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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Once upon a time when I was young, when England only had three standard television channels, there was a critic by the name of Barry Norman. He was the BBC's man when it came to films, and had been forever, and so was thus very highly regarded, like Siskel & Ebert and Leonard Maltin all rolled into one. Of course I didn't pay much attention to him myself because he had a habit of looking down his nose at the sort of movies I watched, preferring instead to rave about something like the latest Woody Allen picture that then interested me not at all. However I do remember him once selecting something like a century of cinema, a whole bunch of classic films, one per year of release, all to be broadcast on the BBC, and I made a deliberate effort to catch up with some of them. I thoroughly enjoyed my first exposure to films like The Maltese Falcon, Morocco and Casablanca, but when it came to The Big Sleep I was entirely lost.

I think I lasted about twenty minutes or so before giving it up as a bad job, but looking back now I can understand why: it's a very complex and adult movie. By definition, film noir as a genre deals with the dark underbelly of human nature and thus can only be appreciated by someone with a knowledge of the world. As a kid, I didn't have that in the slightest. I may have known that noir dealt with complex characters who were often neither good or evil but always somewhere teasingly in between, but I didn't grok it. I may even have known that what we see isn't always what happens, it's what happens from the perspective of the characters we're watching, but maybe I didn't. I was young, inexperienced and didn't know what I was looking at. I can only assume that now I do, because when I returned to the film for this project I was riveted. Then again I was at least double the age I was then, maybe triple. I'm not young any more.

Humphrey Bogart is much of the reason for the success of the picture, and without him it could have been a disaster. The entire film rests on his performance, which is the epitome of the hardboiled private dick, even more so than his iconic portrayal of Sam Spade four years earlier in The Maltese Falcon. Both Spade and Philip Marlowe are capable men: tough without being invulnerable, clever without always being right, decent but with a perpetually open door into the dark side. They also have a notable eye for the ladies and a dry wit that is mostly highlighted through snappy dialogue. What we get here that we didn't get in The Maltese Falcon is a deliberately vague and unfocused plot because we're not really concerned about whodunit, we're concerned with how Marlowe conducts his investigation and himself. Bogie, of course, is the key to that.

Ostensibly he's tasked by Gen Sternwood, a retired military man on his last legs, to stop his daughter Carmen from being blackmailed again. He once paid Joe Brody $5,000 to leave her alone, but now he's apparently back for more. First time round the affair was handled by the general's surrogate son, Sean Regan, but Regan has disappeared, thus prompting the need for a detective. Apparently this all ties to gambling debts, as Brody runs a casino and there are IOUs signed by his daughter to back up the story, but Sternwood doesn't believe that in the slightest. Like everything else in this story though, the details are never fully explained, never fully explored and never fully backed up as reality over perspective. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to the story, but there's no guarantee that it's the same story all the way. We follow Marlowe to find out but we're forced to follow him absolutely because he's the focus throughout.

This approach is really powerful because the story progresses through Marlowe's conclusions but while they're believable and logical, they aren't necessarily true. Characters manoeuvre, they lie, they pretend to be other people. They even kill because of mistaken assumptions. This story doesn't begin with a murder but it ends with seven men dead, all apparently killed by different characters with different motives. And this is all strange, because we expect all the plot strands to be wrapped up in a neat bundle at the finale. We're conditioned into expecting it from every single episode of Scooby Doo, even though in real life the janitor isn't going to dress up as a ghost pirate and there aren't going to be any pesky kids to spoil his fun. What this film teaches us is that all those TV shows and Hollywood movies that pretended to be more sophisticated than that really weren't, they were just the same thing, merely a little less cartoonish.
Perhaps most importantly they tend to be self contained, so that every detail is a clue that we can use to work out whodunit before the protagonist. Even in something a little more complex like The Maltese Falcon, everything in the story is still merely another detail on the way to the MacGuffin of the title. Here we don't know whether the details we see are clues, red herrings or just something else entirely. There are plenty of clues, even more red herrings and quite a few MacGuffins too. One is an apparently pornographic photo of Carmen Sternwood that proves to be the real reason for the blackmail, though naturally in a 1946 Hollywood movie we only ever see it in rolled up form. We can never be sure who or what's in the picture, whether the man who surreptiously took it did so without her knowledge or whether he drugged her to take it or she was just a willing, if stupid, participant in everything.

Another MacGuffin is Sean Regan, who drives much of the plot but is dead before it begins. In fact he's the primary reason why Marlowe carries on even after he seems to have accomplished what he was hired to do. By this point he's stopped the blackmail and returned the photograph to Carmen, three men are dead and the general has paid him off handsomely, but he continues sticking his nose into places it perhaps doesn't belong and pushing everyone's buttons until they give the right responses. He's got his teeth into something that he wants answers to for his own reasons. He's also fallen for Carmen's elder sister, Vivian Rutledge and she for him. 'Why did you have to go on?' she asks him. 'Too many people told me to stop,' he replies. There's suggestion that he perseveres simply because he likes the general, but there's also suggestion that Sternwood embarks on the big sleep of the title about half way through, naturally a euphemism for death.

To a large degree and perhaps for the first time, the story itself is the MacGuffin. What matters is Philip Marlowe, what he does, how he does it and why. Some of this ambiguity comes from the source novel by Raymond Chandler, some from the adaptation by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and Nobel laureate William Faulkner, but possibly most from the forced circumstances of the time. While classic hardboiled literature could walk down many seedy avenues, Hollywood film could not. The Production Code had been enforced for five years before Chandler's novel was published in 1939 and the film was shot five years after that. The book provides character motivations through pornography, homosexuality and adultery, which were either taboo or heavily regulated in Hollywood. One of the lead characters who lasts to the finale is technically an accessory to murder, but in the world of the Code, nobody could get away with their crime.

So while the script follows the novel closely, it simply wasn't allowed to be completely faithful. Another reason for change is the fact that the relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had changed considerably between 1944, when the film was shot, and 1946, when it was released. With the end of war imminent, the studios had to release a backlog of war films quickly before the public's interest in them waned considerably. Bogart and Bacall had met and fallen in love in 1944 while making another Hawks movie, To Have and Have Not. but by 1946, they were married and the palpable chemistry from that film had moviegoers enthralled. Unfortunately that wasn't apparent in The Big Sleep, Martha Vickers getting more screen time as Carmen than Bacall did as Vivian and outshining her too. So parts of the film were reshot in 1946 to highlight Bacall over Vickers and add sexually suggestive banter between her and Bogart.

The original version slated for release in 1945 resurfaced in the late nineties, having only previously been shown to troops in the South Pacific during the war. I've only seen it once but I prefer it to the better known version because it's more coherent, while still suitably drenched in ambiguity. About twenty minutes of footage are different, with Vickers far more obvious and much of the famous dialogue between Bogart and Bacall missing. One character, Mona Mars, is played by an entirely different actress, because her scenes tied into Bacall's and the original actress, Pat Clark, wasn't available to reshoot them. Both versions are superb, this being a rare example of studio intervention that didn't end up breaking the film. Which version you find superior is likely to come down to how important you find that Bogart/Bacall chemistry. For some, the presence of the horse racing conversation alone tips the scales in favour of the 1946 version.
It was immediately obvious in To Have and Have Not just how well the 19 year old ingenue and the 45 year old married veteran connected. I'm used to Bogie being very stone faced on screen but he simply glowed whenever he was around Bacall that first time out, and she did no less. She carried herself so confidently in that, her debut film, that you could believe she was double the age she was, though by her own admission she was a nervous wreck. This was their second of four films together, the other two being Dark Passage and Key Largo. Strangely, I feel that The Big Sleep contains Bogart's best performance from these four films but Bacall's worst, possibly due to the role not initially having much to play with and then being rewritten and reedited into the story. However Bogie is jovial through their scenes, at least as jovial as he ever got, simply because Bacall is with him, and that's especially apparent in the added scenes.

There are other people here, who refuse to take back seats. Martha Vickers remains magnetic, even while drugged to oblivion and even though her presence in the film was decreased substantially. Carmen Sternwood is a sort of film noir version of Paris Hilton, not just because of certain unsavoury coincidences, but because she's just as used to using her looks and her status to be the focus of everybody's attention. When she sashays down the Sternwood staircase in a polka dotted miniskirt, she comes onto Marlowe without even knowing who he is. 'You're cute,' she says seductively as she literally falls into his arms, leading to Marlowe's famous description: 'She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.' You can believe that she's willing to do anything, and you can believe her father's words when he explains why he doesn't plan to discuss anything with her: 'If I did, she'd just suck her thumb and look coy.'

While Carmen sizes Marlowe up literally ('You're not very tall,' she asks him. 'I try to be,' he replies.), every other woman in the film has a go too, albeit with a little more subtlety. With the exception of Vivian Rutledge, the most successful is Dorothy Malone as an unnamed bookstore proprietress who has a brief dalliance with Marlowe early in the film. It's refreshing a decade before Funny Face to find a young lady working with books who is treated with respect both as to her chosen business and as a beautiful and liberated woman. Charles Waldron is excellent as the wheelchair bound Gen Sternwood who lives vicariously through the drinking and smoking of his guests. Elisha Cook, here with the Jr added that he sometimes used and sometimes didn't, plays the sort of character you might expect but gets a little more depth than usual. Charles D Brown, Louis Jean Heydt and John Ridgley all impress too in small but important parts.

In the end though, it's Humphrey Bogart's show. In literature, the hardboiled detective genre gave us two classic private dicks above all others and Bogart became the screen embodiment of both: Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. It's clear that the film noir genre could never have been the same without him and no tough screen detective ever since has outdone him, however much they've tried. It would be easy to suggest that, as film noir just isn't the same in colour, they've lost their window of opportunity to even try. Partly it's the confidence: Bogie was always supremely confident on screen, even when his characters didn't have a clue what was going on. Chandler himself once said that all Bogart had to do to dominate a scene was to enter it. I've learned this myself through watching the difference between his film roles of the thirties and forties.

The more of his thirties films I see the more I realise that the studios didn't have a clue what to do with him, though they were certainly very aware of his presence. They made him play gangsters because he seemed to fit best in shady roles and he was pretty good, but gangster pictures meant either James Cagney or Edward G Robinson, and even Bogart couldn't hope to dominate with them in competition. Both Cagney and Robinson were so powerful on screen that even in their own early days when they were supposed to be playing second fiddle, they seemed like the entire orchestra. But if the Warner Brothers films of the thirties belonged to Cagney and Robinson, the forties belonged to Bogart. From The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, it's perhaps the most dominant decade any actor ever had and even in such stellar company, The Big Sleep may just be his greatest achievement.

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