The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep (1946)

     Despite sitting on my shelf since 2006, The Big Sleep finally made its move to the DVD player. My failure to watch the flick is no knock to the story or Bogie and Bacall, but more a reflection of my tendency to prioritize the less-permanent DVR-saved movies than those in DVD form.

     Being the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the one during the long production of which the two would wed, The Big Sleep drips with couple’s fiery chemistry. The two first met in early 1944 as they prepared to co-star in To Have and Have Not. At age 44, Bogart was 25 years Bacall’s senior and married to a rather destructive Mayo Methot. The two fell in love over the fewer than three months spent on the set of their first film, but it is not until later that year that Bogart would leave Methot, coinciding with the start of shooting on The Big Sleep.

     The film originally wrapped production in January 1945, at which point Bogart is already telling the press he will marry Bacall, but the divorce does not go through until May. Eleven days later, Bacall becomes the next Mrs. Bogart and Warner Bros. decides to shoot additional footage for The Big Sleep in January 1946 that would play up the romance between the two characters. At last, the film releases to rave reviews in August that year.

      Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, and with a screenplay writing team that includes William Faulkner, The Big Sleep weaves a menacingly complex yarn that follows private detective Phillip Marlowe. What begins as a look at a blackmail attempt against the daughter of an old millionaire results in a far deeper mess of trouble and at least three murders. The story line is impossibly complex, and the primary hurdle for me was keeping all the character names straight. Try as I did to follow what was occurring, I ultimately gave up and just enjoyed the ride, which is precisely as The Big Sleep is meant to be approached. The addition of Bogie-Bacall reshoots resulted in the subtraction of other footage that supposedly helps to better explain the plot.

     When watching The Big Sleep, what is important is not who killed whom but rather the style, the drama, the feel and, of course, the relationship between Bogart and Bacall. Playing her typical tough-woman role, Bacall provides a gritty and easy match to Bogart’s grizzly private dick. Curiously, women throughout this film are emphasized as being wildly attracted to the Marlowe character, which seems contrary to Bogart’s actual looks. I’m not sure I understand the emphasis here unless it came from the novel.

     The Big Sleep is one of those standby classics that everyone must see, and is a great example of both Bogart and Bacall’s work. For those who cannot stand not knowing just what went on, I’ll borrow an analysis from author Ernest W. Cunningham (SPOILER):

Soldier-of-fortune Shawn Regan (a major character never seen in the film) is hired by wealthy General… Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood has two beautiful daughters with “corrupt blood”: sexy, spoiled Carmen (Martha Vickers) and the cool, insolent Vivian (Lauren Bacall).
Carmen Loves Regan but he treats her like a child. Instead, he becomes involved with the wife (Peggy Knudsen) of gambling tycoon Eddie Mars (John Ridgley), so jealous Carmen kills him. Mars hides the body, and sends blackmail demands to Vivian, who pays to protect her sister.
At the same time, Carmen also attracts the attentions of the Sternwood’s chauffeur Owen Taylor (Dan Wallace)–and at the same time, she is the subject of pornographic photos (perhaps taken while she was zonked out of her mind on drugs), and is being blackmailed by Arthur Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz), owner of a bookstore selling pornography from the back room.
The chauffeur kills Geiger for blackmailing Carmen. Taylor, in turn, is eliminated by Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), to get those valuable photos of Carmen. Brody is the boyfriend of Agnes (Sonia Darren), the woman who works in Geiger’s bookstore and doesn’t know about first editions when Marlowe asks her about Ben-Hur.
Marlowe follows Vivian to Brody’s apartment. Brody goes to answer the doorbell, and is killed by Carol Lundgren (Tom Rafferty, in leather jacket), Geiger’s “shadow” (lover?) who thinks that Brody killed Geiger.
Agnes, busy lady that she is, is also friends with Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) who is killed by Eddie Mars’s scary gunman Canino (Bob Steele) to prevent him from telling Marlowe what he knows about Shawn Regan.
Canino traps Marlowe at the garage and is about to shoot him but, with Vivian’s help, Marlowe kills him first.
Marlowe then lures Eddie Mars to a showdown and tricks him into being machine-gunned by his hown men.
Any questions?

Source: The Ultimate Bogart by Ernest W. Cunningham

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2 Responses

  1. One of my very favorites. Your advice is right on. If you try to understand the plot you miss the wonderful dialogue, the best of the noir era. Bogart’s attraction, like McQueen, Mitchum, Robinson, Cagny and others is the potential for spontaneous violence at any point from male characters who can handle any situation. Jack Nicolson is the current best practitioner of this art.

  2. One of my all time favorites, this was one of the first movies I saw in high school that made me take black and white movies seriously.

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