In the forty or so films that I have watched as part of this series, The Big Sleep might be the first one that I completely adored despite being baffled by its plot more than once. Frankly, it got to the point where, after attempting to unravel the tangled connections between the characters, I simply gave up stressing over the details and just basked in beauty of the film’s construction. It was only then that I realized that the plot itself really did not matter. The culprit was ultimately not as significant as the path taken to expose him.
Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, the plot involves private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) being hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to uncover who is blackmailing him. Complicating the case is the fact that Sternwood has two daughters that may possibly be linked to all of this. Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger of the two siblings, is a free spirit whose blatant sexuality and unsavory friends is a perfect recipe for trouble. Carmen’s wild ways makes her sister, the stern and sharp-tongued Vivian (Lauren Bacall), seems like a prude by comparison. However, similar to everyone associated with the Sternwood clan, Vivian has her own share of potentially dangerous secrets. As the case takes him through the seedier side of LA, filled with shady individuals and double-crosses, Marlowe must keep his emotions from clouding his judgment.
The magical thing about Howard Hawks’ film is that, while it is a hard-boiled detective story at heart, the comedic and romantic beats jump off the screen with the same vigor as the central mystery at play. As much as Marlowe personifies the cool detective who is not afraid to step head first into pending danger, at one point he states to Vivian that “too many people told me to stop” which is why he was motivated to keep going with the mission, Hawks shows that Marlowe is not immune to being susceptible to his own emotions just like everyone else.
Sure he may quip that “somebody’s always giving me guns,” a remark on all the gun-toting individuals he has disarmed on the case, and even endure being roughed up by a group of thugs, but he is also willing to do everything in his power to protect the Sternwood sisters…even if he must withhold some things from the police in the process. Marlowe’s softer side shines through, in a delightfully playful scene, when Vivian’s initially serious call to the cops turns into an amusing crank call for the pair.
While Hawks does an exceptional job of balancing the various tonal shifts without impacting the pacing, it is Bogart and Bacall that give the film that extra sizzle that puts it over the edge. The pair has sensational chemistry together, with Bacall proving that she can deliver the same witty rapid-fire dialogue as Bogart. For his part, Bogart’s sly charisma only enhances his fantastic performance further. He manages to sell cheeky lines such as “she tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up,” when recounting his first meeting with Carmen to General Sternwood, without ever turning his character, or the film, into a farce.
The Big Sleep’s plot, which occasionally references key individuals who never appear on-screen, may have left me scratching my head at times, but I cannot deny I had a blast watching the film. Hawks crafts a detective tale that effortlessly blends elements of noir, comedy and romance. He proves that it does not matter how Marlowe ultimately solves the case, but rather it is the journey that Marlowe takes that makes The Big Sleep so entertaining.
Fantastic! One of my favorite Bogie pictures.
Watching this film reminded me that I have a huge blind spot when it comes to Bogie pictures. There is a bunch I really need to catch up on.
He has been my favorite since a few years after high school (not to date myself but that was the early 1990s). I caught a marathon of some of his more popular films and I was immediately drawn to his acting style. Of his 80+ films I have probably seen 70 of them – the good ones, the bad, and even some of the early ugly ones. Just a tremendous actor. He is really fun to watch in his early acting days. He was often cast as the bad guy and during many of his films during the 1930s you could almost count on him to die more than live.
What are some of the good ones (excluding Casablanca, Sabrina, and The Maltese Falcon) that you would recommend?
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen are considered among his best. Also Key Largo. I’m also a big fan of High Sierra, The Petrified Forest, and Sahara. For really good obscure ones look for Black Legion, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and The Enforcer.
There’s a bunch that I’m sure other people will mention. I wanted to add a couple that might get lost in the shuffle.
Beat the Devil – People either love it or hate it. You won’t be sure what you’re watching at first. By about the thirty-minute mark you’ll either turn it off or you’ll be grinning and saying “This is awesome!”
In a Lonely Place – Bogart is a troubled screenwriter who’s a suspect in a murder. His girlfriend – played by the amazing Gloria Grahame – stands by him until his awful awful temper makes her start to wonder. This is one of my five essential films noir, right up there with Detour and Too Late for Tears.
Thanks for the recommendations! I will definitely set aside some time to give these titles a watch.
I love this crazy movie. Great review.
There is just so much to enjoy with this film.
Since you are a big noir fan, do you have any recommendations of noir titles that I should consider adding to to next year’s Blind Spot list?
Obviously all the big ones are worth seeing, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE MALTESE FALCON. I’d also suggest GUN CRAZY as a nasty little noir that’s just perfect and there’s also BRUTE FORCE by Jules Dassin, one of the most violent noirs of the era.
A good review,as always, but also just a really fun look back on a film I can’t help but love.
So glad I finally caught up with this one. I am actually a bit ashamed at how long I procrastinated on seeing the film. If only I had known then what I know now…
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