The Big Sleep: Twisted Turns


In 1945, Hollywood agent Charles Feldman had seen the yet-to-be released adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel “The Big Sleep”. As a representative for Lauren Bacall, he was not particularly pleased. In a letter to Jack Warner, he wrote that the movie needed reshoots or else the critics would tear his client’s performance to shreds and Warner would end up losing “one of [their] most important assets”. Feldman’s advise: “Give the girl at least three or four additional scenes with Bogart of the insolent and provocative nature that she had in To Have and Have Not“.

Warner ordered the reshoots and The Big Sleep has become one of the finest examples of Bogart and Bacall’s onscreen charisma.

Private dick Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is summoned to a creaky mansion where General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) lives in Los Angeles. The octogenarian has a seemingly simple job for Marlowe – sort out the gambling debts his youngest daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) owes to a bookseller called Geiger. Marlowe also meets Sternwood’s oldest daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who suspects that her father actually called the investigator to find a friend of his by the name of Sean Regan. When Marlowe subsequently visits Geiger’s book store, he realizes that it’s really a front for something much shadier. He follows Geiger to his house and waits outside for a few hours until he suddenly hears a gunshot and a woman screaming. A man runs out of the house and drives off in a hurry. Marlowe breaks into the house and finds not only Geiger dead but also Carmen –  who’s either drunk or stoned and not making any sense at all…

Plot plays a secondary role
I have a special relationship with this story. I first saw the movie when I was a teenager and pretty much hated it because I tried to focus on the story and it kept confusing me. When I saw the movie again a few years ago, I was able to appreciate it better, mainly because of the film’s many other virtues beside the story.

Then, earlier this year I read the novel and realized that I really liked it and wasn’t terribly confused anymore. Now, when I saw the movie again I was able to relax as far as the story went and just enjoy everything else in it. It’s easy to complain about Chandler’s tale since the writer himself barely could explain who had done what to whom and why. It may be difficult (at least for me), but this is the kind of experience where the plot plays a secondary role to everything else. Over time, the film’s defenders have successfully argued the merits of primarily Bogart and Bacall’s performances. The couple had just gotten married and their rapport is obvious, especially after the addition of a few new scenes that emphasized their banter and sexual teasing; Bogart is very solid after playing more or less the same character in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and other movies. Vickers is also effective as the younger, seductive Sternwood sister who just spells trouble all over.

Howard Hawks, ever the no-nonsense director, tells the story in a straightforward manner and maintains tension throughout in spite of its many twists that threaten to derail the entire movie; his cinematographer and composer, Sid Hickox and Max Steiner, bring a lot of darkness to this tale of blackmail and murder in Los Angeles and its suburbs.

Much of the sexually frank ingredients of Chandler’s novel have been toned down; you won’t find a naked Carmen Sternwood here. The screen adaptation has nevertheless become a true classic in a distinctly cinematic genre, film noir. We’ve got sexy – without showing skin.

The Big Sleep 1946-U.S. 114 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthmann. Novel: Raymond Chandler. Cinematography: Sidney Hickox. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers, Louis Jean Heydt, Regis Toomey… Elisha Cook, Jr. 

Trivia: Remade as The Big Sleep (1978).

Quote: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” (Bogart)

Last word: “[The Production Code people] read the script and they didn’t care for the end Chandler wrote. I said, ‘Why don’t you suggest a better one?’ And they did. It was a lot more violent, it was everything I wanted, and I made it and was very happy about it.” (Hawks, TCM)


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