The Big Sleep

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950)

That quote from Chandler is a distillation of what he felt were the characteristics of the fictional private eye, and it’s a view that continues to endure. The reason for the popularity of this particular representation is understandable enough: not only does it portray the detective as the classical hero, it also allows the audience to identify with him, to see in him the kind of man they’d probably like to be themselves. Chandler’s knight errant Philip Marlowe has appeared on screen a number of times with varying degrees of success, but the incarnation that I, and I guess a lot of other people too, have the highest regard for is Humphrey Bogart’s take in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946).

Some aspects of the plotting of The Big Sleep are notoriously complicated – the story goes that screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, along with director Hawks, were so confused about who committed one of the murders that they contacted Chandler for clarification. Apparently, the author found himself similarly stumped. The thing is that the murders, motives and twists of the plot pile up so relentlessly that it does take a fair bit of concentration on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. However, that’s not really the point of the movie and the basic thrust of the narrative is easy enough to follow in itself. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective engaged by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger and wilder of his two daughters. In the course of his investigation, which rapidly descends into a murder case, Marlowe finds that the elder sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), appears to be tangled up in things too. Vivian’s a cooler, more composed customer than her sister, yet her involvement with a shady gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), indicates that she too is keeping dangerous company. I’m not going to go into the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot here, firstly to avoid spoilers, and secondly because it will likely serve to do nothing more than confuse readers. Suffice to say the stories of General Sternwood’s two girls eventually dovetail and all the various plot strands are drawn together satisfactorily. Yet, as I said before, you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

One of the great pleasures of The Big Sleep is the dialogue. Most of the memorable lines and passages, such as the little sample above, are lifted almost directly from the pages of Chandler’s novel. However, Brackett, Faulkner and Jules Furthman did have to make some alterations to turn in a workable script, both for storytelling reasons and to ensure the finished product was going to get past the Hays Office. Therefore, the more overt references to the unsavory nature of the blackmailer’s racket had to be toned down for example. The infamous production code is often criticized, and with good reason, for imposing draconian and logic-defying restrictions on what could be shown on the screen. The thing is though, a good deal could be implied if not directly stated, and clever writers could exploit this loophole. In a sort of perverse way, the very restrictiveness of the code meant that filmmakers were forced to be more creative in their efforts to circumvent it; I think The Big Sleep stands as an excellent example of this apparent paradox. The two houses in which much of the tale plays out are the Sternwood mansion and the home of Geiger, the blackmailer. Hawks and his crew succeed in bathing both locations in such an atmosphere of decadence and iniquity that it needs little imagination to appreciate the depravity lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps Hawks’ greatest triumph in the picture is the way he manages to ensure that style rises above substance throughout and he creates a crime story where the crimes and their resolution become secondary to our enjoyment of the ride through Chandler’s twilight world.

While The Big Sleep benefits enormously from a snappy script, strong source material and a first class director, what helps elevate it to true classic status is the casting. The second collaboration of Bogart and Bacall builds beautifully on the foundations already laid in To Have and Have Not. The movie took their on and off-screen courtship to new and more sophisticated levels, and the air fairly crackles whenever they share a scene. I think Bogart was born to play Marlowe, he perfectly encapsulates the weary nobility of Chandler’s creation like no other actor before or since. The part can be seen as an extension or refinement of Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, but there’s a greater sense of honour and less aggressive smugness this time. I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but Bogart’s delivery of his lines is perfect, so much so that it’s very hard to read the novel and not hear him saying the words. On the receiving end of much of Bogart’s wise-cracking, and pitching back every bit as good as she got, was Bacall. Watching her performance today, it’s hard to believe that Bacall wasn’t much past twenty years old when the movie was shot. There’s an air of assurance and worldliness about her that belies her years, the hard-boiled dialogue flowing smoothly as though from a woman who’d been around a long time and had seen all there was to see. In truth, the whole cast does excellent work, but the women in particular stand out. Martha Vickers is all coy treachery, and there are fine and memorable bit parts for Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin. Of the men, I feel Elisha Cook Jr deserves a mention for another of his characteristic turns as an unfortunate fall guy. I guess the only real weakness was John Ridgely, it’s not that he gives a poor performance but he never fully convinces as a dangerous mobster – having said that, he does get one fantastic send off.

The US R1 DVD of The Big Sleep contains two versions of the movie (as far as I know the R2 doesn’t offer this choice) – the preview version and the theatrical cut. I mention this mainly because there are some notable differences in the two cuts. I’m not going to laboriously list all the changes here, that information is readily available elsewhere online, but I will say that they change the feel of the movie significantly. In short, the preview cut is an altogether blander affair, although it helps to make the plot more comprehensible. The theatrical version is much more stylish, placing more emphasis on the Bogart/Bacall dynamic while sacrificing some of the narrative coherence. Personally, I far prefer the theatrical cut, and not just because it’s the more familiar of the two. While the preview version does offer more exposition, it throws the pacing off balance and fails to fully capitalize on the chemistry of the star pairing. It’s nice to have it available for comparison purposes but that’s about it for me. The transfer is reasonable enough, maybe not up there with the best that Warner Brothers have done in the past but it’s certainly not poor. The disc also offers a short feature on the differences between the versions of the movie, and is useful in giving an overview if you don’t feel inclined to watch both cuts all the way through. This movie and The Maltese Falcon helped cement Bogart’s image as the archetypical private eye. Others have played the part of Marlowe, and others have taken on the role of various private detectives, but Bogart nailed it. The film as a whole, can be viewed as a film noir (although of the lighter variety), a crime/detective story, or simply as an outstandingly well-crafted piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It comes most highly recommended.

29 thoughts on “The Big Sleep

  1. Thanks,Colin. I agree Bogie is the definitive Marlowe. And,yes,amazing how Lauren Bacall took to movie acting so seamlessly – I’m sure with a lot of help from Bogie and Hawks.
    If only the plot had been a bit more penetrable!
    So interesting to see the first version of the Bogart/Bacall conversation in the office and then how it was removed to the nightclub setting where it worked so much better – thanks of course to some great dialogue .


    • Bacall admitted that she was desperately nervous when making To Have and Have Not, but none of that comes across on the screen at all. In The Big Sleep she appears even more at ease, something I find quite remarkable despite the fact she undoubtedly got support form Bogart and Hawks.
      The plot does get marginally clearer the more often you see the movie, but I don’t worry too much about it – I just enjoy drinking in the dialogue, performances and atmosphere of the whole thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I particularily enjoyed the compelling introduction to your comments on “The Big Sleep”. By quoting Chandler’s perception of the fictional private detective – a characterisation that has become the accepted standard to this day – you have captured the crux of its success, both as a film and as a novel. Marlowe’s chivalric approach to his profession is continually assulted by the corruption of those surrounding him; it is a film that bewilders but bewitches the audience.

    The participation of Bogart and Bacall has sealed its success and recognition as a true classic of its genre.


    • I think it is generally accepted that plotting was the weakest aspect of Chandler’s writing – characterization and dialogue was his thing and he seemed to end up developing very complex plots to allow greater complexity in his characters. Marlowe is a wonderful creation, a timeless hero who, in my opinion, surpasses Hammett’s Spade. Bogart is so successful in the role that it almost feels like Chandler had him in mind when he was writing, and it’s rare for an actor to get so deeply into a character as to give that impression.


  3. Great stuff Colin – one of the things that is also notable about the general release version is how it moves the film further away from traditional Noir by adding a romantic / screwball sensibility to the sexy byplay between the leads – but then this movie is a lot more Hawks than it is Chandler (the sequence with Dorothy Malone’s book clerk is a case in point). I agree that it’s what makes the film distinctive though when compared with the fine Dick Powell version of “Farewell, My Lovely” the discrepancy in approach becomes very stark. I agree that the Region 1 release is the one to go for but it was a fairly early DVD actually and really deserves an upgrade though I don’t think there is any sign yet of an HD version anywhere, which is a real shame.


    • I agree it’s certainly noir-lite, and the reason for that is what you noted. Most, if not all, of Hawks’ best known pictures all bear his stamp – To Have and Have Not changes the tone quite a lot from Hemingway’s book.

      I like Powell’s Marlowe a lot too though; I’d have him and Mitchum jostling for the second spot.


      • Mitchum was just too young in the 40s and a bit too old in 70s but I agree, sensational actor and great casting for the part. The Curtiz and Siegel version of the Hemingway are so much more faithful, no question. But the Hawks BIG SLEEP is a great big fat great movie, highly entertaining and beautifully made – and one of Max Steiner’s most unlikely (so seemingly comedic) yet effective score it seems to me.


        • I’m glad you mentioned the score Sergio – I should have done so myself. There is a kind of kooky, comedic quality to it that fits the images and action perfectly, almost in spite of itself.

          And yes, Mitchum arguably was too old by the time he did Farewell, my Lovely but it’s still a hell of a performance, right up there among his best.


          • I agree completely – I love the 1975 version, from its fabulous David Shire score to the cameo by Jim Thompson and of course it has Mitchum, who also gets to deliver the narration as only he could (sadly he did this so seldom in his movies – wouldn’t RYAN’S DAUGHTER be a great movie if Mitchum narrated it?)


            • Yes, I really enjoyed the narration Mitchum did for Tombstone – it added some weight to that movie.
              I’m not sure how you’d help fix Ryan’s Daughter though. It’s a beautiful film to look at but there are a lot of serious problems present.


  4. ‘I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.’

    Well, that sorted out this evening’s viewing! I love both the film and Chandler’s novel, despite the labyrinthine plotting – I’m sure it was Chandler who said that if he was ever stuck whilst writing a novel, he’d engineer a woman entering the room carrying a gun*, which I guess illustrates your point that the plot was always second to characters, dialogue and mood, and all are first rate in either medium, indeed towards the end of the movie I was busy forgetting what some of the many names meant and just enjoying Bogart and Bacall. I’ve no excuses. It must by my third or fourth viewing of The Big Sleep and I rarely manage to piece it all together, but who cares right?

    I’ve an awful lot of time for Dick Powell’s Marlowe, and there are many times when it’s his take on the character that seems closest to Chandler’s written version, but Bogart definitely nails it here. For me, he gets both Marlowe’s eternal weariness and the ‘knightly’ aspects bang on.

    A typically brilliant review, Colin, and I especially liked the paragraph about the way Hawks and his crew worked around the Code to establish clearly the morally empty world of the story. This remains for me one of the defining aspects of 1940s/50s noir, in fact I was discussing the other day with someone why the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is far sexier than the 1981 update because everything’s implied and the lighting, clothes and camera work go to create a far more creative steaminess than simply slapping everything on the screen. As far as The Big Sleep is concerned, I think Martha Vickers’s Carmen is about as steamy as these performances tend to get – Dorothy Malone’s bookshop owner rates a definite mention also. Lucky Marlowe.

    *Did a quick web search to see if that was true and I can’t verify it, so please correct me if it was Hammett, Cain or someone similar instead.


    • Thanks very much Mike – very kind of you.

      I honestly believe you need to just go with the flow in terms of following the plot here. It does all add up in the end, and I think that reading the book maybe helps a little. However, I first saw the movie late one night some time in my teens, and I certainly didn’t catch all the details of the plot, yet I fell in love with it immediately. It’s that kind of film.

      Going back to Powell briefly, I feel his delivery of Chandler’s dialogue is exceptionally fine. I like Murder, My Sweet a lot and will feature it at some point.

      And I fully agree on The Postman Always Rings Twice – sometimes less really is more.


  5. Good review. Instead of noir-lite though, how about a new style classification called ‘film grey’ ? 🙂
    OK… perhaps not!
    You’re absolutely right about Lauren Bacall behaving (and looking) a few years older than her actual age, which seems to be characteristic of the era. I often look up actor credits on the IMDb having watched films from the 30s through to the 70s… and find out that a person I had assumed, on the basis of appearance, to be a man in late middle age in the film, was in fact something like 35 when the film was made! I think There must be material for a PhD thesis in there somwhere!


    • Dafydd, the fact that actors of the period often looked or seemed older than their years is, I think, down to a question of attitude and background. We’re talking about a vastly different era, when people had lived through two world wars (or one at the very least) and the Depression. They had to grow up mentally a lot faster, and hardship was a familiar companion for many. Bogart is a good example, but even younger guys like Mitchum carried the air of having really lived some.


  6. Excellent post on an excellent film, Colin! I’ve got that R1 disc and have watched both versions. The original cut is more straightforward and is good in its own right, but it’s pretty obvious that Hawks and the studio were right to take advantage of the tremendous chemistry between Bogie and Bacall for the theatrical release cut. It’s by far the better, more entertaining version. Nothing to disagree with in your assessment of this film. As regards the unexplained murder of the chauffeur…frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The movie is just so much fun, Bogart is wonderful in a role that seems tailor-made to his strengths, and the dialogue crackles.

    I’m glad you mentioned Dorothy Malone; her brief scene in the bookshop with Bogart is a model on how old-time filmmakers managed to make something sexy and adult under the watchful eyes of the Hays Code. There’s a number of innuendo-laden exchanges in the film, and I’m always surprised just how they managed to sneak those past the censors (Bogart and Bacall’s “racehorse” conversation, for one.)


    • Thanks Jeff. I think the important thing about the production code was the way it tended to focus on the elimination of any explicit references that it objected to. As such, smart writers were able to smuggle in material via innuendo and implication – as you say, this movie in particular is loaded with such instances.


  7. I don’t think the production code could ever keep a good film down, not to mention one that is in every way outstanding like THE BIG SLEEP. It’s good for fillmmakers to have to be resourceful and creative and do things without explicitness, which can so quickly become boring.

    I only saw the preview version once and then went back to the release version, which is so much better and I haven’t seen anyone disagree with that.


    • Yes Blake, inventiveness and cleverness always trumps explicitness in my book too – it shows brains on the part of the filmmaker and assumes that the audience has a similar level of intelligence.

      And again yes, the preview version is interesting to see, but mainly as a curio. I don’t think the film would enjoy anything like the same critical and popular reputation if that was the only version available to us.


  8. I love Hawks, Bogie and Bacall but much prefer ‘To Have and Have Not’ – must admit I tend to have a problem watching’The Big Sleep’ because I always get caught up in trying to follow the impenetrable plot, however much I vow not to do so this time round. (I have read the book, but many years ago.) Sounds as if I should get hold of the region 1 disc and compare the preview version! A great piece as usual, Colin, and I also like the passage from Chandler you picked up about the archetypal private eye. Strange to think that he was educated at an English public school, but I suppose when he went back to America it probably sharpened his ear for the way of speaking to come to it as a stranger.


    • Hi Judy. Stylistically, both The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not are quite similar, but that’s only to be expected I suppose. The latter does have a much simpler and more straightforward plot but the dialogue, while good, never reaches the levels of The Big Sleep. Personally, I love both movies and wouldn’t want to choose between them.

      Chandler himself is an interesting character – I guess most great writers are when you think about it. The downbeat tone seems to stem from his own personal issues and his style is undoubtedly influenced by the contrast of his English education and pulp pioneers like Hammett.


  9. Pingback: The Big Sleep (1946) | 100 Films in a Year

  10. Pingback: Lady in the Lake | Riding the High Country

  11. Pingback: Dead Reckoning | Riding the High Country

  12. Nice review of this classic. The blu is ravishing. Wish it had a commentary though. Just got Thomson’s BFI monograph on it though and an annotated version of the novel which is great. I really like Chandler and his amazing novels. His book of letters is great too. Disaster as a human being but really one of the greats like Faulkner and Hemingway. I bought the Bogart-Bacall blu and it was certainly a worth every penny. I could watch those films on a loop truly.


    • I picked up that Blu-ray too and I agree on how nice it looks. Yes, Chandler was a wonderful writer, not the greatest plotter of course but I don’t think he cared about that aspect all that much.


      • I bought the blus of their four films together. Those transfers! I thought I was with them and Eddie G in ‘Key Largo’ (what a film too). This four disc set is superb. My 50 inch screen does them some justice. HD really is something.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.