Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Big Sleep (1946)

"Let me do the talking, angel. I don't know yet what I'm going to tell them; it'll be pretty close to the truth."

- Humphrey Bogart stars as private detective Philip Marlowe in the 1946 classic film noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler's equally classic novel The Big Sleep. In his second big screen splash, Marlowe is hired by the rich and the ailing General Sternwood to fix up his family's troubles: smooth over some pending debts and bad feelings. Now if Marlowe thinks that this will finally be the routine case that he is looking for, with no plot twists or endless trails of crazy characters, he is nuts - this job is not like running an errand and Marlowe sees the situation quickly descend into obscenity, blackmail, and death.

While first and foremost a well-made and enjoyable staple in film, The Big Sleep is certainly a dense film. This puzzle has a lot of pieces but an understanding of the film's complex plot (as well as an overall appreciation for the film) does grow after multiple viewings. However, while teetering on the brink of telling an overly-complicated tale, the story is extremely absorbing in its fluid complexity and keeps the viewer on their toes. But who really pays attention to the plot in a film noir anyway? The Big Sleep - thanks to writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman - is packed with really snappy dialogue and - thanks to director Howard Hawks' expert direction - is fast-paced, dark, and thick with mood. Hollywood's censoring Production Code cut some of the story and dialogue elements down to incisive innuendo but in my opinion, as is the case with many films made during the Code era, the attempts to censor only provided the filmmakers with an opportunity to say things in an intricate and subtle fashion - and the film is all-the-better for it.

An excellent Humphrey Bogart performance is at the center of this clever thriller. The sort-of James Bond of film noir, the Philip Marlowe character has been portrayed by many actors over the decades but Bogie's one-and-only portrayal of the classic Philip Marlowe character seems to be the most remembered of all of the past and future screen incarnations of the character. Bogart's performance here in The Big Sleep is in the top level of his rather lengthy list of great performances, heavy on his timeless tough guy magnetism and unique delivery of witty lines, but, unlike Dick Powell's Marlowe performance in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Bogart is less like the Marlowe of Chandler's novel and more like Bogart because, well, he is Bogart. However, while there is a small degree of separation between his Philip Marlowe character in The Big Sleep and the Sam Spade character he played in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart does a particularly splendid job reflecting the literary Marlowe character in his wonderful delivery of the sarcastic quips and really bringing out Marlowe's favorite vice of getting too personally involved in his cases behind a veil of indifference.

Seemingly more iconic than its complex plot, sharp dialogue, cool atmosphere, or even the specifics of Bogart's performance is the film's on-screen acting duo by the off-screen Hollywood couple of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The funny thing is that this on-screen romance would have been in much shorter supply had the studio not demanded more romantic screen time for Bogie and Bacall in an attempt to recreate the magic of To Have And Have Not (1944) and to save Bacall from a repeat of the Confidential Agent debacle where her performance was destroyed by the critics. Bacall is quite good in the film - though arguably outshined by the short but captivating performance from co-star Martha Vickers (despite Vickers' role being cut down in post-production to avoid this) - and The Big Sleep is remembered by many as a great second act in the four great films Bogart and Bacall starred in together. While Bogart and Bacall's undoubtedly wonderful chemistry is certainly fun to watch on screen, The Big Sleep is, for me, more of a terrific film noir than a great romantic vehicle for Bogie and Bacall. Overall a dense, clever, and hard-edged final product, The Big Sleep is an unforgettable film noir.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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