Director and Producer: Howard Hawks
Screenwriters: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman
Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox
Music: Max Steiner
Studio: Warner Bros 1946
Main Acting: Humphrey Bogart
Phillip Marlowe is one of those iconic figures in film noir that is always associated with the genre. Humphrey Bogart is a popular actor forever recognized as a towering symbol in classic Hollywood. What would it mean if these two cultural titans could be fused together and released to a fascinated public? Well, in 1946 it happened, and we get the bonus of esteemed film director Howard Hawks pulling the strings. No less than three screenwriters worked on adapting Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. Everyone has heard of how convoluted and complex the proceedings became, with a slew of characters entering and departing the fray to dizzying effects. One popular story goes that no one had any idea who murders chauffeur Owen Taylor and even the famous author of the original work couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. The truth is that if one were looking for a neat and tidy tale of deception, crime, and double crosses, then this picture isn’t it. Move along to something more linear and narratively cohesive. The Big Sleep is all over the place, and is more worthy for the ride than the destination. The mystery is really just an excuse to marvel at the insane chemistry by Bogie and Lauren Bacall as they wise-crack and mouth double entendres all movie long.
Due to the draconian Hayes Office and Hollywood production code, many changes had to be made from the book before it could hit the big screen. The clear mention of pornography is relatively glossed over in the film, and only hinted at with references to Chinese dresses and such. Some characters in the book (Lundgren and Geiger) have a homosexual relationship which is completely discarded in the film. These two elements are only a few that Hawks had to shape and mold into something different. What he was very successful in accomplishing was giving the whole feature a decadent perverse mood that hung in the air like Vivian’s cigarette smoke after she willingly accepts a symbolic puff from eager Marlowe. The movie really proves the penchant many film noirs have for allowing a pent-up sexuality to pervade every crevice and corner crack. It’s amazing to see how often Marlowe has women throwing themselves at his feet just asking to copulate whenever he feels ready. Hawks makes Bogie’s Marlowe a superhero/movie star-type persona who is not only cool under pressure but smooth with the ladies. For my money, this is Hawks’ best film by a considerable margin. He plays up to all the emerging noir tropes like he had some clairvoyant understanding of this yet unnamed movement that was slowly forming, and was able to produce maximum milage from them.
The big question many noir fans always ask and debate over is which Marlowe was better and how were they different. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye seems so radically apart that it almost begs to sit outside of such discussions. The Lady In The Lake is an experiment gone epically wrong in almost every possible manner, while John Brahm’s The Brasher Doubloon is so seldomly seen that it remains practically invisible. The classic Marlowe thus rests between Bogart’s and Murder My Sweet‘s Dick Powell’s take. The latter is lighter and in many respects the nobler figure. Perhaps due to Bogart’s style of acting and his worn, craggy face, his characters seem to automatically take a darker turn and more ambiguous motivations. Dick Powell was after all, a song and dance man in his previous incarnation, and his Marlowe has a dancer’s grace that comes bursting throughout that particular film. At the end of The Big Sleep, our hero surely does get his hands dirty in a way that does not seem befitting an absolutely upstanding protagonist. He basically has Eddie Mars killed, and it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that there is a certain similarity to what Elliot Gould accomplishes at the conclusion of that respective Altman picture. A rather corrosive and uncomfortable ending leaves us with a feeling that Marlowe is not exactly riding off into the sunset. There are demons lurking within, gnawing at his damaged soul. Seeing the subtle changes Marlowe goes through in each noir makes crowning one example as “definitive” too hard to call. I say the triple threat of Bogart, Powell, and Gould forms a perfect trilogy that all add up to Philip Marlowe’s enduring appeal for noir aficionados.
The Big Sleep has two different versions available for viewing. The 1945 version is clearly inferior and was later beefed up by Hawks in 1946 to further stress the sizzling wordplay by the real life couple of Bacall and Bogart. Chandler later mentioned that Martha Vickers (who plays Bacall’s sister Carmen) basically outshined Bacall in their scenes together and thus was mostly edited out of the picture. I’m not sure how much of this was true and if any concrete evidence exists, but Vickers’ few scenes really sparkle with radiant sexual charm and effectiveness. She along with Elisha Cook Jr. add superb supporting turns that contribute further to the abundance of thrills within. Every technical aspect is rendered perfectly for what amounts to a major studio work that is a far cry from the average-B noir. This is an A-picture spectacle with pulp roots that fuse together like the properties of water and gives the genre an essential compound of celluloid rapture. The private-eye film is one of those cornerstones of noir, and here we have a leading example.
Held back from release due to Warner’s wanting to get all their war-themed films out before they became obsolete, The Big Sleep made its first appearance two years later in a improved final product that boasted one of Bogart’s best performances. I could write paragraph after paragraph espousing my love for every element within, but really seeing it is what’s important. Anyone who hasn’t is truly missing out.