Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Big Sleep Film Review

Somehow, and quickly, the first quarter of 2012 is nearing its end. Coincidentally, it rained pretty heavily (for L.A. that is) the day I screened the film for this month’s duo post. Turned out to be serendipitous since similar weather played a part in the novel and its movie adaptation. So with that, we’ve arrived again at that time once more for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to execute another of our reviews in parallel. Though we’ll break no new ground in this instance (you’ll have to wait till next month for that), we take on separate but related looks on our blogs examining a noted book and its later film adaptation. As usual, the wordy one will look at the famed text of a well-known novel later adapted to the screen, which I will review. Like we started the year, we’ll scrutinize one more venerable hardboiled crime classic.

We will review the first novel for a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, this one centered far south of that author’s Bay area setting, in the rivalrous City of the Angels. In this case, my colleague will be looking at the notable and earliest book by author Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. The 1939 novel also sourced both its rarely seen pre-release version, and its later re-cut 1946 theatrical début. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

A brief synopsis of the film: called to the estate of the wealthy, but clearly dying, General Sternwood, private investigator Philip Marlowe is tasked with a number of problems vexing his client. Among them, a favored employee of the General’s has gone missing, someone is blackmailing him, and the old man’s wild pair of daughters are raising men’s temperatures all over the place. As he delves into the heart of them, Marlowe soon discovers each problem only masks other nefarious doings actually going on. As might be expected, Marlowe will have figure it all out, or die trying.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

Vivian Rutledge: “You go too far, Marlowe.”
Philip Marlowe: “Oh, those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom. Goodnight Mrs. Rutledge.”

This is another of those black and white noir classics from the 40s filled with great dialogue, a labyrinthine plot, a renowned director at the helm, and oh, only Humphrey Bogart in his prime and a young sultry Lauren Bacall being, well… Lauren Bacall. Just one more certified piece of motion picture history that’s somehow made it to this novel/film series of ours. Who is picking these damn things?!? I can tell you it’s pretty intimidating from a writing perspective when better has already been served on the subject many times over. Oh yeah, we are. Serves us right.

So, let’s just stick with those things I love about this picture, and it should mostly follow why I enjoy reading Raymond Chandler more than Dashiell Hammett. First, just about anything Bogart did in movies around this time I simply adore. He really came into his own beginning with The Maltese Falcon, and it didn’t matter much that Hammett’s PI, Sam Spade, was a prick, Bogart’s presence made sure he was a charismatic one. Add to this, Bogie just got better at his craft going through the 40s. And in The Big Sleep, he to got introduce another literature character to the screen that was destined to stand memorably alongside his Spade, that whistler Steve fellow, and while we’re at it, even his Rick. Plus, Raymond Chandler’s tough, cynical, but caring Philip Marlowe was someone you actually liked, and somehow never doubted.

“I collect blondes and bottles too.”

Having someone the stature of Howard Hawks heading this production didn’t hurt things, either. Re-teaming the two leads (Bogie and Bacall) and the director from To Have and Have Not again couldn’t have been better. Especially since this occurred in the midst of a special run of films for Hawks, as author Joseph Maddrey highlighted in his January 22nd piece of this year:

“It was a no-brainer to pair Bogart and Bacall in another film. As with TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP is driven by great performances. The real-life lovers are eminently watchable, but in this one Bacall has a little more competition… from her character’s jailbait sister (Martha Vickers) and a sultry bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone) who closes up her store early so she can seduce the private dick. The bookstore scene is unforgettable. According to Hawks:

“That wasn’t the way it was written at all. We just did it because the girl was so damn good-looking.” “

No one thinks about it now, but it is argued this film saved Lauren Bacall’s career. After To Have and Have Not, Bacall suffered some bad reviews in the movie that followed. Some thought another poorly received performance would sink her. Naturally, the studio was looking to cash in on the pairing once again and lined this up. The caprice of the war-time era probably lent a hand. Hawks began lensing the picture in 1944, and finish in the next year, and the close of World War II had Warner Brothers scurrying to get all of their war-related films out the door (ah, the bottom-line must be served). Subsequently, they held The Big Sleep in the vault for a year and a half. In that time her agent, Charles K. Feldman, came to her rescue by convincing the studio and Hawks that Lauren’s good but sexy Sternwood sister Vivian had to tweaked in scenes that played her up with Bogart. The rest, as they say, is history.

Give some credit to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman for adapting Chandler’s story to the big screen, too. It must be mentioned, author Raymond Chandler was a wonderful wordsmith, especially compared to Dashiell Hammett. His prose with characters and in scenes are so descriptive and uniquely stylish in his novels that they’ve influenced such preeminent present day ‘L.A.’ writers like Robert Crais and Michael Connelly. Though both pre-WW II authors wrote “hard-boiled” tales, they were nothing alike. However, Chandler’s stories were murkily plotted, especially compared Hammett’s deft storylines (again, look at The Maltese Falcon for a good comparative). So, the work of the screenwriters in The Big Sleep were never more important. Although, what ended up released in ’46 remains a challenge to figure out even after repeated viewings. Oh well. Like Chandler’s writing, The Big Sleep film had style to burn, visually and in its characters.

Just about every review I’ve read comments on the script for this film, which is now the stuff of movie folklore. Famously, Raymond Chandler was brought in later to figure out if the adaptation made sense to him (it didn’t). Just the same, I’d like someone explain to my satisfaction the source material. Indeed, my latest re-read of the novel failed to do that. The screenwriters did manage to get the gist, though, and perhaps improve on it some (I think the film’s audiences like their ending better than the readers’). They were smart enough to leave the novel’s sharp dialogue intact — Bogart’s grinning line, “Such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains.” is a great example. Hammett’s Spade does share something in common with Chandler’s Marlowe. They’re both tall in the novels. The writers had some fun with the fact Bogart wasn’t. In the book, Chandler’s shamus is greeted by the naughty Carmen Sternwood with the words, “Tall, aren’t you?” It’s transformed to, “You’re not very tall, are you?”, in the film. Bogart’s retort, “I try to be.” (the novel’s, “I didn’t mean to be.“) is spot-on while remaining effective to the author’s words.

“You know what he’ll do when he comes back? Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”

There is a bit of Chandler vs. Hammett rivalry in books as well as in film. Most think John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon as nothing short of stellar, and so do I. As well, Huston’s film supporting cast is thought superior in comparison to Hawk’s. While there’s no one the caliber of Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre to play off or trade dialogue with, Sleep’s cast wasn’t shabby at all. I mean, Martha Vickers and Dorothy Malone gave Bacall a run for her money with their comely presence. John Ridgely as Ed Mars, Bob Steele as the henchman Canino, and Regis Toomey as Marlowe’s police bud gave solid performances, to boot. And that cast still managed to give Elisha Cook Jr.’s Jones character a somewhat ironic meaning in The Big Sleep. It was he who had the sympathetic presence to help pick up the beaten down Marlowe from the alley — remember, Bogart’s Sam Spade spent a good deal of time (and enjoyment) beating on Cook’s Wilmer in their earlier ‘Falcon’ stint together. I think Hawk’s support crew gave way nothing to Huston’s.

In the end, The Big Sleep proved successful on many fronts. In adapting Raymond Chandler to the big screen, it showed Hammett’s contemporary could deliver just as well for movie audiences as with case-hardened crime readers. In addition, do it with the same leading man providing a far different PI compared with San Francisco’s own. Howard Hawks influence on the proceedings can’t be shortchanged, either. He helped to turn Humphrey Bogart into a matinée idol with this motion picture, no doubt helped by mannerisms still known today by the multitude of Bogie fans. As well, he only cemented his mainstay Hawksian Woman tradition with another Lauren Bacall performance tailored for the screen (btw, if you watch this and see Bacall wearing a veil, you know you’re viewing the earlier pre-release 1945 version on the flip side of this disc). The novel/film was remade less successfully in 1978, though the great genre stalwart Robert Mitchum gave it a good go (in England, of all places). The original also served as an inspiration for the Coen Bros. for their more successful and wild reinterpretation in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. By the film’s finale, when Bogie gets his Betty (Bacall), The Big Sleep‘s stylish approach to its genre (one already known for it) still managed to reaffirm noir’s tenets. In fact, I’d argue this work actually ended up enhancing the category’s mood by the time it was done.

Parallel Post Series

26 Responses to “The Big Sleep Film Review”

  1. Marianne

    I had no idea this saved Lauren Bacall’s career. I always assume the stars of this era magically appeared and thrived.
    I love the lines of the Big Sleep. I watch it for the lines more than the plot. And you caught quite a few of the good ones here…

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, wasn’t that an interesting tidbit? I’d have thought Lauren Bacall early career would have been without a hitch. So many great lines, yes. Thanks very much, Marianne. Great to find another ‘Big Sleep’ fan.

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  2. Colin

    Great post Michael. Regarding the plot, I’ve seen this movie so many times and I’ve got to say I never watch it for the detection aspect. As a ‘tec story, it doesn’t really work in the classical sense as it has such an impenetrable plot. But it doesn’t matter; by the end, I’ve forgotten most of what the whole thing is supposed to revolve around and simply spent the time drinking in the atmosphere and the dialogue.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks very much, Colin. Given you’re extensive look at film noir on your blog, I take that as high praise, my friend.

      “… by the end, I’ve forgotten most of what the whole thing is supposed to revolve around and simply spent the time drinking in the atmosphere and the dialogue.”

      Nailed it. Wonderfully put.

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  3. Rachel

    I, too, loved the dialogue and Bogart’s excellent timing with almost every other actor in the film. It was a delight to hear the words I enjoyed from the book. I also thought that “tall” scene was just fantastic. What a deft way to remain true to the spirit of the book while not being at all the same thing. I loved it. And, frankly, I think Vickers stole the show!

    Her and Bacall are both extremely attractive but it didn’t have anything to do with a comparison of mugs; she nailed that character! When I was reading the book I kept wondering why anyone would like or remain loyal to Carmen but then I saw Vickers performance and thought, Oh that’s how!!! Damn, she blew me away. I was not one of the viewers that liked the changed ending better. I would have preferred much more of Vickers than of Bacall (I’m sure that statement will get me kicked out of some sort of film buff’s club:). And did you notice that Marlowe wiped his hands off after helping her to the couch in Geiger’s house? Priceless! For all her kittenish appeal I’d wipe my hands off, too. She was that kind of character and Vickers made it work.

    My DVD came with a special feature that was a comparison of the scenes from the original cut and then the released cut. I really enjoyed it. I can see how it was that they made those decisions regarding Bacall’s character. I would have thought the ending between her and Marlowe would have felt really shoe-horned without those extra scenes. I did wonder, though, why they bothered with that scene between Carmen and Marlowe in his house. I found it to be a useless waste of minutes with the altered-from-the-book ending. I was excited to see it at first because I thought that meant they were going to do the whole thing with Carmen at the end but no.

    I thought the movie really smoothed out the character’s rough edges as compared to the book. What do you think? I found Marlowe to really be the only one that was written the same in the movie as in the book.

    One last thing, I liked the plot! I’ll admit that reading the book first made the movie easier to follow but I did follow it in the book and enjoyed it. It does take some work (I agree that it’s not nearly as smooth as THE MALTESE FALCON) but I found it completely worth it. The only thing that tripped me up a little bit was how angry Marlowe got about the death of Jones. Jones felt like such a throwaway character (along with Mars’ main henchmen) that I was puzzled by their being such a turning point for Marlowe and a pretty big part of the ending. Perhaps it was more Marlowe being angry at himself for feeling that he let Jones down than for any real feeling for Jones. Thoughts?

    Another great idea for our duo post. I like taking on the “big ones.” I compare doing this to what you need to know to enjoy a good wine: what you like and what you don’t like. :-) Just because they’re iconic and classic doesn’t mean that we can’t try our hand at them. Hell, I’m even more than willing to list all the reasons I don’t like them (impudent upstart, I know:).

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks, Rachel. Vickers is indeed one of the great things in the film. Great presence and was simply marvelous in the character — if this would have been a pre-Code film, I wonder if they’d have gone with the racier scene in the book when she comes calling to Marlowe’s apartment. Good point about Marlowe wiping his hands in the scene you’ve described, Rachel.

      Yes, that comparative on the disc (along with the ’45 version of the film) was a great extra. We’re still waiting on the Blu-ray for classic, though. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ got its release, and heck, ‘Casablanca’ just received it’s bigger BD re-release. I hope they, the studio, does it justice.

      I’d agree the movie did smooth out edges, character-wise. But yes, Marlowe as a persona made his transition to film the cleanest. And you’re smarter than I about following the plot, both in book and film form, Rachel. Even my recent re-read, this time in audiobook (narrated by Elliott Gould, the latter-era Marlowe of ‘The Long Goodbye’) didn’t help much. Maybe, like Colin, I find drinking in the dialogue and atmosphere more intoxicating.

      Yeah, perhaps the Jones character is laid out more in the book and thus doesn’t feel like a throwaway bit. But, I really loved that it was done by Elisha Cook, Jr. in the movie, he who had such a distinction in ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Now that was great casting decision.

      Admittedly, I’m still a bit nervous when taking a look at (and writing about) ‘the big ones’ like this. I’m afraid I won’t do them justice. But, as long as we do them here, on familiar ground, I’ll continue to give them a shot ;-). Thanks, again, Rachel for going with this one.

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      • Rachel

        Woops, I was unclear. I found Jones to be throwaway in the book and the movie but less so in the movie. It was a plot point that got me confused because I thought I was missing something. I kept thinking: why is this guy such a big deal? All he’s doing is giving Marlowe a tip. I did really like the actor for his part, though, so I totally agree on that.

        I wondered the exact same thing regarding that pre-Code point (now that I know what pre-Code is:)!

        One last bit that will probably get me kicked out of the club: I thought Carmen and Marlow had better chemistry than Vivian and Marlowe. For the former, I was able to immediately see how their characters felt about each other and the connection they had on-screen. Of course it was a negative connection but it was there nonetheless. For the latter, it took a really long time for me to get why they were interested in each other (and weren’t they married at the time? jeez, I’m a harsh critic:) and I only just bought their relationship by the end and I think it was more because I was seduced by the atmosphere (which, as others have already mentioned was fantastic).

        My thanks as well for this great suggestion and for being willing to do these even if they induce a little nervousness.

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        • le0pard13

          “I thought Carmen and Marlow had better chemistry than Vivian and Marlowe.”

          Really? Okay, I believe you. Carmen (Vickers) and the Acme Book Shop Proprietress (Dorothy Malone) did have their moments in the film, certainly. But I guess how it began with Vivian, and how Marlowe and she ended up, still had me. It is some great atmosphere in this film, alright. And yes, Bogart and Bacall were married to each other by the time of the movie’s release.

          Thanks, Rachel.

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  4. rtm

    Oh my friend Becky just recommended this to me the other day as I wanted to see a Bogie and Bacall pairing. Interesting background there about Bacall’s career being saved by this film. She truly is gorgeous, sultry without being dimwitted. Great read as always Michael, thanks.

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    • le0pard13

      Oh, yes. This is another classic you shouldn’t miss, Ruth. Becky’s right :-).

      “She truly is gorgeous, sultry without being dimwitted.”

      You hit the nail on the head with that statement! Many thanks, Ruth.

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  5. filmplicity

    My Dad used to work with a guy who they nicknamed ‘The Big Sleep’ :-) Not sure it was exactly a compliment but I like to think it was. I haven’t seen this but I love the era and the style of the films of that time. I must put this on my to watch list.

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    • le0pard13

      Oh, yes. If you’ve not seen ‘The Big Sleep’, be sure to check this one out, Ronan. I know you’re appreciation of ‘Casablanca’ so I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, my friend. Thanks.

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  6. J.D.

    Excellent review! You really did this film noir classic justice.

    I love it also and the more times I watch it, the more I notice the fantastic atmosphere that Hawks creates in almost every scene, like the climactic showdown with Canino and we see Marlowe taking cover outside the house in a fog-enshrouded yard that is incredibly tangible. I almost feel like I am right there with him every time I watch it. Incredible stuff.

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  7. Eric

    Awesome review, Michael! I had the pleasure of finally seeing The Big Sleep late last year, and I fell in love with its razor sharp dialogue. I need to sit down and finish reading the book. I only made it through the first few chapters before getting sidetracked with something else, though I was really enjoying it.

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you very kindly, Eric. Glad to find another fan of this classic. And yes, I think you’ll continue to enjoy Chandler’s novel when you get back to it.

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  8. Criminal Movies

    Great look at one the great classics. Bogart and Bacall at their best and what a good looking movie, with a perfect script. Enjoyed your background details. I didn’t know it was so pivotal for Bacall.

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