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.