Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

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Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.

It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars

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