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What's the big deal?
The Big Sleep is a film noir mystery film released in 1946 and was the first film adaptation of the 1939 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks, the film follows LA-based private investigator Philip Marlowe who finds himself in an ever-deepening mystery surrounded by murder, mobsters and blackmail. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers and Dorothy Malone. The film was heavily edited after a pre-release version was released in 1945 to include more scenes involving Bogart and Bacall who, at the time, were a hot topic among the tabloids for their off-screen relationship. The film received a mixed response from critics at the time who pointed out the film's labyrinthine plot which made following the film almost impossible. In the years since, however, the film has come to be regarded as something of a masterpiece with Bogart's portrayal of Marlowe setting the standard for such roles in the years since. In 1997, the film was inducted into the US National Film Registry and in 2012, it was ranked among the greatest films of all time by Sight & Sound magazine.
What's it about?
Philip Marlowe, an independent private investigator working in Los Angeles, is summoned by the elderly and infirm General Sternwood. Meeting with the general at his mansion, Marlowe is hired to help Sternwood's daughter Carmen resolve some gambling debts she has ran up with local bookseller Arthur Geiger. As Marlowe leaves, he bumps into Sternwood's older daughter Vivian who suggests that her father may have another motive in hiring him - Sternwood's protégé Sean Regan had disappeared a month earlier and Vivian suspects that it may have something to do with Carmen.
Heading to Geiger's shop and coming up empty, Marlowe heads for Geiger's home where he suddenly hears a gunshot and a woman's scream. Breaking in, he finds Geiger's dead body and an apparently drugged Carmen who is hysterical. He also finds a hidden camera in the room although the reel of footage is missing. Once Marlowe helps Carmen home safely, he returns to Geiger's place and discovers that the body is missing as well. Before long, Marlowe finds himself trapped in an ever-widening conspiracy and with the evidence starting to point towards him...
What's to like?
While not the first film noir or even the first Chandler adaptation (1942's Time To Kill has that honour), The Big Sleep is arguably the most well known example and there are several reasons why. Bogart is exceptional as Marlowe, his trademarked hound-dog appearance perfectly befitting that of such a world-weary and cynical character. Bogart had plenty of experience in noir (starring in the equally enjoyable and esteemed The Maltese Falcon) and he brings every inch of his talent to the role. On the other side of the screen is Bacall, smouldering away like her life depended on it and generating so much chemistry with Bogart that safety glasses should be worn. The two of them are just unmissable, lighting the screen up whenever they appear and holding your attention with ease.
Having actually read Chandler's book as well as watched this film, I can attest that both are just as confusing as each other. But frankly, a lot of noir films are tangled webs audiences struggle to unravel - it's one of their hallmarks. But what The Big Sleep does is encourage thickos like me to speculate. There are plenty of clues and red herrings to pick up on for sharpened armchair detectives and the film rattles along at a decent pace. It's not a bad film to watch thanks to some authentic costumes and settings and the supporting cast provide a motley crew of suspects and witnesses. Due to the age of the film, it feels like the real deal instead of later efforts to replicate the magic like Chinatown. And perhaps that's the secret - you buy into the film's illusion so heavily that you almost forget you're watching a drama.
- The film was heavily adjusted from the novel which included several themes that were prohibited under the Hays Code of censorship in the US at the time. There was no mention of a homosexual relationship between two characters, the illegal pornography was vaguely alluded to but never openly said and characters who were supposed to be nude in certain scenes had to be fully clothed.
- When Hawks re-cut the film for the 1946 release, he removed the scene where Marlowe explains the crimes and how it all happened. This resulted in the film's climax being confusing and difficult to follow. But the film's success backed up Hawks' belief that a film's plot didn't matter if the audience were enjoying themselves.
- Bogart and Bacall were in the middle of a torrid affair at the time of filming, which was causing Bogart's marriage to fall apart and making the actor turn to alcohol. On the first day of filming, Bogart had consumed several drinks for lunch which angered Hawks as filming was suspended for the day. After this, Hawks limited Bogart to just one beer a day. Three months after the film wrapped, Bogart and Bacall were married.
- While working on the script, Faulkner and Brackett couldn't work out who killed a particular character in the novel. Contacting Chandler himself over the phone, they were told that the answer was in the book and the author wanted nothing more to do with them. Later, they received another communication from Chandler who told them that he had re-read the book and he couldn't work it out either so he let the screenwriters themselves decide. In the 1946 version, it still isn't resolved.
What's not to like?
Because the film was re-cut to maximise the screen time and chemistry between Bogie and Bacall, this does have some knock-on effect elsewhere. A number of characters such as Carmen and the mob boss Eddie Mars are underwritten compared to the two leads and there simply isn't enough exposition in the film to satisfy viewers hoping for a solid conclusion. This leaves the film feeling a little unsatisfying as a whole - it's like a gymnast perfecting their flips and spins through the air before wobbling heavily on the landing. Is it enough to ruin the film as a whole? No but you still definitely notice it.
On a personal note, the film lacks some of the action included in the book although Marlowe was never quite as trigger-happy as that other legendary private eye, Sam Spade. But it's certainly more of a thinker's film than that and besides, the film was unlikely to include a number of shoot-outs and elements prohibited by the censors at the time. In fact, you could argue that those early film noirs (such as 1932's Scarface and 1931's The Public Enemy) were responsible for the establishment of the Hays Code as they frequently pushed the boundaries when it came to sex, violence and intoxicating substances. By today's standards, The Big Sleep looks laughably tame which might explain why an inferior remake arrived in 1978 with a far-too-old Robert Mitchum in the Marlowe role.
Should I watch it?
The Big Sleep is one of the best, and most confusing, examples of a classic film-noir one could wish for. Bogart and Bacall are on top form as the private eye and the femme fatale drawing him in to her web. It might be a bit more melodramatic than the novel, which has a cold and matter-of-fact feel to it. But on this occasion, Hawks is right - the overly convoluted plot doesn't manage to detract that much from the finished project which is sleek, seductive and seedy in equal measure.
Great For: film noir studies, anyone who has read the book, lovers of Hollywood's 'golden' era
Not So Great For: proving the effectiveness of censorship, amateur sleuths, anyone who doesn't watch black-and-white films
What else should I watch?
Of all the Chandler adaptations to have hit the big screen, this version of The Big Sleep is the best and by some way. The 1978 version of The Big Sleep saw Mitchum take over the role of Marlowe but it also took several liberties with the novel including relocating the novel to 1970s London instead of 1940's California. And despite director Michael Winner insisting that he didn't change the novel as much as Hawks did, the film didn't catch the imagination the way this one did. Other examples of Chandler adaptations include Mitchum's first portrayal of Marlowe in 1975's Farewell, My Lovely which kept the original setting intact and Elliot Gould having a go at Marlowe in The Long Goodbye which overcame initial negativity and production issues to become highly regarded in its own right. Fans of the character might be interested to know that another film is in the pipeline with Liam Neeson due to play the role of Marlowe and fortune willing, it will be released before the end of 2022.
The biggest problem with film noir is that it's such a difficult genre to define, allowing examples from across the spectrum to somehow be included in it. Blade Runner is as far from the world of Philip Marlowe as you can imagine, with its neon-lit future and rogue replicants running wild. But thanks to Harrison Ford's performance as Deckard and Ridley Scott's direction, few would argue that it isn't one of the best neo-noir films ever made. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a riotous family comedy combining many elements of noir with manic animation, an amazing premise and Bob Hoskins in the form of his life. The John Wick series introduces some heavily choreographed action sequences into the mix as Keanu Reeves' seemingly unstoppable hitman unleashes vengeance on anyone in his sights. Lastly, Martin Scorsese's overlooked psychological thriller Shutter Island is based on Dennis Lahane's novel which deliberately harked back to the pulp cinema and B-movie classics from the golden era of noir and is well worth a look.
Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
Acme Bookstore owner
Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls
William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman*
Release Date (UK)
3rd October, 1946
PG (1988 re-rating)
Crime, Film Noir, Mystery
© 2022 Benjamin Cox