“How do you like your brandy, sir?”
“In a glass.”
One of the titles most closely identified with 20th century crime fiction, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is a vast labyrinth of a film both on and off screen, thanks its winding, intricate series of plot threads, memorable characters, snappy dialogue and, not least of all, the real-life romance of the leading stars. Much like the book, it stands up as one of the true high points of all hardboiled, noir, and detective fiction.
Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 debut novel, the first to feature private detective Philip Marlowe, it wasn’t the first adaption of Chandler’s works to be made for the screen (instead ranking in as the fourth), and it certainly wasn’t the last, but it’s undeniably earned its place as the most memorable, and for good reason. Despite sometimes worthy challenges from the likes of Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart has become the big screen’s definitive Philip Marlowe – it was a casting pretty much destined for success, given Bogart’s previous success as hardboiled detective Sam Spade in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, and Raymond Chandler’s own ringing endorsement (quite an accomplishment, given that there weren’t very many people who Chandler actually seemed to be keen on – his critiques of Alfred Hitchcock and Veronica Lake, to name but a few, are cruel yet brilliant).
Putting any preconceptions aside though, Bogart really does make the role his own; the dry witticisms and wisecracks which Marlowe specialises in perfectly suit Bogart’s own defined style and mannerisms. Imagine James Bond in a film noir setting and you’ll have a pretty good idea about Bogart’s take on Marlowe. Escaping an interrogation, shooting the bad guys, courting the women on the job…all the boxes are ticked. All done in a classic hardboiled fashion. Comparisons with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon certainly justified – It’s quite interesting to watch the two films back to back, where Marlowe appears almost like a slightly older, more cynical Sam Spade, as if the events of the previous story wore his world views down even more.
Lauren Bacall takes the role of leading lady Vivian Rutledge (originally Vivian Regan in the book). Not quite a femme fatale but certainly no angel either, she’s a complex character, whose intentions and motivations are never quite apparent, in spite of Marlowe’s efforts. Bacall and Bogart’s chemistry on-screen was famously bolstered by their off-screen romance, which began at the time of filming 1944’s To Have and Have Not. Initially beginning as a hidden affair, by the time of The Big Sleep’s release in 1946, the pair were married, going on to make two more films together in as many years – Dark Passage and Key Largo in 1947 and 1948 respectively. Initially, The Big Sleep was shot in 1945, shortly after the conclusion of To Have and Have Not, but that film’s success led to a number of revisions and re-shoots to The Big Sleep, with Bacall’s role expanded to attempt to replicate the success of the former film, albeit at the expense of a couple of scenes from the original ’45 version which serve to tidy up the plot points mid-way into the film. For those interested, the Blu-ray version of the movie contains both versions – both equally worth watching – but it is the re-shot 1946 version which is the most recognised, where the result is that Vivian is expanded into a notably larger role than she played of the original book, seemingly for no reason other than to have Bacall share extra screen time with her co-star. Fortunately the quality of her performance is such that her character never come across as being over-used, and it’s great fun to watch her square off against Bogart:
The Big Sleep is sometimes referred to as being a bit of a ‘screwball noir’, owing to its use of dark humour and the sexually-charged patter between Bogart and Bacall. It’s true to say that the film has its lighter moments and the film makers certainly used the off-screen romance of its leading stars to its benefit, but the fact remains that it deals with a complex story and a dark subject matter, with the lighter moments of the film serving to create an effective light-and-dark balance, and the film is very much a definitive ‘noir’ movie, despite lacking some of the features which other movies of the time featured – for instance, there is a distinct lack of any flashbacks or voice-over narration.
The story of the film revolves around Marlowe’s investigations into a seemingly straightforward blackmail operation against one of the daughters of the ageing, crippled General Sternwood, the patriarch of a family who have grown rich and powerful from their oil fields. Spoiled with money as well as a naturally ‘corrupt blood’, the two daughters, Vivian and Carmen, cause enough trouble to keep a private detective like Marlowe in business for a good while. Marlowe’s investigations take him into the world of back-room pornographers and cheap blackmailers, resulting in a rapid succession of murder and complex plot developments. The story oozes with sleaze and hidden sexuality, overtly apparent in the book but restrained on screen owing to production codes, resulting in subtle intricacies and hints which are reminiscent of those which made Double Indemnity such a success.
Much is made about the intricate, and some would say convoluted nature of the plot (to the extent that even Chandler himself was rumoured to have forgotten, when asked, the identity of the man who killed Owen Taylor). Personally, I find the plot to be fairly understandable – though a large number of viewings – and readings – has probably helped with this. But for all the comments made about the plot, truth be told it stands up as being a fair adaption of a fairly complex novel, already handicapped owing to the production code in place at the time, resulting in certain key parts of the book being either altered or removed altogether – the most notable omission being the novel’s final scene with Carmen attempting to shoot Marlowe, and the subsequent revelation that it was in fact her who wilfully killed Rusty Regan once he rejected her advances.
Plot aside, the film is bursting with memorable dialogue, some lifted straight from Chandler’s novel, which gives the film its distinct pulp-fiction feel. It also comes loaded with haunting locations and settings. The Sternwood mansion captures an air of mystery and loneliness, with the General hidden away in a greenhouse filled with plants which remind him of the ‘flesh of men.’ Elsewhere, henchman Canino hides away in an eerie back-street garage, and Geiger runs a pornography racket from a lonely house hidden away in the hills. Almost every major location in the film, even Eddie Mars’ gambling club, seems isolated and tucked away from the rest of the world – away from all hope and human contact, which fits the approach of the film as being as convoluted and mysterious as it can.
Ultimately though, it is the quality of the cast which helps to make the film, and the quality doesn’t stop at Bogart and Bacall. Each of the key roles are portrayed by a range of unusual and interesting actors, even if many of them are only featured in limited scenes. As is often noted, whilst Lauren Bacall is a fine counterpart to Bogart, Martha Vickers, in her role as Carmen Sternwood, almost steals the show whenever she appears on screen, to the extent that studio execs omitted a number of scenes from the final cut so to prevent her from overshadowing Bacall. It’s a shame really, as she perfectly captures the eerie, bipolar nature of the character, flipping between being coy and kittenish one moment to downright aggressive in others. Sadly, Vickers never gained quit the success as her on-screen counterpart, and her career stalled by the end of the decade.
Elisha Cook, known for playing the infamously betrayed ‘fall guy’ in The Maltese Falcon, returns as the doomed Harry Jones, a cheap grafter who ends up playing a key part in the film’s second half, and who is ultimately killed by Mars’ henchman Canino, who is played with a menacing brilliance by Bob Steele, who calmly captures the cruel, sadistic nature of the character. Joe Brody, the cheap blackmailer trying to hustle in on Arthur Geiger’s pornography racket, is played by Louis Jean Heydt, in a short but memorable performance.
Charles Waldron plays the ageing General Sternwood. Despite only appearing in one scene at the opening of the movie, where he gives Marlowe the background to the assignment, the quality of his performance and the number of memorable lines he delivers would be enough to last another actor the length of an entire film. Despite his limited direct involvement, the character’s looming presence is felt throughout the whole story, usually in the dialogue of other character, leaving the character feeling like a spectre overseeing the world before him.
Eddie Mars is played by John Ridgely, who has his role further expanded from that of the novel, turning him into the principal antagonist, and resulting in a dramatic stake-out sequence which ends almost as soon as it begins. Whilst the ending is different from that of the book, it does at least give a sense of closure to the Eddie Mars storyline, which is pretty much left as a loose thread in the novel, with Marlowe promising to simply ‘take care’ of Mars as he leaves the Sternwood residence for the last time.
It is a film which really is made great thanks to the sum of its parts. As an adaption of a pulp novel, it raises the medium to a rare artistic art form, and despite a number of Marlowe adaptions being made following its release, include a bizarre remake 1978 with noir-stalwart Robert Mitchum playing the title role (probably the only actor who could have truly matched Bogart for the role of Marlowe had he of played him in his youth), none of these managed to step out of The Big Sleep’s shadow. Even after seventy years, the film has lost little of its original charm. Aided by the undeniable Bogart-Bacall chemistry, it stands up as a masterful detective story, both brilliant and bewildering in equal measure, and a true pinnacle of 1940’s cinema.