It’s been a long time since we last visited with Raymond Chandler’s fictional “knight-errant”, PI Philip Marlowe. Way too long, so let’s take a look at THE BIG SLEEP, starring Humphrey Bogart as the definitive screen Marlowe. This 1946 Howard Hawks film was a follow-up to 1944’s hit TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which introduced audiences (and Bogie) to luscious Lauren Bacall . The pair was dynamite together onscreen, and off as well, marrying a year later. Their May/December romance was one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, lasting until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.
For me to try and explain the plot here would be futile, as it takes more twists and turns than a “Balinese belly dancer”. Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood, whose sexy young daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. The General’s other daughter Vivien, a sexy divorcee, is also in trouble. This takes Our Man Marlowe through a maze involving murder, money, and sexy dames by the truckload, all of whom seem to want the sleuth. It’s tough to tell all the players without a scorecard, but that doesn’t really matter. Hawks’ take on Chandler is all about noir style, and the film has it in spades! The hard-boiled, hard-bitten dialog by screenwriters William Faulkner, Jules Furthman , and Leigh Brackett is delivered in that trademark “rat-a-tat” Warner Brothers style by the cast, the dark, moody photography by Sidney Hickox perfectly captures the noir world inhabited by the characters, the studio-bound fog-shrouded streets look marvelous, and everybody’s hiding some sort of secret. Even the opening credits literally scream noir, with Bogie and Bacall smoking cigarettes in silhouette, then placing the burning butts in an ashtray as Max Steiner’s sweeping music plays under the credits.
THE BIG SLEEP was filmed in 1945, but when TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT lit up the screen (and the box office) like a comet, the studio decided to take advantage of its newfound star team and shoot additional scenes featuring Bogie and Bacall. The couple’s pairing was steamier than General Sternwood’s orchid-filled hothouse, their sexually charged banter flowing freer than bootleg gin (check out their “horse racing” metaphors for example!). I loved the way Bogart tugs at his ear whenever he’s in deep thought, and Bacall’s still sexiness covers the fact she’s fairly new to the acting game at this point in her career. Tongues are placed firmly in cheek as they trade repartee, and if their first film together established them as a force to be reckoned with, THE BIG SLEEP certainly seals the deal.
The supporting cast is more than up to the task of keeping up with Bogie and Bacall’s star power. Twenty year old Martha Vickers (whose noir bona fides include RUTHLESS, THE BIG BLUFF, and THE BURGLAR) is the sexy (there’s that word again!) Carmen, a babyish bimbo constantly biting her thumb like a pacifier (or more likely, an oral fixation!). John Ridgley (who appeared with Bogart on eleven other occasions) has the pivotal role of gambling joint owner Eddie Mars. You can’t have a film noir without inviting Elisha Cook Jr. to the party, and he’s here in a small role as (what else?) a weasel trying to sell Marlowe some information. Young Dorothy Malone made a splash as a book store owner sharing rye (and whatever else gets left to the imagination!) with the shamus. Cowboy star Bob Steele plays ice-cold killer Canino, an archetype he’d return to in Bogart’s 1951 THE ENFORCER. Familiar Faces dotting the dark landscape include Trevor Bardette , Tanis Chandler (no relation to Raymond!), Joseph Crehan, Bess Flowers , Louis Jean Heydt, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey (as Marlowe’s cop friend), Theodore von Eltz, and Ben Welden.
Howard Hawks mastered any film genre he worked in, from screwball comedy (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to wild Western ( RIO BRAVO ), during his fifty-four year Hollywood career. In THE BIG SLEEP, Hawks injects the dark world of film noir with his personal artistic vision, and paints a black & white masterpiece with shadows and light. Bogart inhabits the character of Philip Marlowe like a well-worn trench coat, Bacall is the quintessential Hawks “hard dame”, and the overlapping staccato dialog is filled with a sly, sexy sense of humor. Don’t worry about following the story, just sit back and enjoy Hawks and his stars at the top of their game!
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