Summoned by the dying General Sternwood, Philip Marlowe is asked to deal with several problems that are troubling his family. Marlowe finds that each problem centers about the disappearance of Sternwood's favoured employee who has left with a mobster's wife. Each of the problems becomes a cover for something else as Marlowe probes. Written by
John Vogel <email@example.com>
THE BIG SLEEP is one of the more entertaining private eye movies I have seen. A dying old man has two beautiful, uncontrollable daughters: Vivien (Lauren Bacall), and Carmen (Martha Vickers). Carmen is being blackmailed, and her father hires P.I. Christopher Marlowe (the beloved Humphrey Bogart) to get the blackmailer off her back. But Marlowe finds that somebody else has done this job for him: the blackmailer is murdered almost under his nose. And as he puts it, "That didn't stop things. That just starts 'em."
I have not read Raymond Chandler's novel, on which this movie was based, but those who have say the title refers to death. That is never explained in the movie. Howard Hawks packs so much plot into 114 minutes of footage that the movie feels like it's bursting at the seams. The story is not incomprehensible as some would have it; while there are many improbable coincidences, there is no element I can point to and say "That couldn't have happened." (Although I'm still not quite sure how Carmen got into Marlowe's apartment). True, the plot really is very hard to follow, and Marlowe's periodic explanations of events, without which the movie would indeed be nonsensical, smack more of inspired guesswork than logical deduction. But the furious pace at which the plot unfolds lends more excitement to the movie than nine out of ten of today's lazily plotted would-be thrillers.
THE BIG SLEEP's greatest strength is its delightfully droll dialogue. When Chandler writes the novel and then Faulkner helps adapt it, you expect some verbal fireworks, and you sure do get them. "How do you like your brandy?" "In a glass." - "You're not very tall, are you?" "I try to be." - "I'm getting cuter every minute." - "Such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains." - "Is it any of your business?" "I could make it my business." "I could make your business mine." "You wouldn't like it. The pay's too small." - "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up." Bogie and Bacall get two of the best exchanges; they have a horse-racing discussion where racy double-entendres are dripping like savory sauce off of every word, and they also get a truly hilarious telephone conversation where Marlowe convinces Vivien not to call the police.
But THE BIG SLEEP has a harder side that is also effective. It is shockingly violent for a movie produced under the stern eyes of the Hayes code censors. The movie is too unpredictable to generate much suspense (you can't dread something you don't know is going to happen), but the ending is one of the most intense, nailbiting scenes you'll ever see.
The 1940s were not a great era for film music, which makes Max Steiner's brooding score all the more impressive. The print I saw was very low-quality, so I can't judge the cinematography.
The acting is wonderful. Bogart gets to show his chops at one point by switching off the hard-boiled personality he developed for THE MALTESE FALCON and impersonating an antiquarian bookworm. Bacall radiates class whether she's at ease smoking in a cafe or outwitting a man holding her at gunpoint. Martha Vickers' Carmen strikes the perfect balance of appealing seductiveness and outright nastiness.
One final note: this movie is almost Bond-like in terms of the number of appallingly beautiful women Marlowe accidentally encounters, all of whom seem to have a burning desire for him. Even his taxi driver wants him. Dorothy Malone, whose character name we never learn, plays the sexiest book seller you will ever meet (and yes, she wears glasses; eat your heart out, Dorothy Parker!). Minus fifty points for credibility, plus a hundred points for entertainment. Regrettably, I cannot promise similar thrills for the female audience; it just kind of depends on how you like Men In Suits.
Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.
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