While The Maltese Falcon and his turn as Sam Spade may be Bogart’s more famous private detective film and role, The Big Sleep is a close runner up, thanks, in no small part I’m sure, to the presence of his mistress/wife (she played both roles–in reality–during the extended filming), Lauren Bacall. I was tempted to comment on comparison between probably the two biggest names in mystery fiction at the time, at least in retrospect, but I find my points less salient through research. I felt the name of Raymond Chandler (who penned the novel behind this film) had more meat to it than Dashiell Hammett (who penned Maltese), but I find neither has an overbearingly larger or more famous set of works–both pretty equally adapted into a handful of big-name, still-remembered pictures with only two or three novels, and the rest adapted into b-roll pictures and less well-known ones. Certainly, I cannot judge either strictly as a writer, being as I’ve read neither of them–but I’ve always had the impression that Hammett was the plotter and Chandler was the wordsmith, tangled forever in dense and awkward-but-perfect metaphors. Plus, I always liked Philip Marlowe as a name better than the Stan Lee-esque alliterative Sam Spade.*
Philip Marlowe (Bogart, naturally) is hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to stop the source of demand for repayment of gambling debts from his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe suggests Sternwood simply pay the man, Arthur Gwynne Geiger, but a history of blackmail by one Joe Brody leaves Sternwood firm in hiring Marlowe to investigate the matter. Breezing past the overly friendly Carmen and the defiant pride of her sister Vivian (Bacall), Marlowe trails the source of the demands into a rather complex series of events built around multiple murders–including Geiger himself. He stumbles onto the toes of Joe Brody, as well as casino operator Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), and into plots that include backstabbing, affairs, old enemies, unsolved murders and theft.
This film was released twice, first to GIs and then later to the general public–that first release had Bogie and Bacall in an affair, until their marriage in 1945, after the film was first released. After urgings and a waiting period that pushed war films out while they were still relevant, The Big Sleep had new scenes filmed and edited in, now with a husband and wife instead of two illicit lovers. These scenes tried to push in the chemistry the two had in their first film together, where they met, 1944’s To Have and Have Not–also a novel adaptation by director Howard Hawks. By most accounts (including my own) this chemistry survives and indeed thrives. I literally missed the infamous horse-racing dialogue the first time around (as in, did not even hear it, not did not notice the subtext, which would be difficult), but it’s pretty upfront and bracing in its veiled explicitness. Bacall once again manifests her powerful character, determined to defy Bogart, who similarly tries to keep her at arm’s length, the two inevitably giving in to their mutual desires. Bogart himself adds an interesting and delightful note in a hasty impersonation of a bookstore patron in his investigations, the flip of a brim and use of glasses, as well as a voice pushed up a few notches in pitch, makes for a believable turn to snow an employee at the bookstore Geiger fronts himself with. Bogart gets us to believe simultaneously that this is a character in Marlowe’s repertoire and enough of a character that Agnes (Sonia Darrin) does not instantly recognize him later. This is a pretty powerful move and is similar to the impressive turn by Christopher Reeve turning himself onscreen from Clark Kent to Superman–not through special effects but through body language. That link to “real” character between their imagined normal personality and false, disguise personality is terribly impressive and not something to sneeze at.
Behind Bogart, as is usually the case with his best films, is an excellent and witty screenplay, adapted from Chandler’s novel by Leigh Brackett (beginning her relationship with Hawks that would see a trio of very similar but very good westerns appear starring John Wayne–Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo and El Dorado, as well as non-western with Wayne Hatari! and a return to chandler’s work with Robert Altman’s modernized 1973 The Long Goodbye), William Faulkner (again, yes, that Faulkner) and Jules Furthman (bridge between the two, having worked with Faulkner and Hawks on To Have and Have Not, later working with Hawks and Brackett on Rio Bravo). The screenplay and Hawks’ steady, careful hand as director make for an instantly absorbing experience, one I was delighted to see and bears that full, ripe fruit of the so-called “Golden Age of Cinema” that makes for such a pleasant experience. Watching gangsters in movies like this with a mental eye toward the different approach taken now shows why both that decreased distance between the real and the unreal makes the unreal stick out more in modern film, and why the technical obsession to please the irritating nitpickers and goof-callers has led to a more sterile action experience. Hawks and contemporaries built action scenes with staging, pacing, editing and characters, rather than elaborate choreography and excessive CGI. If one knows much about actual shooting or action, certainly these scenes end up looking awfully fictional, but it’s not as if the obsession with accuracy that followed them has changed that completely.
Much like, to pick a very dissimilar comparative subject, The Philadelphia Story, I instantly loved this film. It keeps up a snappy pace and never falters, plays things straight but leaves a few threads unwound (a criticism in some circles, but usually measured as meaningless next to the Bogie/Bacall magic), and manages performances that use skill, authenticity and personality to overcome any concerns about believability and render them the work of nothing but contrarians.
*Yes, I am fully aware that “The Man” did this far, far after Hammett.