The Big Sleep
(Check out my previous film noir review here: Dark Passage)
In early 1944, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall acted in their first film together: To Have and Have Not. To film was a success that continued Bogart’s reign as a top-billing actor and jump-started Bacall’s career as a movie actress (this was her first film appearance as she had previously been a model). Although that film, directed by legendary American auteur Howard Hawks, was released in early 1945, he and the two actors were already at work on a follow up as early as October 1944. Shooting was finished in January of 1945 and the film went on to the cutting room from there where it emerged ready for premiere a few months later.
However, the film would not be released in 1945 as the war drew to a close and the studio had a ton of other war and propaganda films on the shelves, which would have done badly in a peacetime filmgoing market. As such, the film was shelved until late 1946. In the interim, Bacall acted in an unsuccessful film, Confidential Agent, in 1945 for which her performance in particular was roundly criticized as thin and lacking conviction. Only two films into her career, the whole thing looked ready to crumble. the studios called for reshoots on scenes in The Big Sleep in order to give Bacall as strong of a performance as possible, and one recalling as close as possible her alluring characterization in To Have and Have Not. The reshoots compelted, the film premiered and blew away audiences at the time and critics since. It’s not established as a film noir classic.
The story was adapted from a 1939 Raymond Chandler ‘Marlowe’ novel of the same name by southern gothic author William Faulkner, as well as two other hands. It is notoriously confusing and complex. At one point the confusions surrounding a particular plot point- the cause of death of one of film’s characters- led Hawks to call Chandler for elaboration. Chandler had no immediate clue as to whether the character considered killed himself or was killed by another character. He reviewed the requisite parts of the novel and was still unable to discern just how the death occurred.
As the film is pretty complicated and one can be expected to watch it, enjoy its performances and scripting, follow each event to the next, but still be confused about the entire plot, I’ll attempt to elaborate on it here. I trust that giving away much of the plot will have little effect on viewer enjoyment for anyone who reads this then watches the film at some later point.
Marlowe is a private detective hired out on a case to the house of ex-General Sternwood, a retired old man with two paralyzed legs, whose perpetually at death’s door. The man used to have a friend who stayed with him at the house (with whom it is implied the relationship was sexual in nature) named Sean Regan. Sean left a while back, but as it turns out, disappeared due to General Sternwood’s youngest daughter, the extremely seductive minx Carmen, who shot him while on a drunken turn made worse through her intense psychosis.
Carmen’s elder sister Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (she’s a widow, and Bacall) took the fall for her sister in the mind of the one man who knew about the death: Eddie Mars. Eddie previously blackmailed the family and was paid off. But a second man, Mr. Geiger, found photo evidence of the murder and is blackmailing the family for the same thing. Marlowe has been hired to track down this second blackmailer and kill him, a wet job.
But before he can get to the guy someone else does. One Joe Brody who kills the man to appease his lover Agnes Lourzier who works for Geiger. Agnes takes the man’s vast book collection the following morning and plans to sell it off en masse to make a quick buck, and a big one at that. But another kid who works at the shop is also in on the job and loves Agnes so he kills Joe Brody and runs off. Marlowe catches the kid and knocks him out, after which point the kid disappears.
Meanwhile, tons of clues keep leading Marlowe closer to the trail of Eddie Mars and Mars, as it turns out, is on Marlowe’s trail as well. Tons of lackeys die in the process, and a few innocent bystander types, before Marlowe manages to invade Eddie Mars’ hideout where his wife is inexplicably hidden away. As it turns out, she and Geiger were going to run away and get married if they got the ransom money from the Sternwood’s. Eddie found out and is majorly pissed off and has her held by his goons in a safe house. But Vivian is there too and has been on the side of Eddie the whole time, but changes her affiliations for Marlowe, which makes sense because Eddie has blackmailed her family after all (maybe the blackmail kept her from ratting out Eddie for so long.
Eventually, Marlowe and Vivian escape the house, beat Eddie’s goons, and make way for the old house of Geiger, which Eddie Mars owned and leased out to his tenant: both of which blackmailed the Sternwood family, giving them a connection and making it clear how Geiger knew what he did. Marlowe calls Eddie, tells him he is on the way to house, and waits within the house he is already calling from until Eddie shows up with four goons. Eddie enters the house alone, with no gun, and plans to be agreeable and to let Marlowe leave first, during which point he will be shot by Eddie’s goons. Marlowe instead forces Eddie out of the house at gunpoint where he is shot by his own goons. Marlowe calls his friends at police headquarters and sirens approach, hopefully scaring off the other goons and not resulting in a gunfight and needless bloodshed. What happens in the end is unknown to the viewers of the film.
The film is labyrinthine and moves in ways much more complex than the short summary I provided above (which now that I’ve penned it am sure is wrong in some way). The complexity of the machinations of each character, each more complex than the next, make for a powerful film filled with paranoia, double-crosses, reveals, ciphers, clue-hunting, femme fatales, and close touches with death that ultimately makes it my favorite of the four pictures in which Bogart and Bacall played opposite one another from the mid- to late 40s. Because the maze at the narrative core of the film, the disorientation, and confusion, and the bare fact that the resourceful hero can negotiate this difficult terrain nonetheless inspires in me hope that in our postmodern social reality, cunning and sophistry can potentially cut to the thick and remove one from the gutters, from Being-down-and-out to Being-on-the-up-and-up. Heidegger’s rolling in his grave. Ciao
[Next up: Beat The Devil]