by Matt Levine
A notoriously convoluted murder mystery, a case study in the process of criminal investigation, a Petri-dish examination of larger-than-life figures working together, a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics--The Big Sleep is many things, and hardly any critics can agree on what exactly that is. This critical disparity is even evident in the contradicting reactions from when it was first released in August 1946—the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther said it leaves the audience “confused and dissatisfied”—to almost seventy years later, when it’s been enshrined as a masterpiece of Hollywood film noir. Not unlike Howard Hawks’ other delirious amalgam seven years later, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—yet in totally different ways--The Big Sleep is a knotty nugget of paradox and elusiveness, revealing what happens when an unassuming auteur smuggles his shape-shifting identity into polished Hollywood product.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Howard Hawks
Writers: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Raymond Chandler (novel)
Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox
Editor: Christian Nyby
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Van Heydt, Trevor Bardette, Joy Barlow, Sonia Darrin
Genre: Crime/Film Noir/Mystery
US Theatrical Release: August 23, 1946
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Perhaps more than anything, The Big Sleep is a near-abstract deconstruction of genre tropes, released the same year in which the term film noir was coined by French critics. The film begins with a pair of silhouettes: a man lights a woman’s cigarette, leading to a close-up of the cigs smoldering in an ashtray while the titles scroll across the screen. We cut to the personification of Hollywood film noir, Humphrey Bogart, strolling up to an L.A. mansion, fedora brim bent, either grimacing or smirking. Bogey’s private dick, Philip Marlowe, has been enlisted by an elderly aristocrat, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), to investigate the gambling debts supposedly owed to shady businessman A.G. Geiger by Sternwood’s wildchild daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers).
Howard Hawks would later claim that a good movie is nothing more than “three great scenes and no bad ones,” an aphorism more clearly proven by The Big Sleep than any of his other films: the movie is essentially a parade of riveting, perfectly-crafted scenes (though the whole might be lesser than the sum of its parts). Case in point: before even meeting with General Sternwood, Marlowe encounters the nymphomaniac Carmen, who instantly bats her eyelashes, sucks her thumb and, as Marlowe later states, tries to sit in his lap while he’s standing up. To the Sternwoods’ presumably overwhelmed butler, Marlowe quips, “You ought to wean her, she’s old enough.” As such, The Big Sleep is also from its start an indulgence in sexual chemistry—physical lust is conveyed onscreen almost as luridly as in, say, Beau travail (1999).
Another incredible scene follows when Marlowe meets “the General,” whose legs are crippled and who spends his time in a wheelchair in the mansion’s greenhouse, coercing his guests to drink brandy so he can vicariously experience the pleasure. The blackmail scheme that Sternwood lays out isn’t exactly simple to begin with, but it’s about to get a hell of a lot more complicated: before Marlowe can even interrogate Geiger, the man is killed, though his corpse disappears less than an hour later. Carmen is one of the main suspects, as she’s present at the crime scene, hair tousled, “high as a kite”; so is Joe Brody, a small-time crook who’s been paid $5,000 by the General to leave the lascivious Carmen alone. Soon, the Sternwoods’ chauffeur will turn up dead; legend has it that no one working on the film—not Hawks, not screenwriters William Faulkner or Leigh Brackett or Jules Furthman, not even the writer of the original novel, Raymond Chandler—knew who killed him. Then there’s Agnes Louzier (Sonia Darrin), Geiger’s former moll, who tries to blackmail the Sternwoods with incriminating photos of Carmen; and Sean Regan, a “friend” whom the General once employed to drink whisky with, though he’s since gone missing.
Confused yet? Honestly it’s somewhat pointless to provide a plot synopsis. This is the first time (after seeing the film at least five times) that I tried to pause the movie after each plot point and scribble it down, striving to keep its convoluted storyline somewhat legible, and while I think I now have it figured out, some of the mysteries are solved by a split-second line of dialogue or covert suggestion that can be missed if your attention wanders even for a moment.
It’s tempting to claim that this labyrinthine plotting is a willful effort to obliterate the meaning of plot entirely—to overcomplicate things so much that other aspects like dialogue and cinematography and atmosphere predominate—but this is giving the filmmakers too much credit. (This shouldn’t be considered an insult; credit is well-deserved in many other regards.) Part of the reason for the confusing narrative can be attributed to the Hays’ Production Code: while Chandler’s original novel more explicitly made Carmen a maladjusted nymphomaniac and established Geiger as a homosexual pornographer, the film adaptation could hardly portray such "improprieties" onscreen. Another reason for the dizzying plot is The Big Sleep’s post-production retooling: while one version of the film was screened overseas to American G.I.s in 1945, which provided much more exposition and tried to explain the plot more clearly, the retooled “official release” in 1946 cut out many of these scenes in favor of innuendo-laden dialogues between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose chemistry threatens to set the film on fire.
Speaking of which, I haven’t even brought up one of the movie’s foremost pleasures: Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge (nee Sternwood), the General’s other problem child. Self-assured and domineering where Carmen is spoiled and bratty, Vivian calls Marlowe up to her boudoir after he first meets the General, seemingly only to get a handle on him. “I’m not used to people treating me this way,” Vivian responds to Marlowe’s churlish attitude. (This leads to one of the movie’s greatest rat-a-tat dialogue sequences: “I don't mind if you don't like my manners,” Marlowe responds, “I don't like them myself, they’re pretty bad, I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle, but don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”) And yet, The Big Sleep turns into an unlikely love story between two hotheads used to getting their own way; indeed, Hawks’ film is one of the few films noir with a mostly happy ending. The Big Sleep’s moral decrepitude is overshadowed by its rapid pacing and glamorous interactions, but if you’re looking for a thematic crux it might be supplied by Vivian and Philip’s starcrossed romance—a semblance of goodness in a world ruled by petty crooks and murders so pointless it’s hard to determine the culprits, much less the motivations.
The Big Sleep is one of many Hollywood concoctions made more fascinating by its behind-the-scenes dramas and implicit social connections. Not only is there the context of the production’s wartime setting, which explains oddities like Marlowe referring to corpses as “red points” (the term for the rations of meat that American citizens were allotted during the war). There’s also the tempers and passions that burned onset while filming. After meeting during the production of Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in 1943, Bacall (then nineteen) and Bogart (then forty-five) fell in love, much to the chagrin of Hawks—who not only disapproved of the age difference and the fact that Bogart was already married, but also may have had sexual designs on Bacall himself. Bogey was still married while shooting The Big Sleep but the sexual chemistry between the two leads hardly lessened—a sexual drama that caused Bogart to drink heavily during filming, frequently failing to show up to the set and forcing Hawks to film around him. As Roger Ebert puts it, Bogart may have seen “the coltish [Bacall] not only as his love but perhaps as his salvation”—a desperate loneliness that can be ascribed to Marlowe as well, though he’d never admit as much. In other words, Bacall’s Vivian turns out to be the anti-femme fatale; she protects Marlowe from “the big sleep” literally (since she rescues him from certain execution) and figuratively (in giving him a reason to live).
This backstage relationship drama bolsters what Manny Farber (one of Hawks’ original American champions) claimed about the director: that his “whole moviemaking system seems a secret preoccupation with linking, a connections business involving people [and] plots.” This is easier to see in Hawks’ films that are overtly about groups of people working towards an outsized end—the cattle-herders in Red River (1948), the air freight pilots of Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—but The Big Sleep is just as much about the dangerous pleasures of human collaboration. Just as the sexual intensity between Bogart and Bacall informs The Big Sleep, so is Philip Marlowe made (or unmade) by his partnerships with policemen, crooks, and women.
The Big Sleep is also one of those films that delights in language, in the relentless gunfire of quips and insults. This is hardly surprising when the director of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday adapts a Raymond Chandler novel and enlists William Faulkner as one of his screenwriters, but it’s still disarming how heavily each scene is about the construction of dialogue, the volleys back and forth and final culmination; since so little of the dialogue goes towards solving mysteries or providing explanations, it becomes instead about the rhythm and tone of words and how they’re given voice by the actors. Hawks’ visual aesthetic is admirably subtle—the almost unnoticeable tracking shots epitomize Hollywood’s “invisible style”—but his aural aesthetic is even more magisterial. Dialogue pours out in torrents as actors jump on each other’s lines, overlapping without a breath for respite; it sounds like something between screwball comedy and Robert Altman, or (as Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly states in his review of The Big Sleep) the jazz music of Duke Ellington or Count Basie.
After seeing The Big Sleep numerous times—and initially considering it a hypnotic masterpiece—I now have to admit it’s neither my favorite Hawks film nor my favorite film noir. It doesn’t have the pioneering camerawork and sound design of Scarface (1932) or the gaudy contradictions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), my personal favorite Hawks films. Nor does it have the space-fracturing, Expressionist visuals of The Killers (1946) or the shocking moral abyss of Scarlet Street (1945), the greatest films noir ever made. But it’s useless playing the favorites game with a movie as dazzling, dense, and indecipherable as The Big Sleep—not to mention one that smears unbridled lust across the screen and spits firecracker dialogue from the soundtrack.