7 February 2007 | jluis1984
Considered as a classic example of the film noir style, Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" is famous not only for the complexity of its convoluted plot, but for the high quality of its dialogs as well as the legendary coupling of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Oddly enough, the movie's most famous traits were not in the film's original version, and became the result of a series of changes and additions Hawks did to the film from the day when the shooting ended until the day it was released. The original version had less romance, and a better explained plot; it was only after the success of the two stars as a couple that it was decided to add more scenes between them, and "The Big Sleep" as we know it was born. Time proved that the changes were worthy, as now that both versions are available it is easy to pick a favorite. This review of "The Big Sleep" is based on the 1946 final version, as personally I find it superior to the less convoluted original (but definitely less fun) cut.
In "The Big Sleep", private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) makes a visit to Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an old handicapped man who has a mission for him. Sternwood tells Marlowe that he wants him to take care of the gambling debts of her younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), as she is being blackmailed by a bookseller named Geiger (an uncredited Theodore Von Eltz). Marlowe takes the job, but before leaving he is confronted by Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who wants Marlowe to find out what happened to their former employee Sean Regan, who simply disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Marlow finds Geiger and follows him home, but the plot thickens when he finds Geiger dead in his home, killed by a mysterious man and with Carmen in the crime scene while high on drugs. But this death will only be the beginning.
Based on Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name, "The Big Sleep" is definitely one wild ride to a dark world filled with gangsters, femme fatals, pornographers and drug addicts; in simple words, the epitome of Film Noir stories with the character of Philip Marlow as one of the genre's biggest icon. The script (by the excellent team of William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) follows closely the novel's story, but of course, with many interesting changes and additions, most of them being the exchanges of dialogs between Bogart and Bacall in an attempt to cash in in the couple's popularity. It is in this series of dialogs where the magic of "The Big Sleep" is, as the focus on the relationship between the couple drives the movie and makes the complex ambiguity of the plot feel more accessible and enjoyable.
As usual, Howard Hawks' direction is direct and straightforward, letting the dialogs to drive the movie but at the same keeping true to the Noir style of its hard boiled source novel. It is easy to notice that Hawks considered the characters to be more important than his story, as the film focuses entirely on their actions instead of the results of those actions. It is this style what makes the film work, as he makes sure that the many supporting characters of the film receive a moment to shine in scenes of great emotion and juicy lines of dialog. Visually, the film is a textbook of how to make a movie in the Noir style, with the excellent cinematography by Sidney Hickox being a highlight of the movie, and the subtle yet appropriate score by Max Steiner creating the proper atmosphere of decadence that runs through the film as Marlowe gets deeper and deeper inside this dark world.
Being that the screenplay makes the characters the main focus, the performances by the cast are essential for the film. Bogart's portrayal of Raymond Chandler's best-known character, Phillip Marlowe, easily ranks as one of the icons of the Film Noir genre, in a legendary performance only equaled by Lauren Bacall's Vivan Sternwood. Their chemistry on screen was explosive, and Hawks knew exactly how to use it for his benefit. "The Big Sleep" is certainly one of the best (if not THE best) film with the legendary couple. As many have pointed out, Martha Vickers is a highlight of the film, stealing every scene she is in with her delightful portrayal of the wild spoiled brat Carmen Sternwood. A remarkable group of actors make the supporting roles of the film to come alive, each one of them adding their talents to the movie with excellent results. Dorothy Malone and Elisha Cook Jr. stand out among the rest by stealing the small scenes they appear.
The overtly complex plot may be considered by many as a flaw of the movie, specially as it is hard to follow at first and it gives the feeling of constant plot holes. However, this ambiguous way of telling the story is just another device Hawks uses to keep the story character driven. It may seem at first that Hawks doesn't care too much for the plot (and on a second thought, maybe he really didn't), but in the end this overtly complex puzzle reflects what Marlowe himself is experiencing, and in many ways makes the audience to identify with the detective and his work trying to solve the mystery of who is blackmailing who. True, it is certainly difficult to follow the plot at first, but the way Faulkner and company have written the script certainly makes up for this difficulty.
Probably "The Big Sleep" may not be everybody's cup of tea, but personally I think that anyone interested in the history of cinema should give it a try. It showcases some of the best performances ever and shows Howard Hawks, that famous Jack of all trades, proving his talent and versatility in the Film Noir genre. A real classic. 9/10