IMDB #157 The Big Sleep

It's easy to think of classic films as unimpeachable works of art- chiseled from stone, woven in tapestry. The vision, perhaps, of a black and white auteur, or the product of the finely-tuned studio system of yore. But the greatest films often have the most slipshod, haphazard tales of development: take 1946's The Big Sleep, for example.

After the best-picture triumph of Casablanca, it probably seemed like a no-brainer to cast Humphrey Bogart as another ambivalent wiseguy trying to live under Vichy rules with a piano-playing sidekick. So Howard Hawks enlisted a broke William Faulkner to transpose Hemingway's To Have and Have Not to WWII France. Despite the extensive pedigrees of those four men, the show was stolen by a nineteen-year-old Harper's Bazaar cover model named Lauren Bacall- her rapport with the middle-aged Bogart resulted in her part enlarging considerably.

And so it would be for Hawks/Bogart/Bacall volume two: give the people what they want. It turns out they want star power, sexual chemistry, long horse-racing double entendres, and classic noir.

The Key Players

Howard Hawks comes back to the countdown after two screwball comedies, Bogart we saw once, later in his all-too-brief careeer.

It was actually Hawks' wife Nancy that spotted Betty Joan Peske, soon to be rechristened Lauren Bacall, on a magazine and urged Howard to give her a screen test. The legend has it that both Hawks and Bogart (also married) fell in love with the young starlet during filming of To Have and Have Not, with bitterness resulting when she chose Bogart. Nevertheless, after imitating life in art with four successful thrillers together (Dark Passage and Key Largo being the other two), Bacall would also prove adept at comedy (How To Marry A Millionaire, Designing Woman) drama (Written on the Wind), and stage-work, winning two Tonys before an obligatory "It's Lauren Bacall!" Oscar nomination in 1996 (The Mirror Has Two Faces) and honorary statuette in 2009.

Martha Vickers takes the only other substantial role, in her biggest career success- though that might not be the case if she hadn't died in early middle age from esophogeal cancer, just like Bogart. Elisha Cook from The Killing also pops up- I think he was mostly cast to make the 5'8" Bogart look taller.


The Story:

Raymond Chandler's classic gumshoe novel is rightly famous, not just for having a whole lot of twists and turns, but just the right amount of them: not so many as to be ludicrous, not so few as to be easy to guess the end.

We start with Bogart, aka most famous shamus ever Phillip Marlowe, arriving at the house of his latest client, Old Rich Father (General Sternwood). First he meets Carmen Sternwood (Vickers), whom we'll refer to as Crazed Sexpot Daughter. This is established in a wonderful scene featuring a metajoke about Bogart's height and possibly the shortest shorts available in 1946- also she tries to sit in his lap while he's standing.

Anyway, Crazed Sexpot Daughter has some gambling debts with a Fake Book Dealer, and Old Rich Father wants Marlowe to get her off the hook. Simple enough.

But wait- Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), the other daughter (and presumably a widow? This is never explained) thinks Marlowe's really been called in to look into the dissapearance of her father's Ex-Right Hand Man, who ran off with the wife of a Scary Casino Owner some months before.

Got all that? Marlowe does some simple recon, following the Fake Book Dealer from his Fake Bookshop to his house, only to hear a gunshot and a scream. He storms in to find a drug-addled Crazed Sexpot Daughter, a dead Fake Book Dealer, and a hidden camera with missing film.

Marlowe takes the girl home, but soon Vivian is blackmailed with the compromising picture of Crazed Sexpot Daughter from the camera (the contents of the photo are never explained), and goes to our man for help. But is Vivian in cahoots with the Scary Casino Owner, who was coincidentally the Fake Book Dealer's landlord, and incidentally doesn't seem to care at all about his wife running off with the Ex-Right-Hand-Man?

I'm pretty sure the suspense is gripping!

The Artistry

It's not proper film-nerd behavior to watch The Big Lebowski two dozen times before ever seeing actual noir staples like The Big Sleep, but that's what I ended up doing. I actually even saw The Maltese Falcon last month in the theater!

I even saw the random Smallville episode where Jimmy Olsen gets knocked out and has an elaborate noir fantasy after watching The Big Sleep before I saw The Big Sleep! But better late than never.

And even with too many shady thugs, offscreen murders and double crosses to really keep track of the first time through, there's a familiar rhythm and atmosphere that makes it a pleasure to watch. Marlowe falls in love with Vivian Rutledge because he always does, because she's a woman with a troubled past who needs his help. He gets roughed up by some thugs because he's ignored multiple warnings to stop looking, even after his client says to stop (technically his actual case ends when the Fake Book Dealer is shot).

My favorite character is not Marlowe, however, it's a character never seen onscreen named Owen Taylor. The Sternwood family driver, he is at one point in possession of the scandalous photo- a dumb thug named Joe Brody admits later that he knocked Taylor out and took them, to blackmail Vivian with.

But Owen Taylor still ends up dead, his car twelve feet under the ocean. But who killed him? Brody had no reason to (and no reason to hide it, if he had). The legend is that when Hawks and co. found this plothole, production halted for two days while the screenwriters combed over the book to figure it out. When they couldn't, they telegrammed Chandler himself... who admitted that he didn't know, either.

How awesome is that? Owen Taylor, killed by the plot itself! The very mood of The Big Sleep killed him, because it needed a second body to raise the stakes, and there he was: alone, unconcious, on the side of the road. Absorbed by the shadowy fog and washed out to sea. Owen Taylor is my new go-to reference for plot holes in great films- films great enough that the plot holes hardly matter.

It makes The Big Sleep even better, because there's no way a plot that messy could tie up entirely neatly, is there?

Anyway, the cast is of course excellent, even if the Bogie/Bacall phenomenon threatens to hijack the entire film (more on this later). Vickers shines in her few scenes (according to Chandler, her role was diminished because she was acting circles around Bacall), and all the character-actors as minor stooges acquit themselves just as well. Elisha Cook plays a doomed go-between with such frank earnestness that even Marlowe takes a shine to the guy.

The score I found a pretty typical "OH NO! SOMETHING BAD OR DRAMATIC IS HAPPENING" big band warble, and the noir shadows were familiarly non-descript. The crackling dialogue was filled with some wonderful lines- all my favorites I'll throw in Leftover Thoughts.

The only knock against The Big Sleep is really against the goddamned Hayes Code, anyway- racy and lewd things are left in the film but just obliquely hinted at, like the photo, or a key homosexual relationship. And the ending is softened a bit, as we'll see.

So studio pressure, a mystery killing, and the Hayes Code all mucked The Big Sleep about, and the result was still great. Just goes to show.


Let me preface this by saying this is uneccesarily long and largely so I can keep it all straight for myself:

So...Marlowe tracks down the blackmailers and, despite interference from both sisters, reclaims the photo from Joe Brody, who got it from Owen Taylor (who killed the Fake Book Dealer and took the film because he's in love with Crazed Sexpot Daughter, or was) and a woman named Agnes, who was the Fake Book Dealer's assistant.

Then some random dude (that the film never bothers to mention was the dead guy's gay lover) mistakenly kills Brody in revenge.

Vivian, assuming the case is now over since her sister's debts are gone, and the murder of the Fake Book Dealer is solved (WHAT ABOUT YOUR DRIVER, OWEN TAYLOR, HUH!?), flirts with Marlowe until she realizes that he's not done with the case.

Even though she and the Scary Casino owner stage an elaborate show to throw him off the trail, Marlowe doggedly follows the right people at the right moments until Agnes tips him off to the location of the Casino Owner's wife (after a poor stooge in love with her gets killed delivering the message, which means Marlowe is really Not Letting It Go).

He goes to a secluded cabin to find said Wife, but also Vivian and some henchman that knocks him over the head and ties him up. But Vivian sets him free, long enough to shoot the henchman and drive her back to the house that the Scary Casino Owner owns.

And here's the finale, ready? Marlowe calls the Casino Owner, tells he'll meet him at the house in 40 minutes (even though he's already there- ha! landlines.). Casino Owner arrives, leaves his henchman outside, so Marlowe gets the drop on him.

And here's the rub: turns out Scary Casino Owner convinced Vivian that her sister killed the missing Right Hand Man, and has been blackmailing her ever since. In the book this is ACTUALLY WHAT HAPPENED, but in the film Marlowe sees that he has no proof, and is just taking advantage of Crazed Sexpot Daughter's frequent blackouts to be a jerk. In both versions, he just fires his gun into the ceiling and scares the Casino Owner out of the door, where he's shot by his own men (who heard the shots and figured out Marlowe was in there, and naturally got jumpy).

He calls the cops to get them out safely, and Bogie and Bacall manage to own this cheesy ending exchange:

Vivian: "You've forgotten one thing - me."
Marlowe: "What's wrong with you?"
Vivian: "Nothing you can't fix."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher, for sure. It's definitely my favorite in the genre so far (take that, Out Of The Past). They actually made another version of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, but it was in 1978 and he was sixty! Come on, now.

The Legacy:

As popular as it was, no awards or nominations. It is in the NFR, and I did see a "Who was the best Phillip Marlowe?" poll somewhere where Bogart was absoluely crushing everyone else (Elliott Gould? Be serious.).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

The Big Sleep was actually finished and shown to servicemen before the studio decided the sexual tension between the two leads needed to be amped up. So they shot the night club scene where they talk for a super long time about horse racing and made countless double entendres (many of which I only got the naughty-side of, knowing squat about horses). Embedding is sadly disabled, so follow this link. The clip is from a colorized version, so brace yourself for that.

BONUS: My favorite part was when they prank call the police!

Leftover Thoughts:

-FYI, by "Fake Book Dealer" I mean a lowlife pornographer that masqerades as a book dealer, not a dealer of false books (or "fake books" like jazz musicians use).

-I kind of want to write my own version of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," called Who Killed Owen Taylor? Too bad he never actually appears in The Big Sleep.

-Theorists argue that either Brody killed Owen Taylor and didn't admit it for no real reason, or that Taylor, waking up alone, now a murderer, and without the damning photo of his beloved Carmen, then killed himself- but I don't buy it.

-And now, all quotes all the time:

Carmen: "You're not very tall, are you?"
Marlowe: "Well, I try to be."

after Vivian has trouble opening his office door to get out
Marlowe: "Well it wasn't intentional."
Vivian: "Try it sometime."

Mars: "That any of your business?"
Marlowe: "I could make it my business."
Mars: "I could make your business mine."
Marlowe: "Oh, you wouldn't like it, the pay's too small."

Vivian: "The only trouble is we could've had a lot of fun if you weren't a detective."

Marlowe: "You came in by the keyhole like Peter Pan."
Carmen: "Who's he?"
Marlowe: "Guy I used to know ran a pool room."

Carmen: "Is he as cute as you are?"
Marlowe: "Nobody is." (it's impossible to describe the perfect deadpan with which Bogart delivers this reply. It destroyed me.).

Coming Up...

156. Ben-Hur

155. The Manchurian Candidate

154. Avatar

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