Classic film review: The Big Sleep

January 24, 2023 2:35 am42 commentsViews: 252

A classic film noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel of the same name, The Big Sleep provides modern audiences with the verbose wit and intelligence that is the hallmark of an old film done right. Today, the sly banter and smart detective work of protagonist Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is too often replaced with long action sequences followed by one-liners. As The Big Sleep follows P.I. Philip Marlowe on a convoluted case, the audience witnesses the sharp intellect and witty restraint with which the old Hollywood crafted the film noir canon.

Classic film review: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep Is a Film Noir in the Hardboiled Tradition of Raymond Chandler

Like most film noirs, the plot begins simply, then quickly thickens. The rich old General Sternwood asks Detective Marlowe to look into some IOUs his reckless, nymphy daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) has accrued. Soon this simple assignment has led Marlowe into a world of gamblers, racketeers, pornographers, and murders. The facts of the case become so complex that they are largely irrelevant; the true genius of the film is not the plot itself but the journey. The audience embarks with Marlowe in the process of investigation. As he meets dubious characters, from smooth gambling racketeer Eddie Mars to the hapless crook Harry Jones, the viewer must discern truth from lies, the good from the bad.

The Big Sleep’s confusing plot is the source of a famous Hollywood anecdote. Lauren Bacall refers to the incident in her autobiography: “One day Bogie came on the set said to Howard [Director Howard Hawks], ‘Who pushed Taylor off the pier?’ Everything stopped”. Owen Taylor is the chauffeur whose death prompts Detective Marlowe’s further involvement in the case. So Hawks sent a telegram to author Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler himself later recalled the incident in a letter, “They sent me a wire… asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either”.

The Hays Code and Censorship in The Big Sleep

The existence of the Hays Code (1930-1968) which prohibited illicit and inappropriate subjects puts a wrench in Chandler’s risqué plot. Subjects deemed indecent were not allowed on screen, forcing writers and directors to come up with symbols and innuendos to outwit Hollywood censorship. For example, when Marlowe stumbles upon Carmen after apparently taking some nude pictures, Carmen’s Chinese-style dress is our only hint of pornographic activity. On the other hand, the effort to portray sex despite the Hays Code gave birth to some of the most creative and inventive dialogue of the era, not least of which is a suggestive conversation between Marlowe (Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) about “horse racing.” Indeed, with William Faulkner among the screen writers, the dialogue is always sharp.

Intelligence over Violence in Classic Film Noir

Whereas today, protagonists threaten an informant with a gun to get information, Marlowe’s detective work isn’t about strong-arming the other guy, it’s about out-witting him. Marlowe rarely uses a gun unless to take a gun from someone else. As Marlow states while “collecting” guns from the thugs he encounters, “My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!” In the final scene, Marlowe chooses not to kill the bad guy. Instead, he forces him to run out of a house where he knows his own men will kill him. Thus, the smart detective wins and the trigger-happy bad guys ensure their own demise.

Bogart and Bacall in an On-Screen Romance

Indeed, the smart detective wins something else as well: the girl. Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s off-screen wife, plays the seductive Vivian Rutledge. The Big Sleep opts for sultry, combative love rather than sappy romance. Marlowe’s interest in Vivian and consequent refusal to take himself off the case is what turns this hard-boiled flick into a film noir, in which the detective follows the seductive femme fatale down the rabbit hole. Lucky for Bogart, Bacall’s femme fatale has truly fallen for the clever P.I. The Big Sleep does not dwell on their romance, but it spares us the tragic death and heartless manipulation which drives most film noirs.

The Big Sleep is a classic of the detective/film noir genre, showcasing the best of versatile director Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby) and writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The masterful interplay of one of Hollywood’s golden couples in this well-crafted film noir makes this a must-see.


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