Director: Howard Hawks
Published in 1939, Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep features as its protagonist and narrator one of the great characters of detective fiction, private investigator Philip Marlowe. Although The Big Sleep was the first novel Chandler wrote, the 1946 movie directed by Howard Hawks wasn't the first film version of a Philip Marlowe novel. Two of the books were loosely adapted as installments in the Falcon and Michael Shayne series of B-movies—Farewell, My Lovely as The Falcon Takes Over (1942) and The High Window as Time to Kill (1942). Nor was Bogart the first person to play Philip Marlowe. In 1944 Farewell, My Lovely was filmed by RKO under the title Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Marlowe. (It was Powell's first dramatic film, and the studio was afraid the original title might lead audiences to expect a musical romance.) Several other actors would go on to play Chandler's archetypal hard-boiled private eye, but as good as some of those were—in particular Powell, and many years later Robert Mitchum—for me Humphrey Bogart will always be the definitive Philip Marlowe, just as The Big Sleep will always be for me the definitive Philip Marlowe movie.
The first half hour or so of The Big Sleep follows Chandler's novel closely, with much of the dialogue, settings, action, and even the behavioral quirks of the characters taken directly from the book. Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is summoned to the mansion of an ailing elderly millionaire, General Sternwood. The general is the father of two spoiled tearaway daughters in their twenties, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers). The younger daughter Carmen is actually quite a bit more than that—a thumb-sucking, drug-addicted nymphomaniac—and the general wants Marlowe to deal with an attempt to blackmail him over Carmen's scandalous behavior. At the same time, he speaks wistfully to Marlowe about a young confidant of his, a former Prohibition rum-runner named Sean Regan, who has been missing for a month. The general's older daughter Vivian also seems for some reason interested in the disappearance of Regan, and even though Marlowe hasn't been hired to find Regan, his curiosity and suspicion are aroused to the point that he begins to investigate this on his own.
From this point on, the movie follows the novel much less closely. The screenplay retains many elements of the novel's plot but reorganizes them, often using these as a starting point but altering them freely and using them in its own way. One reason for these alterations is that the novel deals with subjects which under the Production Code could never have been used in a movie—among other things homosexuality, drugs, pornography, and police corruption (which Chandler presents as pervasive). Some of these things are hinted at in the film but could be difficult to spot unless you've read the novel, and there's no doubt that the necessary coyness about these subjects compromises the plot's coherence. The screenwriters—there were three credited writers, William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett—do, however, manage to preserve the flippant, hard-edged spirit of Chandler's novel.
The version of The Big Sleep we are familiar with, released in August 1946, is not the only version of the film. Most of the film was shot between late 1944 and early 1945. But Warners held off releasing it so that Lauren Bacall's next film, Confidential Agent, could be rushed into release before the end of World War II made the wartime theme of Confidential Agent unappealing to war-weary moviegoers. This delay gave the studio and Hawks time to reconsider The Big Sleep in light of the huge popularity of Bogart and Bacall the year before in Hawks's To Have and Have Not. The screenwriters had already added to Chandler's plot a romance between the characters played by Bogart and Bacall (in the book there is no romance between them and in fact Bacall's character is married to the missing Sean Regan) and also had written Bacall into the film's climactic sequence. The upshot of the film's delayed release was the decision to beef up even further Bacall's part and the romantic encounters in the film between her and Bogart. To accomplish this, the screenwriter and script doctor Philip G. Epstein was brought in to revise scenes and write additional scenes, uncredited, which were filmed a year after the original shoot.
The first or pre-release version of The Big Sleep was shown in 1945 to U.S. soldiers overseas, but that version was largely forgotten until it was restored in 35mm by the UCLA Film & Television Archives in 1996. Both versions are included on the DVD of the film released by Warner Home Video in 2006, and they make a fascinating comparison. Although it trims and tweaks individual scenes here and there, the release version pretty much follows the narrative organization of the pre-release version. There are two major differences, though, and in both cases they are clear improvements.
An entire five-minute long sequence in the middle of the film that takes place in the District Attorney's office was eliminated. In this scene Marlowe does explain to the D.A. what has happened so far, but he doesn't include any information an observant viewer wouldn't already be aware of. Contrary to some accounts I've read, he doesn't explain the one murder that nobody involved in the film could figure out who was responsible for. (This is the murder of the Sternwoods' chauffeur, which to be fair, was never accounted for in the novel. This probably explains why Chandler, when consulted by Hawks about this point, is famously said to have replied that he didn't know who the killer was either.) The release version substitutes for the scene in the D.A.'s office an entirely new scene between Bogart and Bacall in a restaurant. The new sequence not only gives them more screen time together (as well as softening Bacall's character a bit and making her seem less aloof), but also ramps up the sexual attraction between them. This in turn makes the romantic resolution at the end seem less contrived and hasty than in the pre-release version.
|The restaurant scene in the release version|
|The pre-release version of the office scene|
|The release version of the office scene|
When the auteurist film critics of the 1950s and 1960s first began discussing the idea that certain directors leave their personal mark on their work so distinctly that they can be considered the "author" of their films, one of the directors most often cited as an example was Howard Hawks. The Big Sleep makes it easy to see why, for it's a wonderful showcase for Hawks's strengths as a director. Above all, this means his prowess at telling a story visually without becoming intrusive. Hawks was a master of narrative momentum, and everything he does in The Big Sleep—staging, framing, camera placement and movement, editing, the image that moves the story forward, the conversation that defines character and relationship—is calculated to sustain that momentum.
Dialogue this good really shows how impressive is Hawks's way of staging conversations. He rarely relies on the tedious back-and-forth of over-the-shoulder shots during long passages of conversation, but instead consistently finds imaginative and kinetic ways of visualizing these. Hawks also has a way of using the pace and rhythm of his actors' line readings to bring out the nuances of the dialogue. He has a wonderful sense of the simultaneous seriousness and absurdity of many of the situations in the film as well, a trait that makes him seem quite modern in comparison to most studio directors of the time. Hawks's use of setting to create ambience also comes through strongly in the film. The sweltering orchid house at the Sternwood mansion; Bacall's huge, overdecorated white-on-white bedroom; the blackmailer's Oriental-fantasy cottage in the Hollywood Hills; the slick, country club-like gambling den where Bacall plays roulette—all these places are conceived and used for the maximum atmospheric effect.
Yet for all its other strengths, it's doubtful that The Big Sleep would be remembered as well as it is today without the star power of Bogart and Bacall. After the impact they made on the moviegoing public in To Have and Have Not, Warners certainly realized the audience appeal of the pair, who by the time of the reshoots in early 1946 were fully involved in a well-publicized personal relationship. "THEY'RE TOGETHER AGAIN! THAT MAN—BOGART! AND THAT WOMAN BACALL!" proclaimed the trailer for The Big Sleep. Over the years there have been many legendary screen teams, but Bogart and Bacall, who made only four films together, had more going for them than the onscreen chemistry that makes an enduring star team: No other legendary screen pair ever had this amount of unmistakably erotic electricity.
The Big Sleep is an example of the best thing that could happen in studio films of the Golden Age—that harmonious confluence of elements that results in a great movie: Hawks's cynicism and Chandler's. The stylized, double entendre-laced dialogue of Chandler, Faulkner et al. and Hawks's ability to wring the most from dialogue. Hawks's knack for assembling a cast that makes even the most minor character memorable. Above all, the blazing, larger-than-life charisma of Bogart and Bacall. As for the convoluted plot, it's probably best not to dwell on it. After all, not many film noirs can withstand scrutiny for loose threads in the narrative, consistency of character behavior, or believability of character motivation. Their appeal lies elsewhere—in their dark view of the world, their compellingly flawed antiheroes and femmes fatales, and their Expressionist-influenced visual style. Pauline Kael probably summed up The Big Sleep as well as anyone when she wrote that "it's the dialogue and the entertaining qualities of the individual sequences that make this movie." So sit back, forget plot logic, and savor one of the most purely enjoyable films of the 1940s.
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, which runs Feb. 17-22. Click here for more information about the blogathon and a full schedule.