The Big Sleep (1946), or Marlowe In Spades

29 01 2009
Lauren Becalls voice might just be huskier than Bogarts

Lauren Bacall's voice might just be huskier than Bogart's

Well, folks, another classic here today for all you film snobs like me and for all you lovers of good cinema, like you. The Big Sleep might be one of the best examples of film noir America ever produced. It was big, it was bold, it was the film the U.S. wanted all their films to be like; dark, funny, classy and racy. This one is a true classic, and it is actually in the National Film Registry after the Library of Congress deemed it culturally significant. That, I think, is a big deal.

The plot has always been infamously confusing, so just a brief overview. Private dick Phillip Marlowe, a real “hard-boiled detective”, has been called to the extravagant house of retired General Sternwood. He needs some help with some gambling debts owed by his younger daughter Carmen. More precisely, he needs them dealt with discreetly without having to resort to going to the police. Marlowe accepts, but has a sneaking suspicion that he has another reason for his services, namely to find his younger friend and bodyguard Brian Regan. The general’s eldest daughter Vivian, a feisty sexpot and recent divorcĂ©e, confronts him with this, but he is already miles ahead of her. This intrigues her, and her feisty attitude intrigues him. Thus ensues the veiled sexual banter. But nothing is as it seems around this family, he soon realizes. And not long after that, what starts out as a simple case of reputation blackmail becomes a complex web of murder and lies, and as the bodies start piling up Marlowe seems to be next on the list. Can he get himself out of the web and still unravel the mystery of this mysterious family?

Nobody is really too concerned with the plot, although it is based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler and written for the screen by William Faulkner (!!). Nobody is really too interested either with the character of Phillip Marlowe, who has been serialized with other actors playing him in different movies for years. He’s a great guy in a clutch, and this movie has him in spades, but you don’t go to a picture show to see him exclusively. What everyone is interested in is the chemistry between Marlowe and Vivian, aka Bogart and Bacall. The duo, married in real life at the time, were electrifying both on and off the screen with their roller-coaster relationship. Watching them is like watching a real couple in real love bantering at the speed of real emotional comfort. It is fun to watch them trade off dialog like kisses. Bacall is such a femme fatale she might not be healthy in large doses. And Bogart is the most unlikely leading man in history. Not particularly handsome, tall, or physically fit, Bogart was all about presence. In his presence, even a mediocre performance seems suave and debonair. Even when he wasn’t trying, even when he was drunk or hung-over (which, after reading up on Bogart,was a common occurrence), his presence as an actor blows all that out the window.

Howard Hawks was a visionary and a no-nonsense artist that seemed more like a working stiff than a director, and this was one of his many films deemed culturally significant by the Library of Congress. He was one of the greatest of the classic Hollywood filmmakers, but he never received the recognition that John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille enjoyed. Well, here at Cinematronica, we appreciate Howard Hawks and his contributions to this amazing medium. Look forward later in the year to a Howard Hawks Week.

Oh, and Martha Vickers! Martha Vickers as Carmen, the younger Sternwood daughter, actually knocks Bacall down a few pegs with her performance. I wouldn’t say she totally blows her away, but she is clearly the victor in the battle of sex appeal. Watch her closely. Rumor has it that Bacall’s agent actually told Howard Hawks to re-shoot the movie to make Bacall look better. And Hawks caved due to pressure from the studio! It was unfair, and Vickers’s career withered up shortly after this, but I still feel that she deserved more credit on this movie for her small but wonderful role.

So a great classic from grand old Hollywood that needs to be either visited or revisited by young and old alike. Great performances abound, especially from one of the hardest working directors of the age. I have to call mulligan on the lopsided story, which, although nobody is really interested in it, is thrust in your face from all the dialog going on. But a very good show by very good performers (again, keep an eye out for Howard Hawks on this site). I give The Big Sleep 8 1/2 sloppy drunk Humphrey Bogarts out of 10.

See you tomorrow, for another PSA, where we take a look at The Duchess!