johnlink ranks THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

THE BIG SLEEP is canonical Humphrey Bogart, and it is also one of those few wonderful films we get with Bogart and Bacall. It’s a movie I’ve seen a couple of times, and one that I’ll see many more times in the future.

Le grand sommeil The big sleep 1946 rŽal. : Howard Hawks Humphrey Bogart Lauren Bacall Collection Christophel

I watched THE BIG SLEEP (1946) on 9.17.15. It was my third viewing of the film, and first in seven or eight years.

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, THE BIG SLEEP is a film with dialogue which pops. With a screenplay cowritten by none less than William Faulkner, this is a film about character over plot.

Sure, there is a solid story here. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), a private detective of course, takes a low-impact job from a guys he likes: Gen. Sternwood (Chares Waldron). Sternwood has two daughters. One is a frisky type, Carmen (Martha Vickers). The other is the slow-burn steamy type, Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Vivian and Marlowe take a shining to each other (as did Bogart and Bacall in real life) and Marlowe hangs around the case long after everyone – Vivian included – tells him to let it go. There are all sorts of criminal types and shady types introduced as this story unfolds. It’s complex even if it isn’t complicated. But this is really just a movie about a guy trying to figure things out while he falls for a girl.

This isn’t typical noir. As directed by Howard Hawks, this is more a crime film than the shadowy noir standard stuff. There isn’t a prototypical femme fatale, either. Vivian may have a deeply troubled life, but she isn’t trouble. The other female characters are too minor to apply for the job. Hawks, working closely off the Chandler novel, is worried about atmosphere to be sure, but you can tell he is working on a genre which hasn’t defined itself (indeed, much of the noir ‘standard’ was only identified by the French critics in the subsequent decade… hence the French term).

Whatever you might title her, Bacall is a revelation. Only 22 when this movie was made, she challenges Marlowe in a way Bogart hadn’t been before. Ingrid Bergman is perfect in  CASABLANCA, but she and Bogart’s Rick are in love and they just aren’t allowed to be. Mary Astor plays coy in MALTESE FALCON, but Bogart – this time playing private eye Sam Spade – is never fooled by her. The chemistry in BIG SLEEP between Bogart in Bacall is the heart of this film. It allows Marlowe to be more vulnerable and a little more accessible than the hardened characters Bogart had created in his previous iconic turns.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Big Sleep, The)_NRFPT_03

His Marlowe, here, sleeps around a bit (at least as much as can be shown in a mid 1940s film). He gets beat up a couple of times. He isn’t always the smartest person in the room, though he is always the most crafty. He doesn’t have Rick’s cynical view of the world, nor does he have the disdain for everyone around him that Sam Spade does. Instead, Marlowe is liked by his peers, gets along with all the police (save one guy he has a beef with), and doesn’t feel like he is using the women he grins at. Marlowe is probably a bigger stretch for Bogart than anyone else in his career to that point, and he kills it. Of course, that would mean nothing if Bacall wasn’t note perfect at every turn as Vivian.

But we’ve strayed too far from the dialogue. It’s awesome. When Bogart tells of meeting the younger daughter he says that she “tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up”. An extended prank phone call to the police with Marlowe and Vivian pretending to be various family members is more fun than Bogart usually allows himself to have in his serious faire. In a bit of glorious innuendo, the two have a conversation about, ostensibly, horse racing. Marlowe offers that he knows she “has a touch of class. But I don’t know how… how far you can go.” To witch Vivian replies, slyly, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

As far as Bogart movies of the 40s go, I would still put FALCON and CASABLANCA in a tier all by themselves. If you wanted to put THE BIG SLEEP in that same tier, I wouldn’t argue too hard. For me, it is a small half step below. Still head and shoulders above most of the films of the 40s, it is absolutely one to see.




FINAL SCORE: 8.25 out of 10


~ by johnlink00 on September 18, 2015.

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