“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)