the townhouse where her uncontrollable compulsion and blood-lust are exercised upon an unsuspecting Tom who has followed her there. Having destroyed her human lover, Sarah now elects to take her own life, stabbing herself in the neck with Miriam’s ankh. Afterward, Miriam dutifully carries Sarah’s seemingly lifeless body to the attic. But she is unprepared for what happens next; surrounded by the mummified corpses of her entourage of former lovers, Miriam is hastened over the edge of the upstairs bannister. Plummeting several stories, her crushed body strikes the marble tile far below with a thud, resulting in her rapid decomposition. A short while later, Allegrezza returns to the Blaylock house, only to discover it emptied of its fine furnishings; a local realtor, Arthur Jelinek (Shane Rimmer), explaining the owners are since deceased and the proceeds from the sale bequeathed to a mysterious research clinic. We flash ahead to London. Sarah has not died, but rather, been transformed by Miriam into a human/vampire hybrid; having recreated the same moneyed and self-imposed exile with a pair of youths as her concubines. As Sarah stares blankly off into the distance from the balcony of her fashionable apartment, Miriam – still very much alive – is heard softly crying from her imprisonment inside another box concealed somewhere in the bowels of the building; Sarah, thus doomed to perpetuate the cycle of vampirism for a good many years yet to follow.
Despite this penultimate and briefly delicious revenge scenario, The Hunger is not terribly prepossessing. In spots, it downright drags with very little to say about Whitley Strieber’s infinitely more complex characters. The novel’s strength was it treated Miriam’s vampirism as grand tragedy; a quagmire of abject loneliness and highly personal regrets amplified by the sudden demise of her most recent husband, John. Miriam cannot help herself, you see. She is not spiteful in her bloodlust. It is a necessity for her survival. The movie suffers two great miscalculations; first, by ignoring Miriam’s increasing inner conflict about killing for the sake of self-preservation, and second, because the Davis/Thomas screenplay treats Miriam’s personal loss and John’s eternal suffrage, not as pivotal moments of realization (as in the novel) rather, vignettes in a more vast canvass of doomed eternity; director, Tony Scott far more interested in indulging in a bit of art house soft core, punctuated by Act 2, No. 2 Duetto, Viens, Malika... Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin, from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé: The Flower Duet. Scott’s forte, as with his more famous brother, Ridley, is impeccably staged compositions, dimly-lit, smoky interiors that positively reek of embalming fluid in all their sophisticated claustrophobia.
The Hunger is a very dark movie, figuratively and literally; thanks to Stephen Goldblatt’s morose cinematography. This ‘look’ works well for the interiors of the Blaylock manor – a fashionable New York brownstone; also, ably setting the overall tone during the film’s stunning opener under the main titles; a caged nightclub subbing in for an uber-Faustian purgatory where misguided humans, who think themselves creatures of the night, bump and grind to the erotic strains of Bauhaus’ anthem, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. But it remains a mystery – and a disconnect – to discover the rest of Manhattan – and later, London – having adopted this visual equivalent; the clinic where Sarah experiments on antisocial baboons to probe the secrets of life (just call her Madame Frankenstein) as dank, dim and depressing; bathed in a silty and perpetually lingering fog in the air. The Hunger’s strength is its palpable chemistry between Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie; Deneuve’s doe-eyed seductress taking on the vogueish characterization of Sean Young’s replicant, Rachel, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and Bowie, in his youthful incarnation, very much playing to the perversions of a steely-eyed pleasure seeker time has almost forgotten but regrettably, is about to recall home with disastrous results. There is merit to this coupling, rather unceremoniously dispatched by Tony Scott in just a few key scenes, utterly deprived of the novel’s back story to make John’s loss, and Miriam’s tear-stained reaction to it either compelling or, in fact, memorable.  
The picture’s ‘art house’ quality is capped off by its extended lesbian sex scene; Sarandon, naked from the waste up, and, Deneuve, cinched into a black bustier, fondling one another with wet, open-mouthed kisses; most of it photographed through billowy gauze curtains to modulate the more overtly pornographic elements. Aside: I, for one, am not particularly a fan of sex in the movies. While the act itself can undeniably manifest pleasure between two people in private, the intrusion of a camera strips bare these shared intimacies, simultaneously ignoring the cerebral aspects of heartfelt love-making, substituted by a gratuitous placements of hands, arms and legs in service to the staging of the act, yet, oddly enough, neither to titillate nor tantalize with the promise of genuine erotica, but rather, make commonplace and crude such experimentation between consenting adults. The blood-letting aspect of The Hungers sexual liaison does not shock or repulse as much as it appears almost anticipated. It neither advances the narrative nor does it prove any point that has not already been given more graphic illustration elsewhere in the plot. As such, what purpose it actually serves other than to create a moment of ‘oh, God…I can’t believe they did that’ is, frankly, beyond yours truly.
From the vantage of our present sex-saturated culture, The Hunger will likely appear tame, with conventional ‘critique’ and what passes for intellectual ‘wisdom’ these days slanting toward ‘so, what’s the big deal?’ – a very sad indictment on this generation’s inability to discover or even be able to acknowledge something – anything – that is sacred, or even deemed worth preserving without first adopting a cynical ‘in your face’ attitude and disregard for human frailty of any kind that does not completely transfer into ridiculous farce. As a product of the 1970s, coming of age in the 1980s, I can only suggest the obvious to those who neither experienced this gradual devolution first hand, nor fear the ‘looking glass’ flipside in moral iniquity yet to completely devour our one-time ensconced system of values, currently caught in the death throws of an absolute societal implosion.  We are very near this tipping point; the anarchy of our art – pre-sold as Godless and gutless ‘truths,’ presumably self-evident, supplanting and marking the end of a beautiful way of looking at the world. The Hunger is hardly ‘high art’ or even born of an aspiration to situate itself into high culture, though, at the very least, it aspires to cast its unflattering pall on the foibles of the latter, circa 1983. Our more recent spate of horror movies have, with increasing frequency, make not even an attempt to sheath their menial drivel with odes to the artistic; something Tony Scott endeavored – and occasionally, succeeds – in doing.              
Streiber’s novel took the high road, exploring aspects of human passion and tenderness, seen through the ultimate in flawed relationships, exploring our collective fear of the aging process and its correlated loss of sexual desire; better still, employing the arc of history, ingeniously blended with his own reworking of classic European folklore devoted to vampirism.  The movie is not nearly as clever, but it still manages to find something more to say about a few of these eccentricities before and after Miriam and Sarah have shed their inhibitions and their clothes. In retrospect, even Scott’s mangled effort becomes unanticipatedly commendable.  What manages to seep into the film, perhaps even in spite of itself, is a glint of Streiber’s more powerful intellectualism; an almost shockingly clinical deconstruction of these aforementioned influences and appropriately centered around Miriam Blaylock: woman as creature of the night, empathetic in her innate – if bizarrely human – longing to belong to someone, denied even this by the natural world’s inability to chart a share path for her eternity. 
The novel used epigrams from Keats and Tennyson to argue its points. The film, merely takes in some badly bungled pseudo-psychological babble about misguided unions and the wreck and ruin they can bring to those unsuspecting of a deeper, otherworldly and exacerbated ‘hunger’ for something greater than self-preservation or a momentary tussle between silken bedsheets.  Streiber’s novel drew parallels between human love and animal prey. Tony Scott tries to straddle these commonalities; much top clumsily to make them stick as anything better than brief and fairly grotesque moments of foreshadowing; as the scene where an adult male baboon in Sarah’s research laboratory slashed into its female companion until she is thoroughly disemboweled. As literature, The Hunger was both a page-turner and illuminating exposé on humanity’s shared imperfections and its inhumanity towards professed loved ones. Cinematically, such intricacies get distilled into a dark (really dark) journey through the labyrinth of genuine human pain; void of Streiber’s restlessly ambitious intelligence and ability to probe and deconstruction the secrets of our occasionally wanton and malignant universe. The movie merely presents us with visions of a hopeless future for Sarah – now the blood-sharing priestess of this doomed legacy; destined to remain alone, isolated, and ravaged by the gnawing realization there can be no refuge for the wicked; at least, none to satisfy beyond the most base quest for survival, and yet, without promise, hope or even a fixed sense of one’s own mortality – thus, depriving her of even a momentary sense of permanency in this corruptible world.
The Hunger was shot by British cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt. The Warner Archive’s new 2K transfer is culled from an interpositive, color corrected to address issues of fading. The Blu-ray is, for the most part, quite stunning with only a few scattered incidents of image instability. Blu-ray's ability to glean even the minutest detail from Goldblatt’s subtle variations, lensed under deliberately under-lit conditions, is quite striking.  The image adopts a chronic azure hue with exaggerated uber-vibrant reds and golds as its sparsely shared primary colors. Contrast is superb throughout and grain structure has been lovingly preserved, shown off to its best advantage. Bottom line: as with all catalog Blu-ray coming down the WAC pipeline, The Hunger will surely not disappoint. The film’s original mono audio gets a breathtaking 2.0 DTS mono upgrade. Fidelity is shockingly solid and effective. The only extra is an audio commentary from Tony Scott, actually quite comprehensive and easily one of the best I have heard in a very long while. Here is a director so secure in his craft and ability to keep us spellbound in the dark, he can effortlessly veer from commenting directly on the action taking place on the screen to offer back story, insight and anecdotal stories about the making of the movie that, at times, I sincerely found a far more enriching experience than the movie itself. Bottom line: if vampires are your cup of tea, The Hunger comes across as a classier affair than most. It’s still pulp movie-making rather than cinéma vérité, but it effectively bests almost anything passing for a good scary vampire flick these days. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

KEY LARGO: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1948) Warner Archive Collection

“At the southernmost point of the United States are the Florida Keys; a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway…largest of these coral islands is Key Largo.” So begins the tropically-themed crime odyssey that is John Huston’s formidable and final teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from 1948. Only a year earlier the one-time lovers, now marrieds had misfired with Dark Passage – a movie that, for all intent and purposes, kept the couple separated, avoiding all but a handful of glimpses of Bogart’s iconic visage; idiotically concealed via the gimmick of a ‘first person’ POV. Nothing so daring on this outing, an uncharacteristic oddity for the pair who had sent cash registers peeling madly around the world; first, in To Have and To Have Not (1944), then, again, in The Big Sleep (1946). Key Largo is a fine film – even an exemplary one, but for atypical reasons; void of the acidic repartee between Bogie and Bacall (her insolence pitted against his playful cynicism). This had made their aforementioned earlier films so memorable. Not much in the way of the ole Bogie/Bacall chemistry herein. He plays noble. She does virtuous. At its crux, Key Largo is a minor resurrection of the iconic Warner crime thriller popularized in a spate of pre-code gangster-land flicks made throughout the early to mid-1930s. Indeed, Key Largo marks the first time in as many years Edward G. Robinson donned the persona of an oily and diminutive mafia thug; a stereotype he practically single-handedly invented and trademarked in 1931’s Little Caesar; now, even more ominous and threatening herein as killer on the lam, Johnny Rocco.
Key Largo is a superb melodrama set during a hellish hurricane; the maelstrom outside, nothing compared to the hysterics about to be unleashed within four rooms of the Largo Hotel, managed by wheelchair-bound, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his contrite daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall). The pair are united in their grief over the loss of Temple’s son/Nora’s husband, George; a casualty of the war, and, desperately looking forward to an impromptu visit by his superior officer, Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). Set in the off-season summer months, the hotel is empty, save a mysterious and reclusive guest occupying several upstairs suites; his entourage of even more spurious friends lurking about downstairs; Edward ‘Toots’ Bass (Harry Lewis), Richard ‘Curly’ Goff (Tomas Gomez), and, stoic Ralph (William Haade). Arriving unannounced via bus, after learning of a daring prison break by John (Rod Redwing) and Tom Osceola (Jay Silverheels), a pair of indigenous young bucks in fancy shirts, pursued by the local law enforcement, Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) and his second in command, Deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney), Frank is introduced to these ‘friends’ of Johnny Rocco in the hotel bar; about as inhospitable as one might expect.
Frank also meets one-time sultry chanteuse cum sad-eyed lush, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor, in an utterly heartrending/Oscar-winning role as Rocco’s emotionally distraught gun moll). Gaye can pick a winner on the track with only her women’s intuition and a betting sheet, but she has deplorable radar for attracting the wrong kind of man. Trevor reportedly kept after Huston about the scene where she was required to warble a decidedly offbeat rendition of the song, ‘Moanin’ Low’ while presumably suffering from withdrawal and the shakes for another drink; her requests for rehearsal repeatedly fluffed off by Huston, who would only say there was ‘plenty of time’. As Trevor later recalled, after lunch one day she was promptly informed by Huston they would be shooting this scene next without any rehearsal. Although furious, Trevor girded her temper and performed the song with a pathetic defenselessness and psychological insecurity. Prophetically, costar Harry Lewis predicted Trevor would likely win the Oscar for this moment alone; perhaps, an apocryphal story.
Adapted by Richard Brooks and John Huston from Maxwell Anderson's overwrought 1939 play, which played a solid 105 performances on Broadway, Key Largo is very much an ensemble piece dedicated to the time-honored precepts and virtues of the ‘ole dark house’ suspense drama. Thematically, Brooks and Huston made considerable revisions to the play, contemporizing the baddies – from Mexican banditos to gangland thugs for the movie. Anderson had written the dialogue in free verse – a sort of Shakespearean preamble not unlike the highly stylized ruminations of Damon Runyon. By contrast, the characters in Huston and Brooks’ revision speak in a simple argumentative lingo, more a holdover from the studio’s gangster flicks than anything else, but with a touch of burnt-out class. Lost in translation is Anderson’s fatalistic verve, also, the verbal diarrhea of moralistic hypothesizing, consolidated in a few scenes and elevated by Huston’s superior handling of both the situations and the vernacular, pitting two titans of the screen (Bogart and Robinson) – the former, a hard-bitten ex-idealist, the other an old-time mafia hood, ruled by cruelty and brute arrogance.
Brooks and Huston also heavily rewrote Bogart’s character, an ignoble deserter from the Spanish Civil War in the play who gets his comeuppance in the end, reworked for the film to fit the conventions of Bogart’s then leading man status; the undisputed hero of this piece and tough with or without a gun; defeating the bad guys and returning to the Temples a better man. Key Largo is immeasurably blessed to have John Huston at the helm; arguably, a man’s man who understood this sort of material far better than any of his contemporaries. And in Bogart, Huston has the epitome of the solitary loner on the cusp of a reprieve. There is a redemptive quality to Bogart’s performance, partly apologetic for not being the war hero everyone expects, and thoroughly tantalizing as he matures into the guy an idealistic young girl like Nora could admire; a real romantic elixir for the widow Temple.
Before long we are treated to a tour de force performance by Edward G. Robinson as maniacal mob boss, Johnny Rocco, so visually described by Huston, reclining in a ball and claw bathtub, submerged from the gut down, with a portable fan blowing cool air to sooth his brow, cigar firmly chomped between his thick lips, as a ‘crustacean with its shell off’ and something of a refined cliché of the Mafioso persona Robinson had cultivated for Little Caesar; perpetually grimaced and periodically threatening to put the lights out for anyone who double-crosses him. Rocco proves his mettle with cold steel, threatening to murder Frank and cold-bloodedly assassinating Deputy Sawyer after he dares to escape; the body weighted down and dumped by Ralph and Curly into the turbulent sea. Huston derives a lot of his high-stakes drama from Robinson’s ability to play Rocco with terrifying uncertainty; veering from heartless and prophesizing kingpin living in exile to imploding rat on the verge of a psychotic breakdown; God’s natural wrath ratcheted up with Biblical ramifications, the storm possibly set to destroy all who dwell inside the Largo Hotel, and thus deprive the world of a Johnny Rocco, a dramatic highpoint that Huston unabashedly plays with limited wind and rain effects; the terror written across Robinson’s beady-eyed and jowly visage.
At the time of Key Largo’s shoot, made in a staggeringly brief 72 days, there was some consternation arising from Bogart’s previous movies being embraced by The Daily Worker – a blatantly communist publication. Bogart could not have cared less how or who was reviewing his work, but Bacall remained marginally concerned the sting of such devotion from the left would cling to his reputation, enough to open and FBI file on the man himself. As for Bogart, he was more involved and pleased with the recent critical reviews he was getting for his other collaborative effort with Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); a picture Jack Warner had initially not wanted to make. Key Largo is decidedly a pared down affair for Huston and Bogart; shot entirely on soundstages, the establishing shots of the hurricane excised from another picture entirely, the Ronald Reagan programmer, Night unto Night (withheld from general release until late 1949). Warner publicity played up the fact that by the time Key Largo went before the cameras the billing status between Bogart and Robinson had reversed with Bogart now the bigger box office draw; the question of ‘billing’ hinting at a competitive antagonism brewing between these two. It was rumored Robinson took minor umbrage to second billing; recollections in his autobiography differing and more conciliatory. “Why not second billing? At fifty-three, I was lucky to get any billing at all!”
Key Largo’s middle act is a superb clash of wills between Bogart’s defeatist and Robinson’s boorish gangland goon begun when Rocco tosses Frank a presumably loaded revolver, encouraging him to take his best shot. It ends in Rocco’s favor – at least, for the time being – Frank, casting the pistol aside and wisely reasoning, “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.” Nora is openly ashamed. Indeed, it goes against the grain of virtually every character Bogart had played until then, the scene capped off by James Temple’s pitiful struggle to climb out of his wheelchair and assault the gloating kingpin himself with his fists. Stricken with debilitating arthritis at the height of his career, Lionel Barrymore’s latter film roles are a fascinating reflection of the actor’s life imitated in his art. Temple is a caustic man, knocked down a peg or two by the loss of his son; also, brought to heel by ailing health, and yet, equally as unafraid to face down the likes of Johnny Rocco who might just as easily pump a bullet into his belly regardless of his infirmity.
As the storm outside intensifies, so does the drama unfolding inside the Largo Hotel. Sheriff Wade returns to make his inquiries as to what has become of his second in command. Earlier, Deputy Sawyer informed him of a hunch the Osceola brothers might return to Mr. Temple, whom the indigenous native peoples hold in very high regard. Alas, Rocco has refused to allow the Indians refuge inside the hotel. Terrified, they have been left to huddle together on the veranda, pelted by the wind and the rain. Told by Curly Sawyer never returned to the hotel, Wade suspects something is afoot – his suspicions confirmed when, in attempting to return to his automobile, the headlamps cast a dim pall across a body lying face down in the surf. Of course, it is Sawyer; dredged up from the bottom of the sea. Rocco suggests the Osceola brothers are responsible for Sawyer’s death, directing Wade to the boathouse near the docks where John and Tom, along with the rest of the tribe, have taken refuge. Without delay, Wade confronts the men. In their haste, they flee and are shot dead by Wade.
Meanwhile, the skipper (Alberto Morin) of Rocco’s getaway boat to Cuba, for fear of being dashed to pieces, has disobeyed his direct orders to remain dangerously close to the shore. With no other means of escape, Rocco orders Frank to navigate the Santana, the only other watercraft moored nearby, before Wade can return to investigate the scene of the crime.  In the meantime, Rocco’s contact, Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) arrives with a trio of ‘investors’ eager to buy up Rocco’s counterfeit money. The deal done; Rocco and his motley crew board the Santana, Frank disregarding Gaye and Nora’s advice to make a break for it and instead putting out to sea at once. In the middle of the ocean, Frank systematically takes out Rocco’s boys; wounded in the exchange of gunfire, but otherwise alive and able to steer the Santana back into port. Rocco barters with Frank to charter him to Cuba. But Frank bides his time, observing from the roof as Rocco emerges from below deck with yet another pistol drawn to finish the job. Instead, Frank dispatches with Rocco in short order, using his radio to contact the harbor patrol and alert them to his whereabouts. Back at the hotel Nora learns the news, throwing open the shutters to reveal sunlight already begun to filter through the clouds. Their odyssey is at an end. Frank is coming back to them, and likely to remain a fixture in their lives for a very long time.
The ending to Key Largo is a tad perfunctory and more than mildly anticipated. This is, after all - and apart from its’ many other attributes - a Bogart picture, made under the auspices of a studio-system with all pistons firing, if generally determined to see the star come out alright. On this score, Key Largo does not disappoint. However, after all the escalation of tension Huston has carefully crafted throughout, the hasty dispensing of Rocco and his cohorts feels ever so slightly rehearsed to ensure the inevitable. Worse, the finale leaves one of the principles – Gaye – dangling in uncertainty. This one-time wild child sexpot, long after her looks and talent have faded, has since found the virtue in virtue itself, and been instrumental in seeing Frank through several of his more volatile clashes with her ex-paramour. She is, in fact, much more the gal any man might hope to have as his champion, perhaps even more so than the nobly sweet and innocent, Nora. Indeed, Bogart’s careworn ex-military seems a better fit for Gaye Dawn than the Sweet Polly Purebred of these sundrenched pampas and palms.  One intriguingly ponders what Bacall might have made of the role of Gaye Dawn given the opportunity and half the chance. Certainly, her debut opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not did more than suggest she could play déclassé dames with more guts than heart; the scales only moderately tipped in Bacall’s favor before the final fade out in both that movie and The Big Sleep. But then, we would have been deprived of Claire Trevor’s magnificent turn as this browbeaten casualty, stripped pathetically raw and bare after slumming it with the wrong guy; so abused and demoralized she can no longer find comfort in anything except a good bottle of scotch.
Stylishly photographed in B&W by Karl Freund, and given a superb underscore by Max Steiner, Key Largo looks every bit the A-list feature without actually sporting one of the studio’s A-list budgets. At the outset Jack Warner told producer, Jerry Wald he was slashing Key Largo’s budget to just a little over half the initially promised outlay to ensure the studio did not have another costly fiasco like Dark Passage. Undaunted, Huston worked his miracles without Warner’s benefit of confidence; rewarded when Key Largo returned a sizable gross of $8,125,000 domestically – making it an even more commercially successful picture than the more highly acclaimed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Leo K. Kuter’s art direction is partly responsible for the picture’s success; constructing a convincing façade, docks, ocean view vista and hotel interiors entirely inside several cavernous soundstages on the studio backlot. The artifice works to this day; the sins of make-believe expertly camouflaged in magnificent monochromatic textures of shadow and light. Huston’s staging of the hurricane with little more than howling wind and thunder effects, a few pulsating lights to suggest bolts of lightning, and well-placed showerheads to rain down buckets of water from the ceiling, creates a genuine and parallel unease to the spiral of suspense taking place on the other side of these rain-soaked walls.
Viewed in its proper context, it’s the performances that outshine the special effects; Bogart, at the top of his game – and fame – and Bacall, emoting with uncharacteristic incorruptibility that does not always suit her characterization, though nevertheless manages to be genuine to the lady herself. Edward G. Robinson is perfect casting par excellence: ditto for Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor.  In hindsight, it remains a pity John Huston and Bogart had only two more opportunities to work together after Key Largo; neither with Bacall, although she did accompany her husband to Africa during the shooting of The African Queen (1951). No, Key Largo marks the end of the line for this short-lived, if memorable, alliance between Bogie and Bacall; their indelible impression left behind, particularly from this movie, serving as the inspiration for Bertie Higgins’ like-minded pop tune from 1982.
Key Largo on Blu-ray never attains the level of perfection of The Big Sleep. Part of the issue may be related to surviving elements. The biggest disappointment herein is contrast.  This 1080p transfer lacks the deep level of saturation with velvety blacks. Instead, everything settles into a mid-grade tonality, the grey scale pleasing in its own right, but generally lacking the overall punchy quality one has come to expect from Warner Archive’s more meticulous mastering efforts. How much of this is indigenous to the source? Hmmm. Even the old DVD of Key Largo had deeper black levels. Were they boosted? Hmmm, again.  Apart from this, the new Blu-ray bests the old DVD in virtually every way. A high bit rate ensures fine detail is stunningly realized and tonality, while seeming slightly anemic, is not egregiously distracting, if distracting at all. Once acclimatized to the overall flatness of the image, it is actually quite possible to admire its attributes, while mildly setting aside its shortcomings.  The audio is mono as originally recorded and sounds quite aggressive in spots; the thunder clasps during the hurricane delivering some unexpected sonic resonance. Apart from a badly worn theatrical trailer, Key Largo comes with no extras. Bottom line: while not as outstanding in hi-def, the Warner Archive release of Key Largo gives more than an adequate representation.  It tops the DVD to be sure, and for most, that will surely be enough. Bottom line: recommended.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

THE BIG HEAT: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

The noir detective thriller does not get much grittier than Fritz Lang’s derisive ball-beater, The Big Heat (1953); an unrelentingly bleak urban landscape populated by a rogue’s gallery of despicable reprobates, hypocrites, and one kept woman with the proverbial heart of gold – slightly tainted, but otherwise unscathed. Even our hero, Sergeant Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) succumbs to the dark side, becoming an ignominious crusader whose ‘win at all costs’ ruthlessness festers into a destructive force of nature, particularly for the adult women with whom he crosses paths. While most noir thrillers function best with a femme fatale, Ford’s embittered and hard-edged widower with nothing to lose functions almost as an homme fatale; unstoppably cruel and streamlined in his steamrolling pursuit of mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby); the man responsible for the death of his young wife.  The one innocent of the piece is Bannion’s young daughter, Joyce (Linda Bennett).  In their brief scenes together we witness the sort of guy Bannion ought to have been – and probably was before the wall fell in on his family; now made over as the antithesis of the ever-faithful and kindly father figure. Okay, Bannion’s not bad. He’s just drawn that way by Ford, who knows his way around this irreproachable and scornful avenging angel, surrounded by an all pervasive and consuming evil that has begun to leave its own lasting impression on his emotional psyche. Prone to pressure, Ford illustrates just how easily a good guy can go wrong with only a few turns of the screw.
Directors of film noir often mistreat the underbelly of high-powered criminal activity with an affinity for uber-glamour that curiously aligns sin and corruption with raw human sexuality. Inevitably, money and eroticism equate to death. But Lang’s vision isn’t that at all. It’s just frank and unusually sinister – perhaps truer to the reality of its subject matter than guided by the clichéd ‘crime doesn’t pay’ Hollywood conventions of either the detective story or noir genre. Sidney Boehm’s screenplay stays relatively close to William P. McGivern’s source material, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. We get McGivern’s prose ever so slightly tweaked and recomposed for the fifties goon squad; slicksters with silencers and very hot women on the side, untouchable gambling rackets infiltrating the social fiber of every city that never sleeps, and using their sheer weight and power of corruption to crush any Johnny Valiant who endeavors to stand in their way. Under such awe-inspiring duress, Bannion makes the only viable decision to crack the mob wide open. He becomes just as vial, independent and resolved to clamp down like a pit bull on their illegal activities. The criminals are going down. Whether or not Bannion has to engage in criminal coercion to achieve an end to his means is his own affair.   
With only a scant 89min. to unravel this hellacious yarn, we open on a close-up of a gun, and moments later, a suicide.  Officer Tom Duncan has just blow his brains out. His widow, Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) rushes to his side moments after the fatal shot. But she is immediately more interested in the sealed envelope addressed to the district attorney Tom has left behind. Inside, a confession and a complete dossier of files that could send local mob boss, Mike Lagana to prison for life. Bertha telephones Mike with this evidence, taking precautions to ensure the information will be sent to the press should anything happen to her. But the unscrupulous widow also uses it to blackmail Lagana, affording her a very plush lifestyle. Unable to see his way around her, Mike reluctantly agrees to Bertha’s demands. Meanwhile, Sgt. Det. Dave Bannion is called in to investigate the suicide. And although he concurs with the facts – that Tom took his own life – he is perhaps a bit more apprehensive about dismissing the tear-stained widow’s seemingly irreproachable statement, that her husband killed himself due to ill health.
Dave returns to his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando – yes, Marlon’s elder sister) and that oft recreated and idyllic depiction of middle-class Americana circa Eisenhower’s conservative fifties; just a modest ‘every man’s’ bungalow, trimmed in box hedges and the proverbial white picket fence. Only Katie’s not exactly the little women, even if she is all aproned and cooking up a storm inside the kitchen. No, she is one smart cookie with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to life and a very keen mind. One can clearly see the attraction for Bannion: his gal Friday on so many levels and the mother of his perfect little offspring, Joyce. But Katie’s a free spirit, not above taking a drag from her husband’s cigarette or swig from his glass of beer. It’s the perfect Friday night. But the Bannions dinner plans are interrupted by a cryptic phone call from one Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), an over the hill B-girl who tells Dave to meet her at ‘The Retreat’ – a swinger’s spot in the city. Reluctantly, Dave agrees.  Arriving at the club, Dave asks the proprietor, Tierney (Peter Whitney) to point Lucy out. Unbeknownst to Bannion he is being spied on by Larry Gordon (Adam Williams); a two bit stoolie working for Lagana, and his plaything, Doris (Carolyn Jones) who enjoys playing poker with loaded dice. Lucy reveals to Dave she was Tom’s mistress. She further debunks Bertha’s claim Tom was in ill health and demands Bannion look into the matter further. But Dave sees no reason to reopen an ‘open and shut’ investigation – none, that is, until Lucy Chapman is found face down on a lonely road with cigarette burns studding her severely tortured body.
Dave returns to The Retreat for a little Q&A with Tierney, who blows a lot of smoke to divert his suspicions, before telephoning Lagana with the news Bannion’s back on the case.  Dave shows up at Lagana’s home – a palatial estate with an above board surface sheen that only money can buy. He confronts the mob kingpin with the specifics of Tom’s demise, even going so far as to accuse Lagana of some involvement in Lucy Chapman’s murder, though he has zero evidence – apart from a very vague hunch. Lagana orders Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) to handle the situation and Higgins does just that by asking for Dave’s resignation from the force. It’s a miscalculation on Lagana’s part. Deprived of his livelihood and the rules that go with it, Bannion is even more of a threat. Now, Lagana turns to his number one assassin, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), a cold killing machine who treats all humanity – even his gun moll, Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame) - as if they were disposable garbage. Lagana tells Vince to ‘take care’ of Bannion.  But Vince pawns off the assignment on Larry who stupidly thinks a simple car bomb will fix things. Unhappy chance, Katie decides to take the family sedan for a spin first. The car blows up, killing Katie and leaving Dave with an even bigger score he becomes obsessively driven to settle.
After witnessing Vince maim Doris with a cigarette for dealing loaded dice at The Retreat, Dave becomes convinced Vince is also responsible for Lucy Chapman’s murder. Calmly, he tells Vince to get lost, and Vince – hoping to simply walk away from the heat – does as told, leaving Debbie behind. She follows Dave back to his rented apartment. But Debbie is entirely unaware her actions are being observed by Larry Gordon. Dave tells Debbie he finds the thought of possessing anyone who belongs to Vince Stone repulsive. Okay, so Deb’s tainted goods. So she goes home to the penthouse where Higgins, Larry and Vince are engaged in a friendly game of poker. Having learned of Debbie’s whereabouts from Larry, Vince casually inquires where she has been all this time. She lies to him, incurring his sadistic wrath. Now, Vince scalds Debbie with a boiling pot of coffee, before ordering Higgins to drive her to the hospital. Lagana tells Vince to get rid of Debbie. But she escapes from the hospital, returning to Dave’s room in the middle of the night to beg for his protection. Initially, he wants no part of her. However, the next day Dave investigates a used car lot known as a front for Vince’s operations. The new proprietor, Baldy (Rick Roman) tells Dave the former owner met with an untimely end, but that he knows nothing of the lot’s reputation as a hub for organized crime. Later, however, the business’ crippled secretary, Selma Parker (Edith Evanson) tells Dave she remembers Larry Gordon frequenting the lot and later identifies Larry for Dave at his hotel suite.
Dave bursts in on Larry and threatens him with strangulation unless he talks. Gutless and terrified, Larry spills the beans on Vince and Lagana. But Dave – who had intended to kill Larry afterward – restrains himself at the last possible moment. Instead, he spreads the word around town that Larry is a snitch, forcing Lagana to take out a hit. Smelling blood in the water, Bannion opens up to Debbie back at his apartment, explaining he has reached an impasse in his investigation that can only be resolved if Bertha Duncan dies. Debbie takes this revelation to heart, and after he has gone out, she steals his gun and goes over to Bertha’s home where she savagely shoots the devious dowager to death. Returning to Vince’s penthouse to settle another score, Debbie reveals her hideous disfigurement to Vince before dousing him with a pot of boiling hot water. The two former flames struggle for the gun and Vince shoots Debbie. Bannion bursts in, comforting Debbie before she dies.  He confronts Vince in a shootout that ends with Vince’s arrest rather than his murder. Tom’s letter of confession goes public and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted for fraud, murder and racketeering. Just before the final fade out, Bannion’s fragile faith in humanity is restored. He is given back his badge and returns to his old job, prepared to launch into the next unsolved homicide.
No two ways about it, The Big Heat packs a wallop; as hard-hitting as anything Hollywood has yet to give us, infused with a morally ambiguity that occasionally proves problematic. The equivocal ‘ethics’ of our hero unbalance the heroic resolve he exercises just before the end. Even though Bannion’s righteousness triumphs, the means by which he has brought about his positive result is very Machiavellian at its core and therefore somewhat blunts our satisfaction with the achievement on its own merit. Perhaps imperfect worlds by their very design demand imperfect justice. But they do not absolve our cinematic heroes from defying the conventional and time-honored wisdom – at least, of their own genre, construction and societal clichés.  Glenn Ford is a delicious brute; the epitome of ‘the noble’ – if ever-so-slightly tainted – man of virtue, driven to extremes. The other revelation is Gloria Grahame. Just think; here is the gal who gave us the addlepated idiot child, Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1955) and sultry rival love interest, ‘Angel’ in de Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). I cannot think of another actress so readily able to adopt the chameleon’s skin, seemingly with ease. Of course, it’s a ruse. Acting of Grahame’s caliber is a lot of hard work.
Her Debbie Marsh herein almost seems like a cakewalk beside either of the aforementioned performances, one Grahame acquits herself quite nicely of, doling out equal portions of pathos and venom as propriety and the role itself demands. But the picture’s standout is Lee Marvin; a telling bit about Fritz Lang’s verve and focus that we tend to find Marvin’s diabolical and unrepentant thug muscle far more interesting – and perhaps, even more sympathetic – than our flawed hero. Vince Stone is all bad all the time. Yet, reduced to spar with Debbie and Dave’s fatalism - two avenging angels, having misplaced both their halos and their wings – Vince becomes the tragic figure in The Big Heat’s final act, caught in a web of their brutal retribution. And Marvin gives us much more than mere abject fear. Stone never devolves into cowardice. But he does slip in and out of a genuine sense of fear teetering on remorse – like the thief, not at all sorry he stole, yet, terribly made aware of the ramifications now that he has been caught in the act. But what a fascinating, and thoroughly unsettling predicament for the audience to digest: assassin as victim? Because of this moral quagmire, Lang doesn’t give us the same tired ole sort of ‘crime must pay’, vacuous gloss-over, obligatory and shameless, tacked onto so many other film noirs. As such, and more importantly, as film art, The Big Heat excels. It remains in a class apart.
This is Twilight Time’s second bite at the hi-def apple; a reissue of a disc that sold out in just a little over 24 hrs. the first time; this time, with different cover art and new extras. The old TT Blu-ray released just a little over three years ago. Same stunning transfer this time around, the recipient of Sony’s impeccable mastering efforts, sporting superior grain, stunning tonality and sumptuous fine detail: lots to admire. The audio is mono and very solid, with no perceivable hiss or pop. An A-list effort from Grover Crisp and his minions over at Sony, this time fleshed out with stellar extras that, frankly, ought to have been a part of the original Blu-ray release. We get the same isolated score track for which TT is known, only now augmented with a much deserved, and equally as fascinating audio commentary from Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo; the latter, having done her usual bang-up job on providing liner notes that read more like mini-essays and odes of love to each movie released via Twilight Time. Michael Mann contributes a 10 min. tribute/reflection on the movie; Martin Scorsese does the same in just under five. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Monday, February 22, 2016

THE BIG SLEEP: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1946) Warner Archive Collection

“The picture they were born for!” or so Warner Brothers’ clever marketing suggested with the 1946 release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep; the quintessential Hollywood-ized ‘detective story’; a movie so convoluted in its narrative structure not even its architect, author, Raymond Chandler was certain how it all came together, and so completely frustrating, no chronology of events unfolding from within will suffice to explain it herein. An enigma for the ages, The Big Sleep was actually made two years before but withheld from general release - mostly for pragmatic reasons (Warner had a lot of war-themed propaganda movies in the hopper to get out before war’s end). The delay proved fortuitous, allowing Hawks to reassemble cast and crew some eighteen months after the picture had wrapped and re-shooting key sequences that not only improved the general timbre of the production but also afforded co-star, Lauren Bacall her moments to exercise that inimitable saucy aplomb she had wielded against Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944). So palpable was the Bogie/Bacall chemistry in this dynamic debut (the two were married after Bacall skirted a proposal of marriage from Hawks) the studio immediately recast them in The Big Sleep. However, in the interim, Warner had also put Bacall into an ill-advised war-themed espionage caper, Confidential Agent (1945); an embarrassing misfire in her fledgling career and abysmal flop that threatened to wreck Bacall’s tenuous popularity with audiences. Critics who had heralded her as a ‘new find’ only the year before were now questioning her ability to act at all.
We have Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman to thank – partly – for the way The Big Sleep eventually turned out; Feldman, firing off a passionate letter to Jack L. Warner after screening a print, citing ways to improve upon the impact Bacall was eventually to have in the picture. Indeed, Feldman’s suggestions were taken to heart; the reshoots affording Bogie and Bacall more of that infectiously insolent foreplay, audiences simply could not get enough of, and, playing the Bacall’s strengths to show her off in the best possible light. Astutely perceiving Bacall had never been better than with Bogart, The Big Sleep was assessed as prudent ‘damage control’ to shore up Bacall’s sagging reputation with the critics as well as audiences. And to Hawks’ credit, he seems to have harbored no ill-will towards the sultry co-star who had spurned his romantic overtures. The Big Sleep excels at giving the audience exactly what they have come to see; Bogart – sullen and glib, Bacall – even sassier and more acidic in her barbs, lobbed like water balloons teeming and steaming with sexy venom for this man who ultimately stirs her fickle heart to goodness. The Big Sleep is exceptional entertainment because of all its tawdriness. The story is about as sordid as movies of this particular vintage get; Bogart cast as hard-nosed, shoot-from-the-hip gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, hired by an ailing and fragile Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate…hmm!
The Big Sleep’s screenplay is a daring patchwork by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman; a trio of brilliant writers invested in one of Raymond Chandler most compelling pulp fictions, first published in 1939. Like his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, Chandler came to the business of authorship second hand, after failing at another career. He was a brilliant linguist. But narrative construction was neither his strong suit, nor even his interest. Thus, as the screenwriters of The Big Sleep prepared to shape Chandler’s prose into a manageable who-done-it? they were faced with one nagging question. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur, Sean Regan? Openly admitting he too was stumped, director, Howard Hawks contacted Chandler for an answer, only to be told by the author he had absolutely no idea. It seems Chandler had used the disappearance of this ex-Irish nationalist/thug muscle, merely as a springboard for his story (something Hitchcock coined the MacGuffin); the machinations of the murder/blackmail scenario losing steam roughly midway through as the characters who populate The Big Sleep (both in the novel and its cinematic counterpart) take on a scintillating life of their own. Indeed, viewing The Big Sleep today, one is dumbstruck by its potency as pure style over substance; the ferocious sexual chemistry between Bogart and Bacall married to a perplexing series of events that unravel like a mesmerizing dream remembered; the dreamer, frequently suffering from bouts of insomnia and a deplorable lack of concentration. Nevertheless, the movie manages to follow its own path, attaining a satisfactory conclusion without ever entirely resolving its mystery.
The Big Sleep is an exceptional detective/thriller; relocating the low budget crime-laden film noir to the moneyed playground of the Sternwood family; a clan, no strangers to fast living. Into their midst is thrust Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart); a very roughhewn fish out of water with a penchant for starting trouble; a guy’s guy who turns women’s heads and, in a pinch, is tough with – or without – his gun. Marlowe’s alright, at least, at his core; the Teflon-coating worn off his detached exterior long ago. Marlowe’s exceptionally cynical world view keeps him alive; his telescopic inability to commit to anything except the truth makes him no better than that variation on the sharks he is investigating and so clearly despises.  He treats everyone with the same level of contempt. But Marlowe’s met his match in Vivien Rutledge (Lauren Bacall); Gen. Sternwood’s eldest, and newly divorced, daughter. From the onset, Vivien and Marlowe become sparring partners, her terse admonishment during their initial ‘cute meet’ (“You take chances, Marlowe”) met with his even more direct smack down in his reply (“Those are harsh words to throw at a man…especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”)
The revelation - each might be perfectly suited for the other - comes a little late in The Big Sleep’s ever-evolving narrative arc, and yet the dialogue solidifies what the audience has already predicted; that Vivien and Marlowe are a disreputable match made in heaven…or some such place. Undeniably taking its cue from To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s spoilt heiress is the instigator of their conflicts, beginning with her snap analysis of Marlowe, comparing him to a horse she would like to see ‘workout’ as either a ‘front runner’ or ‘coming up from behind’. The sexual double entendre in this exchange is as deliberately saucy as movie dialogue gets; Vivien pointing out how Marlowe doesn’t “like to be rated.” He’d rather “get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.” When Marlowe cynically challenges Vivien, she abruptly tells him she has yet to meet any man who could do it, Marlowe coming back with the suggestion he would like to see her “over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class,” he admits, “But I don't know how, how far you can go.” Evidently, Vivien is prepared to go the distance, concluding “A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”
Marlowe’s even less impressed by the criminal element, with comments like “My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.”  Ultimately, Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is the quintessential cynic of the world; a hard-bitten realist who refuses to surrender the soft center of his soul, safely coated by this hard-candy shell of personal regrets. Bogart’s great gift to American cinema has always been his ability to convey empathy for archetypal anti-heroes who might otherwise be entirely misconstrued as real bastards. But it is the combination of Bogie’s bitterness, married to Bacall’s sarcastic veneer, writ large with snappy dialogue that keeps The Big Sleep afloat. We are so fascinated and distracted by these two ‘horses’ running their close race in perfect stride, the plot really doesn’t matter. It’s serviceable - even if it makes absolutely no sense at all.
The Big Sleep owes a great deal of its success to the interventions of Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman who, upon screening the first ‘final edit’ of the picture, wisely deduced there were not enough scenes prominently featuring Bacall. The few that did were ill-conceived in their costuming, necessitating retakes. Last, but not least, Feldman asserted co-star, Martha Vickers (cast as the other Sternwood sister, Carmen) had somehow managed the minor coup to run off with the show. In his cordial telegram to studio head, Jack Warner, Feldman voiced all of these concerns as ‘suggestions’; Warner concurring and ordering Hawks and his cast reassembled for new edits/trims, and even, a few additional scenes inserted to beef up the sexually-charged skirmishes between Bogart and Bacall. Ultimately, it all came to the good of the picture, some twenty minutes of retakes further unhinging the already jumbled plot, but crystalizing the salacious affair between Vivien and Marlowe. Predictably, the public flocked to see Bogart and Bacall reteamed in yet another gripping crime story, this one fairly dripping with sinful seduction.
In many ways, The Big Sleep is a very adult picture; its backdrop of hoodlums, racketeers, gamblers and bookies all bedecked in glamorous trappings supplied by Carl Jules Weyl and Max Parker’s silken-smooth production design, luminously photographed by Sid Hickcox. If To Have and Have Not officially kicked off the ‘Bogie and Bacall’ craze, their reunion in The Big Sleep made the pair a phenomenon. Discrepancies between the original version and the one that ultimately made it into theaters are considerable; roughly twenty minutes of ‘reinventing the wheel’. Keener eyes will take notice the film’s original Mona Mars (Pat Clark) was recast with Peggy Knudsen when Clark proved unavailable for retakes. Also, the pre-release version contains a fairly extensive ‘discussion’ between Marlowe and the Los Angeles District Attorney – a lumbering bit of exposition that nevertheless clarifies part of the plot more so than in the final edit which is missing this footage in its entirety.  Yet, The Big Sleep does not require an explanation. In spite of its’ convoluted plot, it plays like a hallucinogenic reverie; full of dark and brooding sequences so thoroughly chocked full of mystery, we almost forget the movie is actually supposed to be telling us a story. The Big Sleep cast its spell upon audiences in 1946. It continues to do so to this day; a shockingly solid noir thriller with few – if any – peers.
After a main title sequence set to Max Steiner’s celebratory score, under which a pair of shadowy figures and an ashtray with two cigarettes reside, we dissolve to Sternwood manor and the arrival of former assistant to the D.A./cum private dick, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). Marlowe’s introduction to the Sternwoods is their youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers); a nymphomaniac who mildly stuns, then insincerely amuses Marlowe with her sex kitten act, by Marlowe’s own admission ‘trying to sit in his lap while he was standing up’. In short order, Marlowe is shown into the conservatory by Norris, the Sternwood’s butler (Charles D. Brown); a humid sweatbox where the aged Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron) is awaiting. The General tells Marlowe of his concern for a mutual acquaintance; Sean Regan (never seen), who once commanded a brigade in the Irish Republican Army. The General took Sean on as his chauffeur; later – his confidant, and finally, had come to regard him as something of the son he never had. Sean’s sudden disappearance is therefore more than mysterious. It is a bitter disappointment.
But the real reason for Sternwood summoning Marlowe to his home involves Carmen; or rather, Carmen’s mounting debts to one Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz); a middle-aged bookseller with whom Carmen has casually taken up. Geiger’s paid her gambling losses but now expects to be reimbursed for his troubles. Marlowe instructs the General to pay off the middle-aged Lochinvar, thus sparing the family’s reputation.  But Marlowe also agrees to do a little snooping on the General’s behalf. Alas, before his investigation can get underway Marlowe is introduced to Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivien Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). She’s a venomous little spider, spinning webs to ensnare Marlowe. Too bad for Viv’, Phil’s not the sort to easily be fooled. Furthermore, he wastes no time cutting her down to size. Viv’s not used to a guy who can go nine rounds with her and still come out the winner. A brief adversarial repartee ends with a trip to the main branch of the Hollywood Public Library; Marlowe brushing up on his knowledge of rare first edition books before venturing to Geiger’s bookstore to test the legitimacy of its staff. There, he encounters Agnes Louzier (Sonia Darrin), a saucy little vamp, who stalls Marlowe’s phony inquiries with equally as counterfeit misinformation.
To test his theory about the shop actually being a front for some ‘other’ spurious business, Marlowe walks across the street to the ACME Book Sellers, grilling the store’s proprietress (Dorothy Malone) with the same fake info. She quickly sees through his phony inquiries and Marlowe confirms his suspicions about Agnes. Spending the rest of this rainy afternoon ‘getting wet’ with a bottle of rye and the proprietress (just one of several superfluous, though utterly captivating vignettes within this clever movie), Marlowe has the bookseller point out Geiger from a distance. Next, he tails Geiger to Lavern Terrace where, after some hours of observation, a sudden gunshot and piercing scream shatter his secrecy. Marlowe breaks into Geiger’s bungalow, only to discover a very inebriated Carmen leaning over Geiger’s corpse. Unable to provide him with any answers as to what has only just transpired, for she is rather high – and not on life – Marlowe deposits Carmen on a nearby couch while he explores the bungalow for clues. Concealed inside an Asian statue, Marlowe finds a hidden camera. Too bad someone has removed the film. Marlowe also discovers a book of secret codes in Geiger’s desk drawer.
Taking the now unconscious Carmen back to Sternwood manor, Marlowe instructs Norris to put the Lolita to bed, explaining how it would be better for all concerned if they pretended he had not been there and Carmen never went out. Now, Marlowe returns to Geiger’s bungalow – presumably to give the place a more thorough inspection, only to discover Geiger’s body is missing. He also encounters notorious racketeer, Eddie Mars (John Ridgley), along with two rather daft henchmen, more comical than threatening. Marlowe’s glib answers don’t win him any points with Mars, who realizes Marlowe probably had nothing to do with Geiger’s disappearance. Not long thereafter, while attempting to crack Geiger’s code book in the comfort of his own apartment, Marlowe is paid a visit by Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), who informs him there is a Packard floating in the surf off Lido Pier with the body of the Sternwood’s new chauffeur, Owen Taylor (Dan Wallace) slumped over in the front seat.
The next afternoon, Vivien unexpectedly arrives at Marlowe's office with an anonymous blackmail note she received, containing scandalous pictures of Carmen. The bribe is clear – pay up to receive the negatives or face a very dirty public scandal. Marlowe and Vivien spar for a second time, reaching a playful détente after she threatens to telephone the police.  He calls her bluff. Now, Marlowe returns to Geiger’s bookshop. He is momentarily shooed away by Anges, but manages to tail a new mystery man, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) to a nearby apartment where Marlowe also discovers Vivien and Agnes. Joe is blackmailing the General, also, in possession of the incriminating camera negative documenting Carmen’s affair with Geiger. Carmen arrives with a pistol, demanding the negatives from Joe. Instead, Marlowe takes charge of the situation, disarming Carmen and forcing Joe to give him the photos. But before Joe can tell what he knows there is another knock at the door, and Marlowe – suspecting foul play – makes Joe answer it. Poor devil: Joe is shot to death before everyone’s eyes by an unseen assassin. Marlowe makes chase, eventually tracking down Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), Geiger’s ex-driver.
Marlowe decides to pay a call on Eddie Mars’ at his fashionable country casino. Unexpectedly, he finds Vivien holding court with a group of her sycophantic friends. Marlowe inquires if the rumors about Mars’ wife running off with Sean Regan are true. Mars is evasive, instead informing Marlowe of Vivien’s considerable gambling debts.  However, after Vivian wins a big wager at Mars’ blackjack tables she asks Marlowe to take her home. One of Mars’ goons attempts to rob Vivian in the parking lot. But Marlowe intervenes, knocking him cold. On the ride back to the manor, Marlowe presses Vivian about her connection to Mars, revealing he knew all along her sudden flourish of success at blackjack and subsequent robbery were staged for his benefit. Vivien admits nothing. She doesn’t have to, because Marlowe is already ten steps ahead of the pack. He’s also getting perturbed. Returning to his apartment alone, Marlowe finds Carmen waiting inside; still sickly dulcet and flirtatious, providing another few pieces to the puzzle. She didn’t like Regan. But Vivien definitely was interested in Mars and vice versa. Now, Carmen attempts to seduce Marlowe. Disgusted by the whole messy affair, Marlowe throws her out.
In the morning, Vivien attempts damage control, meeting Marlowe at a club to pay off his retainer, adding that Sean has turned up in Mexico and she is soon to be reunited with him. It’s a lie, of course, and Marlowe wastes no time calling Vivien out for her deception. A new fly in the ointment surfaces: Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), a former associate of Joe Brody’s, since become Agnes’ lover. Jones offers to reveal the location of Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen) to Marlowe for a fast $200. Instead, another of Mars’ goons – Lash Canino (Bob Steele) poisons Jones, who manages to tell Marlowe where Agnes is hiding before he dies. This bit of information also turns out to be a lie. Fortune momentarily smiles on Marlowe, however; his dead end investigation given a new jolt when Agnes telephones with information Mona Mars is hiding out at an abandoned auto repair shop in the nearby town of Realito. In the dead of night, Marlowe drives to the remote gas station. He is confronted by Canino, but fakes a story about having car trouble. Canino isn’t buying it and Marlowe is knocked unconscious.
Awakening to discover he has been tied up, Marlowe comes face to face with Mona Mars. He also discovers Vivien is involved – though how, we are not entirely certain. Marlowe insults Mona by telling her what a disreputable cad her husband is. After Mona leaves the room, Vivien – fearing for Marlowe’s safety – unties him. Marlowe and Vivien sneak out and make their way to Marlowe’s car. Marlowe retrieves his gun and shoots Canino dead. Marlowe and Vivien hurry to Geiger’s bungalow, Vivien quite unable to convince Marlowe she has killed Sean Regan. Why? Who is she protecting? Why Carmen, of course. Now, Marlowe telephones Mars from Geiger’s place, pretending to still be in Realito; a ruse only possible in the years before ‘caller I.D., Mars sets up an ambush for Marlowe. But Mars is unprepared as he enters Geiger’s home to discover Marlowe already inside. Marlowe holds Mars at gunpoint, revealing how he has prefigured the whole nasty affair: Mars was blackmailing Vivien to keep Carmen’s murder of Sean a secret. Mars nervously threatens Marlowe. But Marlowe retaliates by firing shots into the ceiling, forcing Mars to exit the bungalow first where he is mistaken for Marlowe and murdered by his own men. Telephoning the police to wrap up his investigation, Marlowe explains Mars shot Regan, Vivien was merely a pawn, and, Carmen is to be committed to an asylum for her own good. As Marlowe and Vivien race toward an uncertain future, they embrace. Perhaps it really is love after all.
The Big Sleep makes no apology for leaving more than a few narrative threads unresolved. The plot doesn’t thicken so much as it coagulates with an ever-expanding roster of spurious characters who come and go - adding density to the plot without much clarity attached. Although the story makes less and less sense as the film unravels to its anticipated conclusion (having Bacall fall into Bogart’s arms), this tale of mismatched lovers, intrigues and diabolical assassinations is never anything less than riveting. Even upon repeat viewings, The Big Sleep can hold an audience spellbound in the dark, although I am not entirely certain how or why. Who killed Sean Regan? Marlowe’s flimsy wrap up is not altogether convincing. Perhaps it was Eddie Mars. Or Carmen. And what about Arthur Gwen Geiger’s murder, or the mysterious disappearance – and later, relocation of his body? Or the secret code Marlowe was attempting to crack? No explanations are forthcoming. Remarkably, none seem necessary. The audience is not on a ‘need to know’ basis. The Big Sleep is perhaps the most perfect example of cinema style trumping substance. It was a smash hit for all concerned, and likely remains the best pairing of Bogart and Bacall ever put on film: lovers on and off the big screen. In the final reel, when asked by Marlowe what Vivien’s problem is, she delivers the sultry topper, “Nothing you can’t fix.” Fittingly, The Big Sleep remains definitive proof there was nothing these two couldn’t do together.
Ah, yes – there is nothing the Warner Archive (WAC) can’t fix when they put their time and money where it counts the most.  While The Big Sleep on DVD is modestly impressive, WAC’s new Blu-ray is absolutely stunning. Prepare to be astonished by this upgrade. Using the latest digital clean-up tools, WAC has managed to stave off nearly every ravage time has built into these original elements. There are still minor imperfections. But these are indigenous to the source. One of Bogie’s finest films is now also officially the cornerstone achievement in digital mastering for 2016.  Image shimmers with a silvery patina, immaculate grain and shadow detail that delivers velvety deep and fully saturated blacks. Wow! The image pops with renewed clarity, revealing even the minutest details in clothing, hair, etc. I was blown away by the razor-sharp refinement of raindrops, as example, in the scene where Marlowe tails Geiger to his bungalow during a torrential downpour.  There are still a few softly focused moments scattered throughout, but these do not distract. There are no digital anomalies for a smooth, consistent and, at times, breathtaking visual experience. The audio is mono, cleaned up to a finite level of sonic perfection to compliment the visuals in every way.
The 1945 pre-release version of The Big Sleep has not been given the same consideration. It’s still in standard definition, but actually, I am perfectly ‘okay’ with that, since it really is the lesser of the two. It looks about as good as I anticipated; nothing to write home about, but neither a total washout. Extras are a big surprise: the comparative analysis featuring UCLA restoration expert, Robert Gitt, needlessly truncated for the DVD release, has been restored to its full length; almost 20 golden minutes of Gitt’s expertise on display. I have long admired Gitt for his easy-going congeniality, his obvious expertise in the field, but mostly for the way he manages to distill the techniques of film preservation/restoration into layman’s terms without ever talking down to his audience. Great stuff. The Big Sleep is, by far, one of the greatest movies in Bogie’s canon and Warner Bros. Given the studio’s exemplary history, that is saying an awful lot: a real goldmine for lovers of Bogie and Bacall besides. Bottom line: if you haven’t seen this one (and I sincerely feel sorry for those yet to be exposed to it for the first time) it is high time for a blind purchase – and be very glad that you did! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)