August 7, 2008

REVIEW: The Big Sleep

“This began as a simple case of blackmail. Then all of a sudden things started to happen for no reason. No reason at all.” - Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

You can say that again, Bogie, because one of the most enjoyable characteristics of film noir is that the story is so often secondary to the style. Let's be honest: there's little difference between the plots and archetypal characters in many of these films. We watch them mostly to appreciate such elements as the tone, cinematography, acting, lighting, and score (just to name a few), and we generally don't end up discussing how well they were adapted from the original source material or which pieces of the story are accessible and relatable to our lives. It's not that we don't want to discuss these aspects, it's just that there's much more to appreciate than the plot details.

Few films demonstrate this fashion-before-function concept better than Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. Adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name, The Big Sleep is held up by many critics (and, since 1997, the National Film Registry) as a prime example of early film noir, and it remains one of the signature films featuring the private detective Phillip Marlowe. Perhaps most famously, however, The Big Sleep is notable because the romance on the set was all too real.

Filming began in 1944, shortly after production wrapped on Hawks' To Have and to Have Not. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the leading duo in both films, were passionately in love with each other despite an age difference of almost three decades. Problem was, Bogie was a married man throughout the production of both films. In 1945, however, when his tumultuous marriage with American actress Mayo Methot reached its breaking point, he left her for Bacall and began one of the most well-known celebrity marriages in Hollywood history. In the meantime, The Big Sleep was still on the shelf since studio executives at Warner Brothers were waiting to release it after emptying their slate of World War II movies.

A fortuitous decision, as it gave Hawks the opportunity to actually reshoot scenes in The Big Sleep and capitalize on the newfound freedom shared by its leading lovers. Imagine Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reshooting Mr. & Mrs. Smith for release this year. You think people would show up? Right. Remember that Hollywood studios occasionally have interested in box-office returns, so putting two married stars in the same movie was quite the savvy investment, and one that ended up paying dividends despite one unforeseen complication: none other than Howard Hawks himself had also fallen – hard – for Lauren Bacall. In Jeffrey Meyers' Bogart: A Life in Hollywood (1997), Hawks is reported as jealously declaring, “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.” Ouch.

But this isn't supposed to be gossip column, it's supposed to be a review of a classic Hollywood film. So let's get to the story.

Actually on second thought, forget that.

There are two reasons to gloss over the plot of The Big Sleep: 1.) attention should instead be paid to the scintillating banter between Bogart and Bacall, and 2.) attempting to summarize and/or analyze the plot is way above my pay grade. Since Raymond Chandler himself admitted to not knowing who the killers were, I hope the same isn't expected from me.

Nevertheless, the story at least deserves a set-up: Philip Marlowe (Bogart) reports to the stately Sternwood residence; he's been beckoned by General Sternwood to make a mysterious blackmailer “go away.” As he makes his way through the opulent mansion, Marlowe meets Sternwood's younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), a flirtatious rebel whose misbehavior is in fact the presumed reason behind this blackmailing. “She tried to sit on my lap when I was standing up,” quips Marlowe when he arrives in the courtyard to meet General Sternwood. The two men briefly chat before Marlowe, task in hand, heads out on the assignment. Before he leaves, however, the butler informs him that Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian (Bacall), has requested his company in the other room.

And this is where things get steamy. Not sexually, mind you - this was 1946, after all. People didn't have sex. They had winking conversations that blatantly hinted at sex. What starts in the parlor on that first encounter eventually leads to this scene later in the movie:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
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.

Yow, good thing this was one of the scenes filmed after they were married.

While the Bogie-Bacall love connection is no doubt the most legendary aspect of The Big Sleep (along with the impossibly convoluted plot), we can't ignore its other components, many of which would be considered the gold standard for noir for years to come. Let's just focus on a couple while I still have your attention from that racehorse scene.

Howard Hawks filmed The Big Sleep entirely on sets in a soundstage. This is fairly obvious while you're watching (the lack of natural light prevents you from ever knowing what time of day it is), yet it's impossible to not be absorbed by the gritty little world he's created. Like most noir, the interplay between shadows and light is not only used to enhance the intrigue and keep the truth ambiguously cloaked in darkness, but to represent good and evil, danger and safety, truth and falsehood. This evocative lighting, combined with brilliant cinematography and a lively score, results in a film that's interesting to watch even when you have no idea what's going on.

When we're not taking in the scenery, we're getting to know Philip Marlowe, a character that I would love to see reborn in some fashion today (I haven't seen the 1978 version of The Big Sleep). Bogart is in almost every scene of The Big Sleep, and he doesn't waste a moment on camera breathing life into Marlowe, whether it be his constant habit of pulling on his right ear whenever he's thinking, his goofy disguise as a rare book collector, or his favored stakeout method of slouching in a car seat. Of course, Marlowe also gets to deliver the best lines:

(Marlowe arrives at his office to find Vivian waiting outside for him)
Vivian: So you do get up? I was beginning to think you worked in bed like Marcel Proust.
Marlowe: Who's he?
Vivian: You wouldn't know him, a French writer.
(Marlowe pauses a moment before opening the door to his office)
Marlowe: Come into my boudoir.

And later, a classic...

Vivian: I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.

As you can see, it's hard to not keep coming back to the real heart of The Big Sleep: the characters and the dry humor of the brilliant screenplay, which was adapted by Hawks' favored regulars William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Don't misread The Big Sleep as an outright comedy, though - there are numerous killings and an inexplicably high level of suspense throughout much of the film. However, I do have to admit the action leaves a little to be desired, if only because Hawks blocks his characters so awkwardly. The scene in Joe Brody's apartment is especially cumbersome, notably Brody's robotic pacing and the clumsy gunplay between everybody. Later on, the climactic shootout with the hired killer Canino is almost laughable.

To say I've only skimmed the surface of The Big Sleep would be a huge understatement. Students of noir and those who have seen it ten times or more might have the last word on its merits and its influence on later films. For the rest of us, it's an entertaining romp and an excellent introduction to film noir, if only because, as I mentioned before, we're free to let go of the story and just enjoy the style.

I'd say the same about this review, as it's surely as scattered as the plot of The Big Sleep itself. If you're interested to study the film further (and I suggest that you do) both the pre-release/pre-marriage version and the regular version of The Big Sleep are available on DVD. The first is considered to be closer to Hawks' original noir vision, while the second is more of a showcase for Bogart and Bacall. Combined, then, I suppose The Big Sleep was a one-of-a-kind hybrid: a groundbreaking work of art disguised as a star-studded blockbuster.

[This review was written as part of Film Noir Month at MovieZeal. Be sure to check out the excellent daily reviews and commentaries by numerous bloggers and readers who are extremely well-versed in noir. Also, now that you know the context of the characters, you might enjoy revisiting this classic scene from The Big Sleep that I featured as a Short Cut last week.]


  1. Dan, fabulous work here!! Yes, I do love this film myself, and am I always eager to read a new spin. I think you nailed it, and I like the quote interchanges you chose here; I will have even more to say about the piece when it appears over at Movie Zeal!

  2. BRAVO, Danny.

    You've done a lot of awesome film blogging here at GETAFILM. But this is one excellent truly superior piece of writing.

    Yeah, from what I understand Howard Hawks had quite the eye for the ladies. He didn't let his marriage slow him down either. I don't think he ever forgave LAUREN (BETTY to her friends) for picking Bogie over him.

    I did hear that HH was rather blunt and not exactly a smooth talker. Maybe that got in the way...

    As many people have pointed out (and you just did - masterfully) there are many fine things about TBS. But it's rather short on plot. At the very least.

    Someone told me before I ever saw it, "Just enjoy it for what it is. Don't try to make sense of it. There's none to be found."

    Absolutely true. If you try to figure it out later you'll never be able to in any successful way that's satisfying. So best just to take it for what it is. That's more than enough.

    As you mentioned, that dialogue is something else. Sparkles with wit...and it's actually pretty damned dirty when you think about it.

    You're quite amusing yourself, my dear. Get a load of this howler: "...attempting to summarize and/or analyze the plot is way above my pay grade."

    You kidder, you.


    This was cooler than cool. Most impressive. You have outdone yourself, sugar.

    This gets the Miranda Wilding seal of approval. Plus the big gold star from moi.

    You keep going like this, you'll have a Pulitzer before you know it.

    *applauds, stamps feet and whistles*

  3. That was a great read, Daniel.

    According to Lauren Baccall's book, Hawks was, um, anti-Semitic, and made comments about Jews that were, let us say, not very kind. Baccall's Jewish, and as she wrote in the book, she decided not to tell Howard Hawks. Anyway, that has always made me wonder how a relationship between the two of them would have, uh, progressed.

    Far be it from me to discuss the failings of a great filmmaker, but it was in her book, after all.

    Again, though: great review!

  4. Thanks, all, for your generosity. I know all three of you would have written a more academic piece on this, but I can't pretend to be an expert on noir so looked at it more casually. Hopefully an appreciation of it is still shared.

    I saw it for the first (and maybe second time) years ago, Miranda, but like I said last week, I didn't remember or didn't pay attention the insanity of the plot. It was a relief to find out this time around that I wasn't a complete idiot for not putting the puzzle pieces together.

    I didn't know that bit about Hawks, either, Alexander - it is very interesting, especially since they were working so closely together during those peak war years.

    All in all I'm still reluctant to claim this is a "review" in the traditional sense so much as it is a summary of observations. I didn't really look at the context of TBS within this period of noir or the larger themes and influences it had in the future. Oh well, everybody should know by now that I'm not a film scholar. For all I know, The Big Sleep is studied on the first day of Film Studies 101. Hopefully this is a decent primer for those of us who haven't taken it, and I'm glad to know it was at least readable!

  5. Thats a very nice review. I haven't yet watched the movie. But I've read the novel by Chandler and I absolutely loved it. Phillip Marlowe is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating literary characters ever. Only Bogart could have brought Marlowe to screen with all his sardonic deadpan humour, wry cynicism and the great dichotomy of detached on the outside and sentimental within - a kind of character that Bogart loved playing (In A Lonely Place, Casablanca, Maltese Falcon et al). Hoping to watch the movie soon.

  6. Thanks a lot for visiting, shubhajit, and for your brilliant insight into the character of Marlowe. I'm quite surprised that you've managed to read the book and not see the movie; usually it's the other way around. At least it is for me.

    If you're interested in Bogart and his other noir characters, head on over to MovieZeal and check out the other reviews this month. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I haven't read your (or anyone else's) review yet because I'm trying to avoid performance anxiety), but I'll be back. I love this movie.

    Plot shmot!! It's all about the style and chemistry and characters and dialogue.

    That's all I have to say about that for now!

  8. Haha, then you may want to avoid Alexander's work on Out of the Past, posted today. It could probably be published.

    As amazing as many of these reviews are, I don't think the expectations are as high as we might think. I for one know I can't do what Alexander did, so I'm not going to kill myself trying to. Each of us has a different writing style and a different audience, a fact that I don't think escaped Evan and Luke when they were planning this at MovieZeal. It doesn't mean it's not worth putting our best foot forward, but my sheer lack of knowledge of film history is a pretty big liability when it comes to writing academic analyses of classic noir.


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