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The Big Sleep
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, John Ridgely, Charles Waldron

Written By: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Raymond Chandler (novel) Directed By: Howard Hawks

The Short Version

The Big Sleep is one of the greatest noir films of all time.

Bogey and Bacall sizzle to the point where you expect the furniture to have burn marks.

The Big Sleep features some the best dialogue ever written.

Don’t worry if you can’t follow the whole story the first time.

The Big Sleep is a movie that demands to be owned and watched over and over again.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It just does not get better than this.

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“How do you like your brandy, Sir?”

“In a glass.”

“I used to like mine with champagne.  Champagne cold as Valley Forge and with about three ponies of brandy under it.  I like to see people drink.”

“I don’t like your manners.”

“And I'm not crazy about yours.  I didn't ask to see you.  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.  I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle.  But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

Sometimes, procrastination can be a good thing.

The Big Sleep was originally between October of 1944 and January of 1945.  However, rather than releasing the film right away, the studio chose to sit on it in favor of get other pictures out first, mostly war-oriented films.  (You may note from the dates that there was a small conflict going on in both Europe and the Pacific at the time.)  One of those films was called Confidential Agent, and its big female star, Lauren Bacall, found her performance being panned by critics.  Fearing that if she got one more bad overall panning, she’d be finished (times were different then, which is why modern audiences still have Kristen Stewart), the studio decided to protect its investment in Bacall by reworking The Big Sleep to be a little snappier, recalling a well-reviewed performance she’d put in previously in To Have and Have Not.  And so, nearly a year later, additional footage was shot, including the scene that features the following exchange of dialogue:

“Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself.  But I like to see them work out a little first: see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.”

“Find out mine?”

“I think so.”

“Go ahead.”

“I'd say you don't like to be rated.  You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.”

“You don't like to be rated yourself.”

“I haven't met anyone yet that can do it.  Any suggestions?”

“Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground.  You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.”

“A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”

Studio second-guessing is usually a bad thing, but in this case, the result was pure dynamite.  Significantly spiced up (with roughly twenty minutes of alterations) from the preview presented to American soldiers in 1945, the version of The Big Sleep that hit theatres in 1946 turned out to be the steamiest piece of classic film noir ever made.

And just think, the sexier line deliveries came after Bogie and Bacall were married.  (They’d been carrying on an affair during the original filming; Bogie divorced his wife and married Bacall, undoubtedly the real love of his life, shortly afterward, but before the reshoots occurred.)  How’s that for bucking the conventional wisdom?

“You go too far, Marlowe.”

“Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom.”

Our story begins with private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca) being called to the home of the wealthy but quite aged General Sternwood (Charles Waldron, The Count of Monte Cristo) to handle a delicate matter.  Sternwood feels that he is being blackmailed by someone who claims to have been backing gambling debts incurred by his younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers, The Mummy’s Ghost), and he wants Marlowe to get to the bottom of the problem and then get rid of it.  Things, of course, don’t turn out to be quite so simple as that, especially when Marlowe later finds the blackmailer dead on the floor of a small rented home while Carmen sits off to the side, oblivious to everything and high as a kite.  And as though Carmen wasn’t enough to handle, Marlowe also has his hands full trying to figure out her sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall, Key Largo), who knows a lot more than she’s saying about a lot more than she’s willing to admit…

“Your story didn't sound quite right.”

“Oh, that's too bad. You got a better one?”

“Maybe I can find one.”

The Big Sleep is based on the book by pulp master Raymond Chandler, one of the greatest noir writers who ever lived, and featuring his greatest character.  To read Chandler is to put oneself through a literary art class (and I definitely mean that as a compliment), but when it came time to adapt his work for Hollywood, it underwent further refinement by another great American novelist in the person of William Faulkner (“The Sound and the Fury”), along with two other amazing screenwriters, Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back; no, I am not kidding) and Jules Furthman (Rio Bravo).  What these four minds combined created has to be the single most amazing collection of noir dialogue ever assembled for one film.  Indeed, if you ever want to give yourself a crash course in the genre and how it’s supposed sound, this is the movie you watch.  Only it moves so fast that even if you do the pause and rewind thing (which I don’t recommend; let this one flow), you’ll still miss half of it, and you’ll end up having to watch the movie again… and again… and again to catch it all.  This isn’t due to any deficiency in the picture; it’s just because there’s so much amazing material delivered so rapidly.

“So, you're a private detective. I didn't know they existed, except in books; or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors.  My, you're a mess, aren't you?”

“I'm not very tall either. Next time I'll come on stilts wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.”

“I doubt if even that will help.”

It also helps that it’s being delivered by such an amazing cast, headlined by the incredible duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. 

Bogie is at his best here, taking the street smart gumshoe portrayal he’d already made famous by playing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and refining it even further.  But don’t think that Bogart’s Marlowe is just Spade redux; while the archetype certainly demands major similarity, Bogart nonetheless plays Marlowe as his own man rather than taking the lazy way and replaying the same role.  His Marlowe is saucy but has a real heart, and that plays out all over Bogart’s face.  He’s also more of an intellectual, as was Bogart in real life, and it’s plain to see that the actor takes delight in letting this side of himself play into a character.  If you’re looking for any flaws in Humphrey Bogart’s performance here, don’t bother; you won’t find any.

Nor will you find any in the performance of his costar, Lauren Bacall.  One variation of the poster art for The Big Sleep features a painted portrait of her character along with the words “Slinky! Sultry! Sensational!”, and I can’ t think of any better description for what she puts on display here, save, perhaps, “Wow!”  Take any half naked, implant-laden, flavor of the month damsel in distress actress of today and set her next to a fully clothed Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge, and the former will quickly melt into a puddle of goo from the heat radiated by Bacall.  Even sixty-five years on, Bacall’s portrayal can out-sexy just about anything you care to set alongside for comparison.  Vivian is easily one of the most challenging characters in all of noir, and Bacall nails the part so hard that someone needs to bronze the hammer.  She not only stands toe to toe with Bogart, but she actually wins, which is an incredible accomplishment against that kind of screen presence.  What’s more, as does Bogart with Marlowe, Bacall gets that Vivian is a character of many facets, and she’s sure to play them all.  While most would have had a hard enough time keeping up with Vivian’s sassier side, Bacall also finds her senses of fun, concern, and yes, romance.  Her most famous line of all time may come from To Have and Have Not, but for me, The Big Sleep is truly her greatest performance.

“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

Nor does the great work end there.  There really isn’t even one bad performance to be found in this film at all.  Particularly of note is Martha Vickers, who would have easily stolen every scene she was in as Carmen if set against any other cast.  (There are rumors that some thought she did, to the point of cutting down her part to lessen any threat to the big names.)  Also making a big impression despite having very little screen time is Dorothy Malone (Basic Instinct), whose character isn’t even given a name aside from being the “Acme Book Shop Proprietress.”  In a scene already remarkable for its naughtiness given the era (her character closes her shop early, and if anyone thinks that she and Marlowe just had drinks in the back room for the next hour, I’ve got some rare editions to sell you), Malone turns it up a notch herself, making sure that her nameless character would become a one scene wonder that no audience can soon forget.

“If I seem a bit sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlowe, it's because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.  I need hardly add that any man who has lived as I have and indulges for the first time in parenthood at my age deserves all he gets.”

Herding all of this electric talent is Director Howard Hawks (The Thing), who manages to accomplish two impossible tasks.  First, he captures the pulp spirit of noir beautifully, and manages to deliver an incredibly rapid pace while still allowing enough time for the snappy dialogue to play out.  Indeed, the atmosphere he creates turns the words themselves into action, so that a calm verbal exchange carries with it the weight of a fist fight.  Second, once he’s made sure the atmosphere is set, he’s smart enough to let his amazing cast members do what they do best.  What’s more, when given a second chance, he takes the best of that and coaxes even more of it out them.  One might think that being handed one of the most amazing scripts ever written and a cast headlined by the likes of Bogie and Bacall should make a director’s job easy, but in many ways, it can actually make things harder.  Hawks navigates those pitfalls masterfully well, and in the end, delivers a picture so evocative of the printed genre it represents that one can almost smell the paper through the haze of ever-present smoke.

“How did you find her?”

“I didn’t find her.”

“Well then how did you-?”

“I haven't been here, you haven't seen me, and she hasn't been out of the house all evening.”

This isn’t to say that everything is drum tight, however, but in this case, that’s all part of the fun.  Like much of the best noir, The Big Sleep is convoluted to the extreme, with twists around every corner and connections that seem impossible until finally making sense about the fifth or sixth time around.  “Neat and tidy” just doesn’t happen in these films, nor should it; part of the appeal of noir is that so much of it isn’t black and white, but rather shades of grey.  In the case of The Big Sleep, most of it does in the end work out (though for some it may take a few viewings to catch it all), but you may find yourself asking exactly who was behind one of the movie’s murders in particular.  (I won’t tell you which one.)  The screenwriters (or Bogie, or Howard Hawks, depending on the version told) asked that question, too, so they in turn asked Raymond Chandler, author of the novel they were adapting.  After a while, he admitted that he had no idea, either.

Just as in life, you don’t always get to tie up every loose end.  In the case of The Big Sleep, for whatever reason, I think it’s actually a better film for leaving the question unanswered.

“We used to swap shots between drinks, or drinks between shots; whichever you like.”

Bottom line, The Big Sleep is simply one of the greatest noir films ever made.  Bogie and Bacall are dynamite, the dialogue is the snappiest stuff ever written, and the direction is picture perfect.  Don’t bother just renting it; The Big Sleep is a movie that deserves to owned, especially since you’re going to want to watch it over and over again, first to catch the parts you missed, and then to marvel at how wonderfully it all comes together.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

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