Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by millionaire General Sternwood to investigate a case of blackmail involving pornographic photos of his daughter, Carmen. Sternwood is really trying to find out what happened to his friend Sean Regan, the former IRA man and bootlegger. Soon the bodies pile up, and Marlowe has to navigate the shadowy world of blackmailers, gangsters and gamblers, dodging bullets and avoiding the wrath of the District Attorney.
There are a handful of films that helped solidify the Humphrey Bogart persona, the tough, cynical loner who invariably fought for the little guy even as he protested he was just looking out for himself, and they were all made in only a few years. ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘To Have and Have Not’, and ‘The Big Sleep’. Between his performance as tough, cynical private eye Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and his performance as tough, cynical private eye Philip Marlowe in ‘The Big Sleep’, two events helped shape the Bogey persona enormously. The first was America had lost its innocence through World War II; it emerged knocked about and bruised and a little less willing to see the bright side of things (a perfect time for film noir). The second was Bogart had met Lauren Bacall.
‘The Big Sleep’ may be just the most perfect detective noir made. It is dark, shadowy and really quite witty. Though it has a few comic moments, it has little of the romanticism of ‘Casbalanca’ or the outre and eccentric characters of ‘The Maltese Falcon’. It has major talent in front of and behind the camera, helmed by Howard Hawks, one of the few directors of the Golden Age who could legitimately be called an auteur. It was filmed on a Warners backlot shrouded in mist and rain to hide the cheapness of the sets, with a Warners stable of terrific actors in supporting roles.
Taken from a Raymond Chandler novel, it has a plot so convoluted that the filmmakers had trouble understanding it, and one killing in the film remains unsolved. When they contacted Chandler for help, he confessed even he didn’t know who the killer was. It has a terrific script (William Faulkner was one of the writers) that wisely retains much of Chandler’s dialogue, lines that sound like they were tailor-made to be spat out by Bogart. And of course it has Bacall, hurling insults at him with come hither eyes, or flirting with him as they prank-call the police. But in fact it was Bacall’s performance that almost derailed ‘The Big Sleep’, and the film as we know it nearly never happened.
The movie was filmed in 1944 but shelved until after the war, when it was felt that a detective story would do better (Warners still had a lot of war films to release and they wanted to do so before war ended and they dated). The same year, at nineteen, Bacall had made a sexy and stunning debut for Hawks and Bogart in ‘To Have and Have Not’ (if you haven’t seen it, you know about it because it’s the film where she bats her eyes and says “you know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow”). However, she also filmed ‘Confidential Agent’ with Charles Boyer, and she received atrocious reviews. One critic wrote of her role as an English noblewoman that it was “the most woeful piece of miscasting it has ever been my misfortune to behold. Her conception of how a spoiled young English lady might conduct herself is fashioned of the stuff of outright burlesque.”
Her promising career was in jeopardy, and so therefore was ‘The Big Sleep’. Howard K. Feldman, who was Bacall’s and also Hawks’ agent, urged Jack Warner to consider reshooting several key scenes that would capture Bacall’s insolence to Bogart, and play up their sexually charged relationship. So in early 1946 several new scenes were filmed and a new, brisker cut of the film was put together: if you look closely in several scenes, you can see that some of the actors age a year in a matter of minutes. You can find the original 1945 cut on DVD, and it’s worth watching just to enjoy some of the actors who were later left on the cutting room floor. The plot is also slightly less confusing.
The plot of ‘The Big Sleep’ is too convoluted to summarise here, and in any event, for me the plot is less important than the lurid 1940s Los Angeles atmosphere. This is the smoke-filled Los Angeles of hired guns and hard-nosed cops, of cigarette girls and gambling dens, of long and sleek Packards whose drivers carry pints of rye in their pocket, and it’s filled with grown-ups. Bogart and Bacall have a scene where they compare themselves to racehorses. When he asks how far she can go, she says, “a lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Mind you, there’s hardly a female in the picture who doesn’t come on to him. One, Dorothy Malone, is a sexy bookseller who closes the shop early, takes off her glasses and lets her hair down to cascade on to her shoulders so she and Bogey share a drink.
The “pornographic” pictures wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but several critics were shocked, particularly at the violence (to be fair, there is one scene where Bogart gets beaten up that is more violent than most films of the time). One critic found the film “morbid and disturbing.” It’s a shame Bogart only played Marlowe once, because he is the definitive private eye, even if he wasn’t Chandler’s favourite Marlowe (that was Dick Powell in ‘Murder My Sweet’). Hawks insisted that the audience didn’t know more than Marlowe, so Bogart is in every scene, which is a lucky thing for film fans.
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