Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is on the case when ailing millionaire General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hires him to discover who is out to blackmail his two wayward daughters, delicious but duplicitous Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and naughty nympho Carmen (Martha Vickers), which is somehow connected to the mysterious disappearance of his good friend, Rusty Regan. Marlowe unearths a labyrinthine mystery involving a blackmail ring operating behind a respectable bookstore, small time crooks and big time mobsters. He also sparks up some heat with vivacious Vivian. Can true love weave its way past a tangled web of sex, lies and murder?
A rare instance where studio interference actually improved a movie, this seminal Bogart and Bacall masterpiece was filmed in 1944 but withheld from release for two years. At the behest of Warner Brothers the great Howard Hawks restructured the film, removing substantial chunks of Raymond Chandler’s plot. In their place Hawks added more scenes featuring the priceless Bogie and Bacall banter that had electrified the public in To Have and To Have Not (1944). On top of that, censorship restrictions of the time meant Hawks had to tiptoe around the racier aspects of the story. Yet miraculously, in spite of a near-incomprehensible plot, The Big Sleep proves conclusively that a film does not have to make sense in order to be compelling. Every scene is a gem, sparkling with wit and style. Hawks’ unique methodology was to ensure each scene contained something quirky, offbeat and memorable in the hope these would add up to a strong narrative. As such he was less concerned with shining a light on a mystery so impenetrable even Raymond Chandler famously did not know who killed the chauffeur. For this reason the film is less lauded among Chandler purists than Murder, My Sweet (1944) or even the more radical Lady of the Lake (1947) despite the fact that on a cinematic level it outranks both.
There are those that rate The Big Sleep as classic film noir which is debatable given the tone is nowhere as fatalistic as Double Indemnity (1944), The Killers (1946) or Out of the Past (1947). Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is not an antihero doomed by his own bad decisions. He is a jaded romantic whose cynical surface masks strong moral principles. Film critic Roger Ebert was perhaps closer to the mark in describing the story as being about “the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” The Big Sleep is the cinema’s finest psychological detective story (by contrast, Chinatown (1974) is cinema’s finest sociopolitical detective story), less concerned with the blackmail and murder angle than the wider mystery of human relationships. What drove earthly angel Vivian Sternwood to entangle herself in such a sordid web and what does Marlowe’s reaction to her plight reflect of humanity as a whole? Marlowe emerges something of an alchemist, peering inside an existential void past deceit, corruption and despair to unearth not only truth but love. For Hawks and Chandler as well, empathy (read: love) and decency are the salvation of the human race.
Although Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) is the more psychologically complex character, The Big Sleep has him at his most charismatic essaying the archetypal wisecracking, two-fisted gumshoe. If Bogie is the definitive screen detective then Bacall is the archetypal dangerous dame. Although derided by critics back in the day, her assured and charismatic performance commands attention as she keeps pace with Bogart. These two relish the choice dialogue served up by screenwriters William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Hawks favourite Leigh Brackett (an uncredited Julius Epstein penned the sexually suggestive racehorse dialogue). Yet while Bogie and Bacall earned all the plaudits, film fans should not overlook how phenomenal Martha Vickers is as thumb-sucking nymphomaniac Carmen who prompts the immortal Marlowe witticism: “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” Special mention is also due for the delightful scene featuring Dorothy Malone as arguably cinema’s most tantalising bookseller, who turns into a goddess the moment she takes off her glasses. Indeed pay close attention and you’ll notice The Big Sleep appears to unfold in some parallel universe where every woman is astoundingly beautiful and seemingly hot for Marlowe. Aside from convincing contemporary viewers life was awesome in the Forties, Hawks upholds a furious pace packing a huge amount of excitement and atmosphere into a tight running time. And the climax is among the most intense nail-biting sequences cinema has to offer.