Big Sleep, The (United States, 1946)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the 1940s and 1950s, film noir was one of the most popular Hollywood movie forms. With its roots in both German Expressionism and the American hard-boiled detective fiction of the '20s and '30s, film noir caught on with a public in search of dark thrills and hard-bitten heroes. Of all the authors, actors, and directors associated with film noir over the years, two are the most immediately recognizable: novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler and star Humphrey Bogart (a third, Alfred Hitchcock, will not be discussed here). Along with Dashiel Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, Chandler was among the most read and best known pulp fiction writers, and his success in print allowed him to make the leap to Hollywood, where screenplays like Double Indemnity and Strangers on the Train earned him an even greater reputation. Meanwhile, Bogart appeared in handful of noir classics, including the first acknowledged entry into the genre, 1941's The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep, published in 1939, was the first of seven Philip Marlowe novels written by Chandler. Over the years, six of them have been adapted into films (several more than once): The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, and The Long Goodbye. Only Playback, Chandler's final Marlowe book, has never made it to the screen. Marlowe, the hard-drinking loner with a sharp one-liner for any situation, has been played by the likes of George Montgomery, Robert Montgomery, Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum (twice), James Garner, James Caan, and Bogart. Of all of these portrayals, Bogart's is easily the most memorable, and if you ask any movie-lover who the real cinematic Marlowe is, the answer will be immediate and unqualified.

Legendary director Howard Hawks first embarked upon the task of bringing The Big Sleep to the screen in 1944. After signing Bogart and Bacall as the leads, Hawks hired his To Have and Have Not writers, William Faulkner and Jules Furthman to adapt Chandler's novel, giving them strict instructions to retain as much of the original dialogue as possible (the third credited screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, had written a previous, unused draft). Principal photography occurred during 1944, but, after the film was in the can, it ended up sitting on the shelf while Warner Brothers rushed a backlog of war films into theaters, fearing that the end of the conflict would dry up the market. The Big Sleep could wait a year or two.

During the picture's period in limbo, Hawks re-considered the movie's composition (prompted, at least in part, by correspondence with Bacall's agent, who was dissatisfied with a number of his client's scenes). So, a year after the initial filming, Hawks brought back most of the cast for re-shoots. A number of new sequences were committed to celluloid, most of which played off the obvious real-life chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (who were now married) that had been so popular in To Have and Have Not. In the process, an entire reel was replaced, adding the Bogart/Bacall restaurant scene and eliminating a lengthy conversation between Marlowe and the DA that explained several plot points. The final version of The Big Sleep was released in 1946. A restored copy of the 1944 edition was assembled by archivists at UCLA during the '90s, and is now available on home video and DVD along with the second, better rendition.

The Big Sleep is credited with having one of the most confusing storylines of any motion picture ever made. The reason that so many people get lost is probably because plot really isn't The Big Sleep's focus. We get so caught up watching Bogart and Bacall - every nuance of their interaction is fascinating - and enjoying the sharp, smart dialogue with all of its double entendres, that it's almost impossible to keep track of what's going on and who's responsible for which murder. The ending is satisfying not because the killer (or, more appropriately, "one of the killers") has been caught, but because Bogart and Bacall are together. The Big Sleep is about atmosphere, tone, and, above all, star power.

No couple in the history of the silver screen has possessed the mystique enjoyed by Bogart and Bacall. Their storied romance, which began on the set of To Have and Have Not then continued through three other movies (The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo) and on into real life, is the best-known of all the Hollywood love stories. Both were stars of great magnitude, with Bogart eclipsing every other male lead of that era (and, some would argue, any other). Today, we still have movie stars, but even the most visible - Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts - can't hold a candle to Bogie, and it has been half-a-century since any star pairing has matched the on-screen and off-screen magic of Bogart and Bacall. Hawks recognized what the two had in To Have and Have Not, and (especially in the re-shoots) worked hard to re-capture it in The Big Sleep.

It is perfectly understandable why a viewer, especially someone watching The Big Sleep for the first time, might become confused. Even the 1944 version, which features a 10-minute, mid-film dissection of all that has happened to that point, isn't straightforward. At least one murder (or suicide) is left unresolved. (An anecdote relates that when Hawks asked Chandler for an explanation of who killed the Sternwood chauffeur, the writer responded that he had no idea.) And there are so many different bodies, criminals, and crimes that it becomes difficult to keep everything straight, especially if you're paying any attention to the film's more important assets.

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), who comments that she thinks Marlowe is "cute," then tries to "sit in [his] lap while [he is] standing up." 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. When his response is as blunt as it is unrevealing, she comments, "I don't like your manners." In one of the film's best lines, he counters, "I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like them myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings."

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, however, 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. Common characters, circumstances, and coincidences bridge the two, but they can (at least to an extent) be decoupled.

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. Most of the action takes place after dark, in the rain, or both. And, since it's told from the first-person point of view (Marlowe's), Humphrey Bogart appears in every scene. There's never a moment when the camera reveals something to us that isn't known to Marlowe.

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. In many of their conversations, a viewer would have to be hopelessly naïve not to get the second meaning. Consider this classic exchange (which, by the way, was not in the 1944 version):

Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

Or this one:

Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe.
Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom.

The recent DVD release offers the perfect opportunity to view both interpretations of The Big Sleep in their entirety (there's also a documentary explaining the changes). Comparing the two versions, the 1946 theatrical release trumps its predecessor. The first edition is peppered with awkward moments and at least one scene (where Marlowe searches a dead man's house) that is unnecessarily protracted. Additionally, the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is muted. Even though the plot is less murky (although by no means is it crystal clear), the earlier movie lacks the crackle and pop of the 1946 version. The effective re-working of The Big Sleep makes a convincing argument that sometimes the first cut of a film is not the best (this, of course, flies in the face of the claims of "purists", who believe that re-shoots are always negative).

Bacall was not the only actress Bogart connected with. There's a great deal of playful sexual tension in his scene with Dorothy Malone, who portrays the book seller across the street from Arthur Gwynne Geiger's shop. In fact, Bogart and Malone worked so well together that they were allowed to do a great deal of improvisation. Meanwhile, Martha Vickers stole a number of her scenes, and her first appearance, where Carmen attempts to seduce Marlowe, is eye-opening. Rumor has it that some of the re-shoots, cuts, and re-edits were done to prevent Vickers from upstaging Bacall.

Even without the curiosity of the 1944 version, 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.

Big Sleep, The (United States, 1946)

Ranked #108 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1