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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
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 ****.
This classic of American cinema, actually made during the war and
released in 1946, got a whole nation of young men affecting Bogey
mannerisms, raising their eyebrows or showing their teeth while
grimacing, and especially pulling on their earlobes while deep in
thought, a smoking cigarette dangling between their lips. It was the
genius of Howard Hawks, who directed, to do everything possible to make
Humphrey Bogart a matinée idol, including having Lauren Bacall slump
down in the car seat so as not to tower over him. With this movie a new
kind of cinematic hero was created, the existential PI, a seemingly
ordinary looking guy gifted with street smarts and easy courage,
admired by men, and adored by women.
Hawks fashioned this, part of the Bogart legend, with a noire script penned by William Faulkner, et al., adapted from Raymond Chandler's first novel, that sparkled with spiffy lines, intriguing characters, danger and a not entirely serious attention to plot detail. Hawks surrounded Bogey with admiring dames, beginning with the sexy Martha Vickers who tries to jump into his lap while he's still standing (as Marlowe tells General Sternwood), and ending with the incomparable Lauren Bacall, looking beguiling, beautiful and mysteriously seductive. In fact, every female in the cast wants to get her hands on Bogey, including a quick and easy Dorothy Malone, bored in her specs while clerking at a book store. Hawks also employed some very fine character actors, most notably Elisa Cook Jr., and Bob Steele, the former as always, the little guy crook, (Harry Jones), and the latter, as often seen in westerns, the mindless heavy with a gun (Canino). Charles Waldron played the world-weary general and Charles D. Brown was the butler.
I was reminded somehow of the old Charlie Chan movies with the dark, mysterious, ornately-decorated interiors heavily carpeted and studded with ethnic statuettes, especially the house on Laverne Terrace that Bogey keeps coming back to, and the glass-paned doors and glass-separated cubicals of his office and others. The atmospheric L.A. created here has been much admired and imitated, cf., Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), two very superior movies that continued the tradition.
In comparing this to the book, I have to say it's a little on the white-washed side, and not as clearly drawn--'confused' some have said. Of course liberties were taken with Chandler's novel to make it romantic. Chandler's novel emphasizes cynicism, and romance takes a back seat to manliness and loyalty to the client. An especially striking difference is in the character of General Sternwood's younger daughter, Carmen. She is vividly drawn in the book as something of monster, a degenerate sex kitten who would try and do just about anything. She is twice encountered butt naked by Marlowe, once in his bed. Being the sterling guy he is, he turns her away. (Right. I could do that.) Another difference is in all the sleazy details about the low-life underworld of Los Angeles that are omitted or glossed over in the film, including Geiger's homosexuality and his gay house guest, Carol Lundgren. (Of course there was a code in those days.) Bacall's character in the movie is actually a fusion of Vivian and Mona Mars from the book, made nice for movie fans. In the book, Marlowe kisses Vivian, but turns down her invitation for more intimate contact. In the movie, of course, there is no way Bogart is going to say 'no' to Bacall. In the book Marlowe seems to prefer whiskey to women.
Most of the sharp dialogue comes right from Chandler's novel, including Bogart's grinning line, 'Such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains.' Interesting is the little joke on Bogart in the opening scene. In the novel, Chandler's hero is greeted by the purring Carmen with the words, 'Tall, aren't you?' Well, the one thing Bogey ain't is tall, and so in the movie Carmen says, 'You're not very tall, are you?' Bogart comes back with, 'I try to be.' In the novel, Marlowe says, 'I didn't mean to be.'
By the way, the film features Bacall singing a forties tune and looking mighty good doing it.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
Philip Marlowe is a private detective who is hired by General Sternwood to
investigate a case of blackmail involving his youngest daughters' gambling
debts. The General has lost his right hand man, Shaun Regan, and needs a
man able to do the job. Marlowe investigates the blackmailer, Geiger and
tails him to a house. When he hears shots he rushes in to find Geiger dead
and Carmen strung out of her head. With Geiger dead, Marlowe follows the
trail to Joe Brody, who also gets rubbed out, and then to Eddie Mars,
wife is rumoured to have run off with Regan. As he digs deeper Marlowe
finds only corruption and deceit but also starts to fall for the General's
eldest daughter, Vivian Rutledge.
Despite the fact that this film is overly complicated at times, it still stands out as a classic bit of noir, even if aspects other than the plot are what really makes it as good as it is. The plot starts simply but quickly becomes a much more complex beast that moves beyond the issue of blackmail and into murder and lies. For many viewers, this will be a challenge - so many characters come and go in a short period that it is hard to keep track of how they all relate to each other, and the fact that we're not always supposed to know the connections just makes it more difficult at times. However, if you manage to make it past the midpoint of the film without having totally lost track of people then it becomes clearer towards the end. It may sound silly, but this time I watched the film with a pen and paper to help me keep track of who's who - it really helped; but it is worth noting that, even with help, bits of the plot will make little sense at times.
The focus of the film is not the plot - the focus of the film I think is the relationship dynamic between Marlowe and Vivian. In this regard the film really works well. The relationship between is tough but trusting no matter what; at times it is a little hard to see the affection between the two being real or realistic but it is the dialogue between the two that makes it work despite this. The writing is fantastic, the scenes between them do fizzle but the dialogue across the whole film is perfect: it is tough, memorable and basically it is the way I'm sure we all wish we could talk at some point in our lives! The material is also quite daring for the period - murder and tough talk was not unusual but the issues of drugs and nymphomania are hardly common subjects for such a mainstream film at the time.
The performances are fantastic and perfectly fit the material. Although this is not my favourite Bogart performance (I love him in Maltese Falcon) he is still brilliant here, he is cool, tough and intelligent - at times his power over women threatens to be unrealistic but his presence makes it work. His character is not as complex as in Maltese Falcon but Bogart does harried and world-weary better than anyone else. Bacall is great even if I don't personally find her that attractive; she has a great chemistry with Bogart and delivers the goods. Vickers is also good but in a less subtle role. The support cast includes tough turns from Cook, Heydt and Ridgely all of whom convince as tough guys but not to the point where they threaten to eclipse the shining star of Bogart.
Overall this is a classic film despite the fact that the plot is too difficult at times and doesn't always hang together. The flaws here are covered by a tough script that delivers the goods in terms of both dialogue and characters. The plot is a complex web but the basic energy and relationship dynamics keep the film moving really well through scenes that continue to show their influence in films today. Not a perfect film but a great bit of noir that is likely to be loved by the vast majority of viewers - just keep that pen and paper to hand though!
THE BIG SLEEP has a reputation for being a film that gets lost in its
own complexity and which fails to clearly identify all the perpetrators
of all the murders that litter its scenes. There is a certain truth to
this: like the Raymond Chandler novel on which it is based, the plot is
extremely complicated, and it requires the viewer to mentally track an
unexpected number of characters--including two characters that never
appear on screen, a pivotal character who doesn't actually have any
lines, and a character who is frequently mentioned but doesn't appear
until near the film's conclusion. There is not, however, as much truth
to the accusation that the film never exposes all the killers: only one
killer is not specifically identified, but even so his identity is very
All this having been said, THE BIG SLEEP is one helluva movie. In general, the story concerns the wealthy Sternwood family, which consists of an aging father and two "pretty and pretty wild" daughters--one of whom, Carmen, is being victimized by a blackmailer. P.I. Philip Marlowe is hired to get rid of the blackmailer, but an unexpected murder complicates matters... and touches off a series of killings by a number of parties who have covert interests in the Sternwood family.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that you don't actually have to pick apart the complicated story in order to enjoy it. The script is famous for its witty lines and sleek sexual innuendo--much of it lifted directly from Chandler's novel--and the cast is a dream come true. Philip Marlowe would be played by a great many actors, but none of them ever bested Humphrey Bogart, who splendidly captures the feel of Chandler's original creation; with the role of Vivien Sternwood Lauren Bacall gives what might be the finest performance of her screen career; and the chemistry between the two is everything you've ever heard. The supporting cast is superlative, all the way from Martha Vickers' neurotic turn as Carmen Sternwood to Bob Steele's purring hit-man Canino. There's simply not a false note to be found any where. Although the film really pre-dates the film noir movement the entire look of THE BIG SLEEP anticipates noir to a remarkable degree--it would be tremendously influential--and director Hawks gives everything a sharp edge from start to finish.
Two versions of THE BIG SLEEP are included on the DVD: the film as it was originally shot and the film as it was released to theatres in 1946. The actual differences between the two are fairly slight, but they prove significant. Although the original version is somewhat easier to follow in terms of story, it lacks the flash that makes the theatrical version such a memorable experience; it is easy to see why Hawks elected to rescript and reshoot several key scenes as well as add new ones, and both newcomers and old fans will have fun comparing the two. The DVD also includes an enjoyable documentary on the differences between the films and the motivations behind them.
I don't usually comment on picture quality unless there is a glaring issue, but several reviewers have noted portions of this print have a flicker or seem a bit washed out. I noticed these problems, but I can't say that they in any way distracted from my enjoyment of the film, and they certainly don't prevent me from recommending it--be it on the big screen, television, video or this DVD. And I recommend it very, very strongly indeed.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Starting out, I must advise that my review here is for the 1945
pre-release version of "The Big Sleep", which had quite a few scenes
redone prior to it's release to general audiences in October 1946. With
filming already completed by Spring of 1945, there were two main
reasons for the year and a half delay; first, with World War II
underway, Warner Brothers felt compelled to get it's war related films
into theaters while they were still timely. Secondly, Producer/Director
Howard Hawks was convinced he had to re-shoot some scenes involving
Lauren Bacall, who was critically panned in her latest film,
"Confidential Agent" with Charles Boyer. In the original print, Bacall
is presented in a few scenes wearing a distracting veil, and it's her
more glamorous side that the studio needed to capitalize on.
Much has been made of the complexity of the "The Big Sleep", and deservedly so. On my latest viewing, I took pen in hand to keep track of the characters and situations. That only helped so much. For example, Humprey Bogart's character, private detective Philip Marlowe is tailing rare book dealer Arthur Gwynne Geiger for his client General Sternwood; Geiger allegedly holds gambling debts involving a few thousand dollars on Sternwood's daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Following Geiger's auto to his residence, Marlowe studies his surroundings, and then hears a woman's scream and gunshots, followed immediately by two cars careening out of the driveway. Entering the house, he discovers the lifeless body of Geiger, and a spaced out Carmen Sternwood. Out of this scenario are offered two, maybe three possibilities. First, General Sternwood's chauffeur Owen Taylor is implicated, as he had fallen in love with Carmen and wanted to defend her from blackmail. Secondly, a shady Geiger accomplice Joe Brody may have done it, OR may have chased the guilty Taylor from the crime scene either to retrieve some incriminating blackmail film or to remove him as a potential witness. OR, the spaced out Carmen could have killed Geiger herself, and although this wasn't offered as a possibility in the film, she WAS present, and may have been entirely coherent when the murder was committed.
And this is how the story proceeds. Even more characters are introduced to spin off the original plot, and Marlowe is off investigating the proprietor of a gambling house named Eddie Mars, Brody's accomplice Agnes Lozier, the salesgirl at the rare bookstore, and Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), a tail on Marlowe who gets rubbed out after setting up a meeting with Agnes that might provide more information to go on.
All of the intrigue aside, it's the chemistry once again between Bogey and by now, Mrs. Bogey, Lauren Bacall that propels this movie forward. Whether just sizing each other up at the beginning of the film, or as unwilling accomplices and possible lovers by film's end, it's the snappy banter and smoldering tension between the two that put the sizzle into this edgy noir thriller.
As if to prove how great an actor Bogart was, this film offers us a glimpse at his incredible range. Of course I'm referring to the bookstore scene in which Bogey portrays a nerdy client seeking information on a non existent rare book. With a mere upturn of his hat's brim and a cleverly positioned pair of glasses, Bogart completely transforms into an almost unrecognizable comic character who befuddles and infuriates the store's proprietress. He follows that up with a walk across the street, and a double entendre filled conversation with a disarmingly seductive Dorothy Malone in a scene that could have lingered into X-rated territory if not for the task at hand.
One could go on and on about "The Big Sleep", and others have, but to appreciate the film's mystery, darkness and noir complexity you'll have to view it. But don't try to solve the case, you won't want to hurt yourself.
"The Big Sleep" is one of those movies I never tire of watching. Bogie, playing Philip Marlowe - one of his finer roles, commands the screen, wise-cracking with felons and coppers alike, giving a few beatings and taking a lot himself. The night scenes are wonderfully shot, with shadow and fog effects being used perfectly. The main reason to watch this movie, though, are the scenes between Bogart and Bacall. Their on-screen chemistry (fueled by their off-screen romance) lends the most weight to the film. My favorite of their exchanges is when Bogart, tied up yet still smoking, tells Bacall to "take this cigarette out of my mouth". And, of course, they kiss. A short while later, she helps Bogie take out a hired killer. Bogie remarks "I didn't think they made them like that anymore." They certainly don't.
The second of the Bogey and Bacall pairings has Humphrey Bogart playing
his second pulp fiction detective for the screen. Previously he had
done Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and now he's Philip Marlowe in The
Big Sleep. He's at the top of his game in both.
Bogey's been hired by Philip Waldron to get rid of a blackmailer that's got something on one of his daughters, the amoral and disturbed Martha Vickers. The older daughter Lauren Bacall intrigues Bogey a bit more when she tries to pry into exactly what Bogart is doing for her father. Seems as though a family chauffeur has gone missing a while back and the family is concerned on a number of levels.
The plot glides into the question of the missing chauffeur and Bogart meets all kinds of interesting characters before all the mysteries are solved.
The Big Sleep proved that the teaming on screen of Bogey and Bacall was no flash in the pan success that they had in Two Have and Have Not. They are surrounded with a great cast of players. Dorothy Malone got her first notice on film as a bookstore proprietor. Elisha Cook essays one of his typical roles as a luckless fall guy. John Ridgely is properly menacing as gambler Eddie Mars.
But my favorite in this film has always been Bob Steele as the vicious killer Canino who Ridgely has on retainer. Why Bob Steele wasted his time with two bit grade C westerns when he was doing work like this is beyond me. My favorite scene in The Big Sleep has always been when Bogey blasts Steele after Bacall has diverted his attention. When you hear Bogart utter those words, "over here, Canino" he was never more chilling or menacing on the screen before or after.
Set comfortably within it's time in the Forties, The Big Sleep still packs quite a wallop for today's audience. May you never have Humphrey Bogart looking to nail you for some misdeed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Frequently compared with Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" as one of the
classics of the private eye genre, "The Big Sleep" is, in many ways,
far removed from the former film
Where on the contrary "The Maltese
Falcon" has a basically simple plot about the hunt for a priceless
statuette, "The Big Sleep" has probably the most complicated story ever
And, more important, where Hammett's Sam Spade was
uncompromising, mercenary and a winner, Raymond Chandlers Philip
Marlowe was a frequent sufferer at the hands of cops and hoods and in
many ways a loser
"The Big Sleep" almost defies plot analysis Just about the only part of the film that is straightforward is the opening sequence when Marlowe undertakes a job of investigation for a crippled millionaire whose daughter is being blackmailed Afterwards it fills up with such a vast assortment of shadowy characters whores, pimps, killers, gamblers, a dope hooked deb who sucks her thumb it is almost impossible to follow Nevertheless let me mention that Bogart was hired ostensibly to track down a blackmailer, but quickly finds himself immersed in murder, and harmonized double-crosses
The film has speed, efficiency and magnificent craftsmanship, it has wit and the acting, needless to say, is of the quality one expects from a Warner's movie of the Forties Bogart witnesses Bob Steele smilingly giving Elisha Cook, Jr., a poisoned glass of water, all the while assuring him that he has nothing to fear; and Bogart's coldly calculated shootout with Steele later in the film Bacall moves stealthily in fear or shame, Martha Vickers expresses displeasure, resentment, and bad humor, chief heavy John Ridgeley shows anger and Elisha Cook Jr. is furtive
If the magic, whether it was entirely calculated in advance or not, lies in the absolute congruence of the Marlowe character with Bogart's screen personality, it nevertheless was an important contribution to the Bogart mystique and is usually paired with "The Maltese Falcon" when reissued
This was the film in which Bogart became Marlowe for all time... It was the only time he played Marlowe, but it stuck Bogart as Marlowe is a rock of logic in a carousel of shady characters with clear psychological motivations for only partially explained actions...
When it first appeared, "The Big Sleep" was attacked in some quarters for violence and amorality but beneath its cynicism and toughness there breathed a heart and sentimentality which he1p to make it timeless
Many fans of this classic film are drawn to it because of Bogie and
Bacall, who do indeed make a deft acting duo. Here, Bogie plays Philip
Marlowe, the tough talking, street savvy PI, who has his roots in the
crime novels of writer Raymond Chandler. Bacall plays Vivian Sternwood,
the adult daughter of a wealthy man. Vivian is just as tough and cagey
as Marlowe. And she has a younger sister named Carmen, who seems to
have fallen in with a bad crowd. It's up to Marlowe to investigate, and
to save the Sternwood family from financial ruin. "The Big Sleep" is a
story of blackmail, murder, multiple motives, lies, and all manner of
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are certainly persuasive in their roles. I also like the script's snappy dialogue. For example, in a conversation with General Sternwood, Marlowe responds: "Hmm". Sternwood follows up: "What does that mean?" To which Marlowe fires back: "It means, hmm". Marvelous.
But the film's plot is an incoherent mess. It is hard to follow, disjointed, and has obvious lapses. Further, secondary characters (Geiger, Brody, Mars, et.al.), and their interrelationships, are poorly defined. To some extent that vagueness and lack of precision are fairly common in 1940's pulp detective stories.
The best approach to "The Big Sleep" is to engulf the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian, marvel at the acting of Bogie and Bacall, enjoy the witty dialogue, and ignore the discombobulated plot.
Read all of my reviews at www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com This classic film
noir has very few of techniques generally associated with noir. It
contains no skewed camera angles; and though it is darkly lit, it is
not overcome with murky, obscuring shadows. The hero is not
down-and-out, poor, or desperate. There is no retrospective narration,
or flashbacks. Yet, the Big Sleep is widely considered to be one of the
very best of this genre. It is a cynical, perverse, murderous world
filled with loads of confusing action and unknown motives. It is, in
fact, one of the great films of one of the screens greatest actors (for
my personal top 10 actors list, click here), and most talented
It was directed by Howard Hawks fresh off of the successful pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall in To Have and Have Not. The two star here again and it is easy to see why they made another two films together. Based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, many people complain that this film is incomprehensible. Somewhat famously it is reported that Bogart and Hawks, after arguing over who killed one of the characters, called up Chandler to get the correct answer. Chandler didn't have the slightest idea, for the novel is rather vague on this point. It's true that both the novel and film leave many plot points as to who did what to whom more than unclear, but there is so much style in both that it's hard to make a convincing argument against them.
A good deal of the confusion within the film comes from the production codes in effect at the time it was produced. Chandler's novel deals with murder, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and pornography. At the time, these things were deemed unfit to show on a movie screen and so Hawks had to hint at them using various subtle methods. For instance, when Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is found by detective Phillip Marlow (Bogart) in the novel she is completely nude and sitting posed for a hidden camera. Since pornography is explicitly against code, in the movie she is dressed in a silky, Japanese gown. There is still a hidden camera, and its missing film becomes a catalyst for much of the action in the film. We must infer from the exotic nature of the gown that there was more than just pictures of a woman in a gown going on. There are many similar instances in the film like this. For an audience member who has not read the book, they must pay close attention to the subtext, or the film will seem baffling.
Personally, I am very much a fan of the book, and all of Chandler's work. While I appreciate that some of the finer plot points are a bit vague in this film, I also understand that the film succeeds not in the details of the story, but in a sinister sense of style. The film oozes with a dark, disquieting atmosphere. Nearly everyone Marlowe meets is hiding something, and is of less than upstanding moral character. Hawks does a great job of keeping nearly every scene in the dark or in the rain, or both. There are so many characters coming in and out of the shadows and with their own shady character that it is difficult to keep up.
Bogart, of course, does a marvelous job as Marlowe. He seems to understand a lot more information than the audience is ever given. Chandler wrote Marlowe as a detective who sticks by his own set up morals, remaining somewhat of a noble creature trying to stay afloat amongst the muck and sewers of the city. Lauren Bacall does a very good job portraying Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, in a role that is much different than the one in the book. Like many films from this era, they create a romance that wasn't really in the source material. I don't mind though, because Bogart and Bacall really sizzle.
What can I say that hasn't been said before? This is really classic noir at its best. It's got Bogart and Bacall. It was directed by Howard Hawks, written by William Faulkner from a novel by Raymond Chandler. What more could a lover of classic cinema want? More reviews at www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com
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