Thursday, April 8, 2010

#17: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

Released: August 23, 1946

Director: Howard Hawks; Screenplay: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; Cinematography: Sidney Hickox; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Howard Hawks; Studio: Warner Brothers

Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Sternwood Rutledge), John Ridgley (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Dorothy Malone (Acme Bookstore Worker), Peggy Knudsen (Mona Mars), Regis Toomey (Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls), Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Charles D. Brown (Norris), Bob Steel (Lash Canino), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Harry Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody), Sonia Darrin (Agnes Lowzier), Ben Welden (Pete), Tom Fadden (Sidney), Trevor Bardette (Art Huck), Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz)

- “I collect blonds and bottles…”

OK, I’ll pose the question to you fine readers: Who did kill Sternwood chauffeur Owen Taylor? One of the most famous stories of Hollywood lore deals with this issue, as Howard Hawks and screenwriter William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner) couldn’t figure out how to explain this mystery. They figured they would go straight to the source and sent a wire to Raymond Chandler asking to solve the mystery for them. Chandler’s response? He didn’t have the foggiest idea. That story is apocryphal, but it highlights why The Big Sleep remains such an impressive film. Plot holes like this do nothing to damage the overall product. You don’t know how Owen Taylor was killed (even though I think I have a basic theory that works)? There are other details that don’t make sense? Who cares – there is so much fun to be had along the way that by the time you realize that some things aren’t adding up, it doesn’t really matter.

The story certainly is convoluted. It’s not necessarily incomprehensible, mind you, but it is likely to leave a first-time viewer scratching his or her head. The protagonist is Raymond Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). Hired by the rich General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate blackmail letters that are being sent concerning his youngest daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Carmen is a wild child who is known around Los Angeles as someone that paints the town and builds up massive gambling IOUs. Normally the General would have farmed the job out to his longtime protégé Sean Regan, but he has recently disappeared. Marlowe looks into the blackmailer, a bookstore owner named Geiger, which eventually pulls him into a maze that winds through the entire Los Angeles underworld. Along the way he also becomes involved with General Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall), a vivacious and enigmatic socialite. Even as the two begin to fall for each other, it seems as if Vivian is constantly scheming behind Marlowe’s back.

The production history of The Big Sleep is equally as interesting and convoluted. Although not released until mid-1946, filming actually began in 1944 and was completed by January 1945. In Warner Brothers’ eyes, though, the timing could not have been worse. With World War II coming toward a conclusion, the studio had a number of war films in the vault still awaiting release. Fearful that if the war ended the audience would no longer be interested in war-themed films, they began to rush those to the screen and hold back movies that would not lose appeal by a delay. Thus, The Big Sleep was seen as a movie that could withstand such a wait. But by the time it finally was about to get its shot at the big screen, the Bogey and Bacall duo had become a wildly popular phenomenon. Jack Warner wanted to capitalize on this popularity and decreed that key scenes needed to be added or re-shot in order to do so. The end result of all this is that there are actually two versions of the film in existence – the theatrical release of August 1946 and the 1945 “pre-release” version, with slight variations between the two. Fortunately for modern audiences, the easily-obtainable DVD contains both versions, so each individual can form their own opinion as to which is superior. There aren’t necessarily any major differences, but I usually go for the theatrical cut whenever I watch it.

The reason I chose the ’46 version? The Bogey-Bacall interplay really was worth adding, even if it was the result of a studio dictating something to a director of Hawks’ stature. Although fans of Robert Mitchum can make a strong counterargument, there has never been a cooler on-screen presence than Humphrey Bogart. Whether he is playing Marlowe, Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Fred C. Dobbs, or countless other roles, there is a an inherent hipness to everything that Bogart does. This is not to say that he is one-dimensional as an actor – the man could play damn near anyone. But there is certainly a “Bogart slant” to each of them. The closest I have ever seen in terms of a female possessing this same coolness is Lauren Bacall, whom Bogart married in 1945. So when the two are allowed to go toe-to-toe, they soak up every inch of the screen. Absolutely nothing else matters except the witty exchanges between Marlowe and Vivian. And, wow, what great exchanges they are. Raymond Chandler deserves huge kudos for the great dialog that he crafted in his original novel, but much praise also has to go to the incredibly talented screenwriting team in crafting the script. William Faulkner needs no introduction to anyone who has completed high school or read any American literature, and to any fans of classic cinema Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman are close to writing royalty. Some of my favorite lines and exchanges:

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: Come into my boudoir.
Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe.
Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom.

Philip Marlowe: You wanna tell me now?
Vivian: Tell you what?
Philip Marlowe: What it is you're trying to find out. You know, it's a funny thing. You're trying to find out what your father hired me to find out, and I'm trying to find out why you want to find out.
Vivian: You could go on forever, couldn't you? Anyway it'll give us something to talk about next time we meet.
Philip Marlowe: Among other things.

Not just noirs, but film in general doesn’t come much more entertaining than this. It might not be as dark as other classic noirs, but it is such an entrained part of noir history that it is an absolute essential.


  1. Well Dave, I'll be a devil's advocate here. The thing is, it was nevertheless a major disappointment for me. Not that it isn't a good movie, just that (and I know I shouldn't be bringing this up, but I'll say it anyway) it never managed to reach even a third of the height scaled by the original novel by Chandler.

    I understand that Chandler's Big Sleep, which I absolutely loved, is a difficult book to compress into a 2-hour movie. Still, I was hoping for something far better than what I saw. And scenes like the one where Bogart & Bacall are shown trying to outwit each other in that "famous" telephone scene, was absolutely unnecessary and was done just to play to the gallery. Perhaps, as you mentioned, they were not there in the original cut. And yes, a darker film would have helped, as the novel was really a picture of urban grime, deceit and corruption.

    But I certainly agree that Bogart was quite brilliant. If any guy could play the incredible character of the cynical gumshoe Phillip Marlowe, it was Bogart. But I felt Lauren Bacall overdid Vivian Sternwood's character.

    By the way, what's the theory you have about the murder of Sternwood's chauffeur Owen Taylor?

  2. Shubhajit, you are comparing apples with oranges. Chanler's book is a great book, and Hawk's The Big Sleep is a great movie. Chandler himself said Bogie was the true cinematic realisation of Marlowe.

    The Big Sleep is a lot darker than the Dmytryk's earlier Murder, My Sweet (aka Farwell, My Lovely – 1944). The Marlowe of The Big Sleep is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect. He is almost a proto-Dirty Harry. Clearly shaken by the death by poisoning while he stood by of the small-time hood who leads Marlowe to the final showdown, Marlowe responds with vengeful brutality in the shootout with the goon, Canino, and then in the final scene when he confronts the crooked casino-operater, Eddie Mars. While the killing of Canino at a stretch can be put down to self-defense, there is no moral justification apart from vengeance in the way Marlowe engineers the death of Eddie Mars – not in the books - the killing is gratuitous and was not the only way out for Marlowe and Vivian. It is this final scene that marks The Big Sleep as a film noir. Marlowe has survived and got the girl – but at what cost?

  3. Well, first off, I'm pretty sure no one killed Owen Taylor, which is really uproarious in its own way. I really like the idea of that anyhow. And part of the reason The Big Sleep is so convoluted is because the more sordid aspects of its plot simply could not be put on-screen. The other part was that Chandler never really cared about plot construction, but when you can write like that, who cares?

    And I completely agree with Tony here, there is something a little strange about Marlowe's murderousness that is a little unnerving. I feel like it's present in a lot of Hawks though; this tension between his characters' seemingly innately violent nature and their friendly, extroverted, almost flamboyant social personalities. And I'm sorry Shubhajit, but to say some of the Bogie/Bacall scenes were unnecessary is to completely miss what some of us find so compelling about Hawks' conception of Marlowe. Chandler framed Marlowe in an almost monastic way, standing apart from women and the world itself (if I remember correctly, Marlowe only sleeps with a woman in The Long Goodbye); Hawks, given his fascination with social relationships, completely rejects that conception of a character, and this is the result.

  4. Yes Tony, I do realise that - the fact that they are 2 different mediums altogether. And as I said, as a standalone film this is a reasonably good movie allright. Just that, given the book's brilliance and the fact its a near impossible task to compartmentalise one's mind while watching a movie if one has already read the book or vice-varsa, I was expecting something more psychologically complex and caustic than what I saw.

  5. I should have been a bit more specific - I have two possible answer to who killed Owen Taylor. The first one, and the one that I agree is actually hilarious, mirrors Doniphon's. NOBODY. The story is so crazy anyway, it would be fitting if no one actually killed him. The only other person that makes sense as the killer is Joe Brody. Even that is not clear at all and is just a guess to try and make a bit of sense in my own mind.

    Shubhajit - I understand your concerns, I just don't agree with them! (LOL) I have no problem completely separating the novel from the film. Did the screenwriters add some things to Chandler's original story? Certainly, and the genesis for a lot of it was the studio adding Bogey-Bacall fluff, but I think the interplay between the two works very well. I think both Bogart and Bacall are fantastic.

    Tony - Great comment and this line pretty much sums up how I feel: "Shubhajit, you are comparing apples with oranges. Chanler's book is a great book, and Hawk's The Big Sleep is a great movie. Chandler himself said Bogie was the true cinematic realisation of Marlowe."

    Doniphon - Also a wonderful addition here. As I said above, your theory that nobody killed the chauffeur is hilarious and is one I sometimes might be the case.

  6. Yes, this post is to die for among noir lovers, and the fantastic comments here by all (great to see Tony's great passion and grasp of Raymond Chandler voiced so magnificently) that follow an essay that really shows Dave's excitement and affinity with the most gloriously deft convoluted movie of all time. But it's not unfair to say in the film noir literature that we have Chandler and then everybody else. This is not, however to slight James M. Cain, Dasshell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich of course, but the very essence of film noir that revolves around it's most identifiable symbol-the private eye, and Phillip Marlowe of course is it's central character. But my intent is not to come here to write a short treatise on 'Film Noir For Dummies,' at least not in this distinguished company, who are far more knowledgable in this genre than I am.
    THE BIG SLEEP may well be the most ceaselessly discussed film noir property of them all, perhaps even more dissected than THE MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and OUT OF THE PAST, and the very ambiguity that is it's most appealing aspect lends itself to endless interpretation. As Chandler himself doesn't even know who killed Owen Taylor, i won't venture a guess here, though I am certainly not comfortable with the idea that no one killed him, just as the suicide speculation seems unacceptable too.

    I do know of course that because THE BIG SLEEP was made during the oppressive Hays Code period that certain story/character elements from Chandler's novel were altered for the film. e.g. In the film, Joe Brody is killed by Carol Lundgren who believes he killed Geiger. In the novel, Lundgren is Geiger's homosexual lover, a detail which is never alluded to in the film.
    THE BIG SLEEP does contain the sexiest and wittiest dialogue ever written for a detective film, and the world that is showcased here is deliciously fascinating: a world of nymphomaniacs, blackmailers, drug dealers, liars, porographers and murderers. The corrosive Los Angeles that is on display here is brilliantly translated by Howard Hawks from Chandler's novel.
    But in the end, it's the continued inability to figure things out that make this cryptic work so alluring. When neither Hawks nor Chandler know the answers, how pray tell could we?

  7. Sam - You continue the streak of incredible comments in this entry! If this is the strength of the conversations that will be created coming down the stretch of the countdown, then it's going to be a great time. This section here I wholeheartedly agree with:

    "THE BIG SLEEP does contain the sexiest and wittiest dialogue ever written for a detective film, and the world that is showcased here is deliciously fascinating: a world of nymphomaniacs, blackmailers, drug dealers, liars, porographers and murderers. The corrosive Los Angeles that is on display here is brilliantly translated by Howard Hawks from Chandler's novel."

    This is what it comes down to for me. The interplay between the two leads and the story running the entire gamut of the LA underworld.

  8. I also don't like when people compare a book to a movie. It's two different forms of art. They get to their points and meanings in utterly opposite ways most of the time. You can appreciate one over the other but I never blame a film for leaving specifics out. Especially when you have two great artists putting their unique stamp on a project like Chandler and Hawks. I love the differences on display by both creative minds. Doniphon really says it perfectly with Hawks' interest in "social relationships" as opposed to Chandler's more insular Marlowe. The Bogart/Becall dynamic is what elevates this picture to greatness. It gives Hawks an original perspective on a really great book. I wouldn't want a film that just mirrors everything that Chandler wrote anyway.......M.Roca

  9. "Whether he is playing Marlowe, Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Fred C. Dobbs, or countless other roles, there is a an inherent hipness to everything that Bogart does."
    I love this sentence Dave, and I think that's what appealed to the 1960's generation when Bogart Film Festivals and posters were everywhere. There is a certain "cool" about Bogart, the kind of cool you think of when listening to Miles Davis or watching Newman in "The Hustler." Today so many actors, singers are considered "so cool" but very few if any possess cool. Bogart, Miles, McQueen, Newman, and Dean Martin are some of the worthy few.
    The charisma and dialogue between Bogart and Bacall steam up the celluloid. Like Sam, I agree that if Chandler does not know who killed Taylor I will not even venture a guest. The Big Sleep is convoluted masterpiece and nobody does it better than Bogart.

  10. Yes, I remember I understood the crazy plot only after I read a detailed recap of the movie on a web site. There all the deaths and their authors were carefully enumerated. However, I loved this noir immensely, and Bogart/Bacall chemistry just rocks! It was one of the first noirs and one of the first Hollywood classic movies I watched. Yes, I started my foray into the Golden Age with Bogart. Couldn't be better.

  11. Oh, and I just remembered a curious detail. I know this movie by heart, shot for shot, and once I sat to watch it when it was on the Russian television. It was a jaw-dropping experience for me, 'cause it was a different cut from the one I knew! Some scenes were absent, some new, on the other hand, present (and they help, in a way, clear out some missing pieces). I don't remember all the particulars, but some do. For instance, we see some details of what Bogart did at Geiger's house after he discovered the murder (he is shown in the kitchen, washing the glasses that Carmen and someone else had been drinking from; there are some more shots with Geiger's notebook, I think). And we actually get to see that initially there were more guns under the dashboard in Marlowe's car. I think the notorious "race" convo is absent in this version, and I believe the scene in Marlowe's office when Vivian sits on the table is toned down. There was something else altered, but I no longer remember what it was, it was 4 or 5 years ago that I saw that version, and, besides, the better one is firmly stuck in my mind.

  12. Dave, more brilliance! Here's my two cents, as a noir buff and "Big Sleep" enthusiast.

    What no one has mentioned yet (but many have alluded to) is that this movie was a watershed in the career of Howard Hawks. It was here -- in having to re-make the movie per Jack Warner's instructions -- that Hawks had his epiphany. Hawks realized that it didn't make any difference who killed Owen Taylor, if no one in the audience asked the question. In fact, Hawks realized that the only thing that mattered in great filming was creating great, memorable scenes. Put enough great scenes together, and the plot would take care of itself. (An analogous situation might be "Body and Soul" played by Coleman Hawkins -- it didn't bother anyone that Hawkins riffed on the melody without stating it, if the music was inspired...)

    In creating the second version, Hawks (and his punch-up guy, William Faulkner) concentrated on creating great, dramatic, sexy scenes. From here on, almost every Hawks film (esp. Rio Bravo) is a series of great scenes. (The final expression of this is 'Hatari!' a film that has virtually no plot at all -- here I think he went too far, but....)

    Raymond Chandler himself said that readers who wanted crackerjack plots wouldn't pick up his books -- they'd pick up Erle Stanley Gardner novels -- a telling comment, because Gardner created great plots with cardboard, 1-dimensional characters. Chandler created great hard-boiled characters and zingy dialogue -- perfect for Hawks (and Wilder, who used him for 'Double Indemnity')

    You can dip into this movie anywhere and enjoy it completely, because every scene gives pleasure.

  13. Rich - Great stuff here and I agree with you in terms of the way that Hawks' moviemaking would change. Another Hall of Fame comment here! Definitely great stuff throughout this post.

  14. Rich, thank you for reminding me of the greatness that is The Big Sleep from the POV of the dialogs. (I need to rewatch it ASAP!) I remember in 2005 and 2006 I used to accompany my messages and posts with lines from this great movie. And they lasted me many months! Nearly every line is a masterpiece!

  15. Great review and great comments too. As a fan of both Hawks and Bogart, I've watched this film several times, but must admit I'm still seriously confused by the plot - last time round I vowed I was going to watch very carefully and keep track of it, but just ended up having to go and lie down once the movie ended! So next time round I will concentrate on the Bogart/Bacall magic in dialogue like the comments you have quoted, Dave, and not worry so much about who does what when.

  16. Oh, and I just remembered a curious detail. I know this movie by heart, shot for shot, and once I sat to watch it when it was on the Russian television. It was a jaw-dropping experience for me, 'cause it was a different cut from the one I knew! Some scenes were absent, some new, on the other hand, present (and they help, in a way, clear out some missing pieces).