I’ve probably seen Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep about a dozen or so times over the years and I still can’t properly describe the plot of the film even after finally reading the Raymond Chandler novel it’s based on. That said, it’s always been a fun classic film to watch a few times because Humphrey Bogart plays his part so effortlessly and the other actors follow suit with some solid performances.
Yes, I know the film is all about private eye Philip Marlowe’s (Humphrey Bogart) somewhat interesting and somewhat laid back investigation process in a particularly confounding murder/extortion/sex/drugs case where a number of bodies drop before all is said and done. That said, the plot spills all over the place like a tipsy barmaid wearing roller skates trying to carry a tray of drinks onboard a capsizing ship. In the end, none of the plot bumps really hurt the movie because you’ll likely end up loving the end result for Howard Hawks’ directing and the cast doing their best with that loopy William Faulkner/Jules Furthman/Leigh Brackett script (which got a few other hands involved as well).
The film is also a great look at the real-life blossoming Bogart and Bacall relationship with the snappy chemistry between the pair (working together for the second time) getting the sparks going full on despite the Hays Code restrictions. In other words, a little innuendo goes a long way, folks. That said, rather than do a rote retelling of the plot (which would take a longer post, trust me), this bit of pillow fluff will take a detour into Philip Marlowe’s amusingly laid back approach to dealing with most of the film’s other actors.
Bogart’s easing himself into the character so well imbues Marlowe with an almost hilarious quip-packed confidence where he doesn’t present himself as anything but a guy just doing (or trying to do) his job for better or worse and most of the film’s assortment of women just naturally responding to him in a genuinely positive manner. Of course, he’s definitely a tough customer to anyone in the film trying to do him wrong and he’s far from the perfect gentleman at certain points when situations call for him to exercise a bit of force. But the film’s an absolute gold mine of subtle to well-targeted comic relief mixed in well with the more dramatic moments.
(Thanks, Cristelle Maury!)
Say, are there any fans of The Big Lebowski in the house? Wait, what the heck are you doing in my house? No, don’t get up – you haven’t broken anything and you actually left me some popcorn (thanks!). Anyway, that opening sequence above should make you smile a bit for a few reasons. You pretty much know that Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is going to be nothing but trouble for Marlowe and sure enough, she’s not only a big part of the investigation, she tries to come onto Marlowe by popping up unannounced at his place a bit later in the film only to get kicked out rather abruptly by the man himself. You’ll also know right away that Bacall’s absolutely crackling Mrs. Vivian Rutledge is going to play quite the part in the story the second she and Marlowe lock eyes.
While the film is famous for their back and forth sometimes innuendo-laced banter, it seems that Vickers overcharged performance politely (but fiercely) ate Bacall’s for lunch during shooting. At the behest of Bacall’s agent wanting her to have a meatier role partially thanks to unkind reviews for her work in 1945’s Confidential Agent (which isn’t that “bad” a movie, by the way) the film was re-cut and a few new scenes were shot to give Bacall more screen time with Bogie. Vickers’ part was whittled, one actress (Pat Clark) who wasn’t available for the re-shoot was replaced with another (Peggy Knudsen), and two other actors (James Flavin and Thomas E. Jackson) were completely snipped out of the film. The 1946 version is the the one many are familiar with and what this post is based on. I’ve also seen the 1945 cut which better explains two of the murders, has more of Marlowe’s shamus work and dealing with the two actors cut from the reshoot, and overall, isn’t a bad way at all to spend the extra time watching.
Now, where were we? Oh, right. Except for rebuffing Carmen’s advances and dealing with this no-nonsense lady who sees through his somewhat lousy disguise attempt, Marlowe is quite the odd charmer of sorts. The taxi scene with Joy Barlow is short but brilliant stuff. Be sure to listen carefully for composer Max Steiner adding a short comic stinger that makes the sequence. I’d almost go as far as to say that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction pays a tiny homage to this scene in a more explicit verbal manner, but that may be more my fevered mind stretching things based on that director’s penchant for referencing elements from multiple films, often in the same scene.
And then, there’s my favorite scene in the entire film because it made me forget about Mrs. Vivian Rutledge and everything that came before. Or, ladies and gentlemen, thanks to a slow inside curve pitch from Bogie, this is Dorothy Malone knocking it out of the park in the coyest (yet sauciest) manner possible:
Wow. Let’s take the fact that Malone’s unnamed bookstore clerk *only* pulls the window shade on the door down when offered a bit of Marlowe’s pretty good rye and anyone walking by could just look into the big window and see the little drinking party that’s about to happen take place. Let’s also take into account that you see someone standing outside that window facing the other way as they watch the rain falling and they’re not at all nosy when that shade is drawn. Let’s also take into account that even if you overthink this scene with those two first points, no matter your gender, I’d bet a wooden nickel your own glasses or contacts are probably quite fogged up and you may even need to loosen your collar a bit when all is said and done.
In English: The best thing about that scene is nothing actually happens that’s even close to salacious, but it sure as heck looks and feels like it.
Even though the film was remade by Michael Winner in 1978 with Robert Mitchum (who played Marlowe in 1975’s solid and superior period piece Farewell, My Lovely) and was much closer to the Chandler novel, it’s a lesser effort thanks to updating the story to a modern London setting and a few other pesky details. While fine in his return to the Marlowe character, the film doesn’t have the more delicious slyness of the original and some elements just feel off (at least to my overly critical eye).
Hmmm. Ruh-Roh! I seem to have roused a few sprits from their slumber, one still a bit woozy. To wit:
Mrs. Vivian Rutledge: Why did you have to go on?
Um, I’m sorry, Ms, Bacall! Sorry! Eep!!
Marlowe (yawns and stretches): Too many people told me to stop.
Yeah, okay… I get the hint, Angel. Let’s wrap up this party up before another body turns up. Mine. I think Marlowe and the Mrs. deserve a nice big sleep at this point, so I’ll sign off gracefully here. Hmmm… I think I need a cup of pretty good rye after that light haunting that just occurred (and I don’t even believe in ghosts!)
You’ve made it this far? Well, thanks for reading and feel free to drop a comment below if you like! By the way, this post is part of The 4th Annual SEX! (now that I have your attention) BLOGATHON held over at MovieMovieBlogBlog (Or is it just MovieBlog and I have a case of doubledouble visionvision from a bit too much of that pretty good rye? Only my hairdresser knows for sure, but both those links work just fine, folks!)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another Blogathon calling and gesticulating fervently for my attention. Pop back over here in a few days for that slice of wintry (and deadly) fun, won’t you please?
Re-watching the 78 Winner flick allowed me to make a little more sense out of this Gordian knot of a plot, but dammit, it didn’t have Dorothy Malone in it, so you’re right, this is definitely the superior version.
I was always annoyed they didn’t hire a Malone look-alike even as an in-joke reference foe fans of the original.
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I can watch this and The Maltese Falcon again and again, and never grow tired of them. Just a whole mess of Bogart fun. And have you ever seen that pre-adjustment 1945 version? I actually like it more than I do the more well-known version, I think because it offers more police/detective work, and less steamy romance (and yes, I know what I just said). And I’ll have to agree with the Dorothy Malone scene; good lord, the things you can do in a bookstore…