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Back to the Feature: The Big Sleep (1946)

When talking about The Big Sleep, people usually associate it with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, if not director Howard Hawks or the original novelist Raymond Chandler. But how many mention that the great William Faulkner is credited with the screenplay? In fairness, Faulkner wrote a number of Hollywood movies, particularly for Hawks and including To Have and Have Not, the previous Bogart-Bacall vehicle; and he shares credit on this movies’ screenplay with Leigh Bracket (of Empire Strikes Back fame) and Jules Furthman. But it’s nonetheless intriguing to say the least, to see the author of As I Lay Dying named here as screenplay writer -kind of like seeing Aldous Huxley’s name attached to Pride and Prejudice.
It’s a curious thing then that the strongest element of The Big Sleep isn’t its’ script. It’s very well-written of course (in spite of an incoherent story, but we’ll get to that), with smart, sharp dialogue, but Faulkner’s efforts here are rather eclipsed by the talents of the artists on camera.
A classic film noir, it follows detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) as he takes on the case of the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) whose daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) is indebted to a bookseller. However when that bookseller turns up dead at a mobsters’ house, it leads Marlowe on a hunt for the perpetrator, while various clues and other murders along the way point to a connection with the disappearance of Sean Regan, a close friend of Sternwood’s; in which enterprise Marlowe is joined by the general’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), with whom he forms an immediate chemistry despite being suspicious of her involvement.
The Big Sleep is very structurally inconsistent. The narrative of this film seems to be in a constant state of flux, with new developments and mysteries regularly popping up to replace old ones. With new characters, motivations, crosses, and double-crosses constantly being thrown at you, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with everything. There are a number of plot holes, and by the end it doesn’t quite all add up. Most notably, there seem to be two dissonant cases at play, one set up by the General, the other by Vivian on his behalf. And the first is resolved about a third of the way into the film, with the murderer being discovered and a subsequent blackmail confessor likewise killed to wrap it up. Hereafter, the second case, the missing person one, takes prominence and for a large portion of the story is connected to the former only through the character of Eddie Mars, played by John Ridgely. Though odd in that it renders the first case somewhat pointless, this at least makes the film a little more direct and comprehensible -until near the end when revelations are made that tie developments of the second case more firmly into aspects of the first. And the ultimate resolution doesn’t make sense, with few clues seeming to warrant it. However I understand that the original 1945 cut is more sensible and plot-wise satisfying. But it also lacks a number of the scenes between Marlowe and Vivian that make this film memorable in the first place.
In an interesting case of Hollywood exploiting a trend, at the request of Lauren Bacall’s agent, extensive re-shoots were made to better capitalize on the Bogart-Bacall frenzy. They were the Hollywood “it” couple back in the days when that was such a thing, and the popularity of their on-screen chemistry led to a number of collaborations. So additional scenes between Marlowe and Vivian were added, beefing up Vivian’s role in the story (and consequently minimizing Carmen’s), at the expense of important plot points. And even though I don’t necessarily agree with the reasons for doing so, I can’t deny the effect of the result. Their chemistry makes this movie! The best scenes are the ones where they’re working off each other, having a conversation with completely natural charisma and flirting with one another. As I said, the writing throughout this movie, especially in the dialogue, is pretty great, and it’s at its best in these moments. Their romance comes off as incredibly genuine, because it was, and their performances, enough to light up the screen separately, are tremendous together. With the exception of Ingrid Bergman, Bogart’s never had a more passionate love interest, and Bacall never a better sparring partner. Bogart is typically sharp, pointed, and suave as Marlowe. He’s played a number of these hard-boiled detective characters and while Marlowe isn’t quite Sam Spade, I still admire how Bogart can make even the most stock P.I. characters seem interesting. There’s just a history behind his eyes that says this character has seen his fair share of shit and nothing surprises him anymore -but his tenacity and humour haven’t left him yet. However it’s Bacall’s eyes that are much more glorious. She’s not only stunning in this movie, but delivers a great performance as well. It’s astonishing how she carries herself with such grace, poise, attitude, and maturity for someone so young. I haven’t seen To Have and Have Not or Bacall’s other early movies, so to see her perform so well and so seamlessly uniquely for the time at not much older than twenty is remarkable! Vivian is also characterized quite well, in true mould of the Hawksian woman, as she stands tall (both metaphorically and physically) opposite her male co-star and frequently demonstrates her cleverness, fortitude, and wit. She’s like a more subtle Katherine Hepburn comedy character, and it’s both wonderfully refreshing for a film of this era, and unforgettable. The rest of the cast does fine, Ridgely and especially Vickers playing their fairly flat characters decently -though no one stands out against the titan couple leading the film. Elisha Cook Jr., Bogart’s co-star from The Maltese Falcon, has a brief part opposite him here, and in one of her early film roles, Dorothy Malone makes a noteworthy appearance, possibly inventing the sexy librarian archetype.
Malone’s character clearly has sex with Marlowe while he’s waiting in a book store to follow someone home. It’s only inferred of course, as a number of other details are, due to the Production Code. For instance, one plot point involves someone blackmailing Vivian with illicit pictures of Carmen, but it’s never stated that they must be nude photos in order to garner the reaction they do. This implication is strong despite the fact the photos couldn’t have been taken very long before Marlowe arrived at the house where Carmen was (also the scene of the first murder) and he finds her fully dressed. A subsequent seduction scene of Carmens’ towards Marlowe is toned down too, as are all the pornographic insinuations. Nevertheless, the movie does manage to maintain a great degree of innuendo, something Bacall was famous for. There are quite a few lines and actions that obviously stand for something they weren’t permitted to express explicitly; such as when a female taxi driver invites Marlowe to call her up if he needs, and when he asks “night or day?”, she responds “night’s better -I work during the day.” And of course there’s the infamous racehorse discussion scene between the two leads that’s still pretty terrific to listen to. This kind of sexual suggestiveness makes the film feel a bit rebellious and all the more smart for beating the censors. You can tell that Chandler’s book, in addition to being more detailed and probably better told, is more gritty and graphic, and it’s not hard to see where. But I do like how not being able to adapt certain elements, led to The Big Sleep being more subversive of a film.
Roger Ebert ascertained that the narrative shortcomings of The Big Sleep are irrelevant next to the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, and while their sheer magnetism does make the film worth watching, the difficulty to be invested is a hindrance. If Hawks and the other people involved don’t care about conveying the story well, why should the audience? I never really cared where it was headed, and was only mildly interested in what happened to the missing Sean Regan. This is a film entirely carried by its two stars, and luckily, they have enough star power, charisma, and screen presence to do so. That and the undercutting innuendo make this a very good film, possibly the benchmark of Bogart and Bacall’s screen couplings. I’d like to see a cut of the film that combines the 1945 and 1946 versions though, keeping the chemistry while also the story intact, but that may not be possible. And to be honest, that earlier cut probably wouldn’t have been as memorable. But just remember it exists, if for nothing else than to not let the released films’ story failings sully William Faulkner’s reputation.

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