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:
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 got to 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 finished 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 be tweaked in the 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
- The Maltese Falcon
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Hunt for Red October
- The Day of The Jackal
- Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return)
- Starship Troopers
- Jurassic Park
- Free Fall
- Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home)
- Devil in a Blue Dress
- Angel Heart (aka Falling Angel)
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Princess Bride
- A Scanner Darkly
- Children of Men
- Minority Report