The Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
One Hollywood’s classic products, highly influential, a landmark film of the noir genre is still a beguiling and elusive picture.
Whether by design or not, part of the fun of "The Big Sleep" is attempting to follow along with the byzantine plotting. I admit, I can get about half way through following along clearly and at a certain point always get lost.
Cool and confident private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called in by rich tycoon General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate an extortion scheme against her daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) for her gambling debts by local bookie Arthur Gwynn Geiger. Marlowe is led to Geiger’s bookstore where he tails him to his home, only to discover he’s been killed. Carmen's (Lauren Bacall) sister joins the fray and attempts to secure her own ransom money further complicating the predicament. Nefarious figures pocket every corner of the seedy Los Angeles underworld Marlowe uncovers.
It’s fun to watch The Big Sleep as a template for Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential”, while the lude and nasty sexual elements were put into the subtext of the Faulkner/Brackett/Furthman screenplay, all the elements of the seedy Los Angeles milieu of porno, gambling, drugs, prostitution are there. Bogart’s discovery of Carmen confused and stammering in Geiger's house after the murder suggest influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and her oriental outfit as a sexual fetish for Geiger’s porno racket. None of this is told to us, but inferred through subtle clues which enhance the richness of multiple viewings.
Marlowe only scratches the surface of this grim underbelly. Many of the key characters are discussed but never seen or turn up dead before we ever get to meet them. The most famous is the Owen Taylor character who is killed in a car crash, a murder or perhaps suicide which is never solved in the film, nor, according to some sources, in the mind of it’s original author Raymond Chandler. Same goes with Sternwood’s former heavy Sean Regan who had disappeared prior to Marlowe entering the picture. Regan is discussed as the reason for Sternwood's hiring of Marlowe, but someone we never meet. Even Geiger himself, who is only glimpsed from afar yet remains key to the motivation and plotting.
Bogart and Bacall, a legendary Hollywood couple, sear the screen, not so much because of sexual chemistry or sparks, but as equally cunning adversaries. Bacall’s dialogue is line-for-line delivered with as much snarky conviction and confidence as Bogart’s - a female match for his swaggering cocky persona.
As a Jack Warner (Warner Bros) production, his stamp of tough hardboiled attitude is there, putting the film beside some of his toughest crime films with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Max Steiner, Warner's #1 composer, delivers a glorious and grand score, as always, heightening all the melodramatic suspense and tension of the picture.
Like Bogey's "Casablanca", the experience of "The Big Sleep" improves on each successive viewing. The initial occasion will certainly cause much confusion and even frustration, and though the confusion remains time and again, frustration soon gives way to gleeful delight. Enjoy.