Howard Hawks’ 1946 film The Big Sleep is famous for its less-than-tidy plot, although considering that three different screenwriters had a hand in it, that they were subject to considerable interference on the part of the Hays Office (the better to preserve the delicate sensibilities of mid-century American filmgoers), and that the film was subjected to numerous rewrites and reshoots following its first completed version, perhaps it’s more astonishing that it works as well as it does. And seriously, does anyone care how the chauffeur died? I certainly don’t, and the American Film Institute seems to agree with me, because it named The Big Sleep to the National Film Registry in 1997.
The Big Sleep is based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, which featured the first appearance of private investigator Philip Marlowe. We first meet Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he is summoned to the home of the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants Marlowe to clean up some trouble regarding his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). On his way out, Marlowe meets Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall), and sparks do fly. But work comes before pleasure if you’re a straight arrow like Marlowe, and he’s determined to earn his paycheck. In the process of investigating what are supposedly Carmen’s gambling debts, he uncovers a morass of drugs, pornography, and murder, with the younger Sternwood daughter a victim of the first two (thanks to the Hays office you have to read between the lines to figure out what’s really been going on, but the general atmosphere of sleaze is clear enough).
The number one reason to watch The Big Sleep is the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall—this is their second film together, after To Have and Have Not, and they have lots of clever dialogue which seems designed to flip the bird at the Hays Office. This conversation is all about playing the ponies, right?
Vivian: …speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. …I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free…
Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.
Sure, they’re talking about horse races. And the pornographer Geiger and his driver Lundgren are just business associates.
The Big Sleep is full of delightful scenes, including two featuring independent women who are charmed by Marlowe. One (Joy Barlow) drives a taxi, and her scene (which does not advance the plot) may reflect the fact that this film was shot during World War II, when many women took on roles previously reserved for men. The other scene is much more extended and does aid the plot mechanics, while featuring Dorothy Malone as a brainy bookstore owner who knows her business and knows what she wants. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Big Sleep will be screened at Winifred Moore Auditorium on the Webster University Campus on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, $5 for Webster staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID.