The Big Sleep
(United States, 1946)
The Big Sleep didn't usher in the era of film noir, but it may be the picture that most exemplifies it. However, the key attraction isn't the twisty plot or the atmospheric b&w cinematography - it's the interaction between Bogart and Bacall, one of Hollywood's all-time greatest couples. There are actually two versions of The Big Sleep - the "original" (initially unreleased) edition from 1944 and the final, theatrical cut from 1946. The latter is the better version - it's less talky and features a lot more of Bogart and Bacall. The Big Sleep is consistently involving and stands up well to multiple viewings, although there are nagging questions left unresolved. Many film-lovers would put this film higher on an all-time list, but perhaps I'm too right-brained, since there are times when I wish the script had been a little tighter. Still, as confounding as elements of the mystery may be, there's no denying that The Big Sleep was, and is, one of the greatest noir thrillers to come out of Hollywood.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The Big Sleep opens with private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) entering the house of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), after having been invited for a discussion. Before Marlowe meets the general, he is introduced to his youngest daughter, the flirtatious Carmen (Martha Vickers). Sternwood has a job for Marlowe - he wants the detective to investigate the details of why someone is demanding money from him to cover up one of Carmen's indiscretions, and, once the facts are uncovered, make the blackmailer "go away." On the way out of the house, Marlowe meets the general's other daughter, Vivian (Bacall), who is as alluring as Carmen, but more mature. She and Marlowe have a cat-and-mouse conversation in which she tries to determine why her father hired him. From there, the mystery begins, and it doesn't take long to heat up. Shortly, there are two corpses, but those deaths are only the beginning. There are double-crosses, chases, shoot outs, and the undeniable and growing heat between Marlowe and Vivian. In essence, The Big Sleep is two capers in one. The first, which involves Marlowe's investigation into the blackmail, is concluded by the half-way point. The second, in which the detective looks into a related (but not directly connected) death and disappearance, comprises the movie's second half.
The Big Sleep has all the elements that define a good film noir. There's the irreverent protagonist, the femme fatale, the assorted tough guys, and an atmosphere saturated with shadows. The Big Sleep was filmed entirely on a sound stage, but this amplifies, rather than diminishes, the slightly claustrophobic feel. The casting of Bogart and Bacall was far more than a gimmick to put bodies in theater seats. The film sizzles and smolders when these two are on screen together. When they kiss, there's more electricity in the air than during any of the film's thunderstorms. But it's not all physical - in fact, most of it is not. These two are given delicious dialogue that amplifies the heat. The Big Sleep remains one of Hollywood's most intriguing and enduring examples of film noir. It's a movie that every film student should study and every movie lover should watch at least once. Things may not always make sense, but the film's numerous delights completely eclipse its few, small weaknesses.
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