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The Big Sleep is a film noir directed by Howard Hawks, the first film version of Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart as detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the female lead. The Big Sleep is a prime example of the film noir genre. William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman co-wrote the screenplay.

In 1997, the U.S. Library of Congressmarker deemed this film "culturally, historically, oraesthetically significant" and preserved to the National Film Registry.

Plot

Note: As there are two cuts of this movie, this plot description may be inaccurate.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) calls on new client General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) at his Los Angeles mansion. The wealthy general wants to resolve gambling debts his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) owes to bookseller, Geiger. As Marlowe is leaving, General Sternwood's elder daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), stops him. She suspects her father's true motive for calling in a detective is to find his friend Sean Regan, who had mysteriously disappeared a month earlier.

Marlowe goes to Geiger's "rare book shop." Agnes, Geiger's assistant, minds the shop; the back room is full of books and papers, the detritus of an illegal pornography operation. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house, where Carmen Sternwood also arrives. When Marlowe hears a gunshot and a woman's scream, he breaks into the house. He finds Geiger's dead body and Carmen, as well as a hidden camera with an empty cartridge.

Vivian comes to Marlowe's office with scandalous pictures of Carmen she received with a blackmail demand for the negatives. Marlowe returns to Geiger's bookshop, and discovers that they are packing up the store. Marlowe follows a car leaving Geiger's store to the apartment of Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), a gambler who previously blackmailed General Sternwood. Marlowe returns to Geiger's house where he finds Carmen. She initially claims ignorance about the murder of Geiger but then insists Brody killed Geiger. They are interrupted by the owner of the home, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).

Marlowe follows Vivian to Joe Brody's apartment, where they join Brody and Agnes, and later, Carmen, who wants her photos. Marlowe takes the photos and sends Vivian and Carmen home. After Brody admits he was blackmailing both General Sternwood and Vivian, he is suddenly shot and killed; the assailant flees. Marlowe follows and apprehends Carol Lundgren, Geiger's former driver, who has killed Brody in revenge for Geiger's death.

Marlowe next visits Mars' casino, where he asks about Regan, who is supposed to have run off with Mars' wife. Mars is evasive and tells Marlowe that Vivian is leaving bad IOUs in his casino. Marlowe unsuccessfully presses Vivian on her association with Mars, then returns home to find Carmen waiting for him. She admits she didn't like Regan and mentions that Mars calls Vivian frequently. In the morning, Marlowe learns that Regan has been found in Mexico.

Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), an associate of Agnes, conveys an offer from her to reveal the location of Mars' wife for $200. However, when Marlowe goes to meet Jones, Canino, a hired killer, poisons him. Marlowe meets Agnes where she reveals that she's seen Mona Mars near Realito by an auto repair shop. In Realito Canino attacks Marlowe and he wakes to find himself locked up with Mona and Vivian. Mona leaves when Marlowe tells her about Jones' death. Vivian fears for Marlowe's life and frees him, allowing him to get to his car and his gun. Marlowe then kill Canino and they leave together. During the drive back to Geiger's bungalow, Vivian unconvincingly tries to claim she killed Sean Regan.

When they arrive back, Marlowe calls Eddie Mars and says that he is still in Realito at the payphone. They arrange to meet at Geiger's house, giving Marlowe ten minutes to prepare. When Mars arrives, Marlowe holds him at gunpoint. Mars admits that he covered up Carmen's murder of Regan and was blackmailing Vivian. Mars runs out, but his men, waiting to ambush Marlowe, shoot and kill him. Marlowe calls the police, telling them that Mars killed Regan.

(Actually there is some confusion as to the identity of the killer. In the book, Carmen is definitely the culprit. But that would have made Vivian, Marlowe's love interest, an accessory to murder which was a violation of the Production Code. So, if you listen closely to Marlowe's explanation, it's implied that Mars killed Regan himself because Regan was romancing Mars' wife. He then convinced Vivian that her sister committed the crime during one of her mental blackouts so he could blackmail the Sternwood family.)

Production and Release

This version of The Big Sleep is remembered for its convoluted plot. During filming, allegedly neither the director nor the screenwriters knew by whom chauffeur Owen Taylor was murdered or if he had killed himself. They sent a cable to Chandler, who told a friend in a later letter: "They sent me a wire... asking me, and dammit I didn't know either".

After its completion, Warner Bros. did not release The Big Sleep until they had turned out a backlog of war-related films. Because the war was ending, the studio feared the public might lose interest in the films, while The Big Sleep's subject was not time-sensitive. Attentive observers will note indications of the film's war-time production, such as ration stamps, period dialogue, pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a woman taxi driver who says to Bogart: "I'm your girl."

The "Bogie and Bacall" phenomenon, which had begun with To Have and Have Not and their marriage, was in full swing by the end of the war. Bacall's agent asked that portions of the film be re-shot to capitalize on their chemistry and counteract the negative press Bacall had received for her 1945 performance in Confidential Agent. Producer Jack Warner agreed, and new scenes, such as the sexually suggestive race horse dialogue, were added.

The re-shot ending featured Peggy Knudsen as "Mona Mars" because Pat Clark, the originally-cast actress, was unavailable. Consequently, because of the two versions created by the re-shooting, there is a substantial content difference of some twenty minutes between them, although the running time difference between the two versions is two minutes. The re-shot, revised version of The Big Sleep was released on 23 August 1946.

The cinematic release of The Big Sleep is regarded as more successful than the pre-release version (see below), although it is confusing and difficult to follow. This may be due in part to the omission of a long conversation between Marlowe and the Los Angeles District Attorney where facts of the case, thus far, are exposited. Yet movie star aficionados prefer it to the film noir version because they consider the Bogart-Bacall appearances more important than a well-told story. For an example of this point of view, see Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay on the film.

Novelist Raymond Chandler said Martha Vickers (Carmen) overshadowed Lauren Bacall (Vivian) in their scenes together, which led the producers to delete much of Vickers' performance to enhance Bacall's.

The authorized DVD is a double-sided, single-layer disc; with the 1946 movie star version on side-A, and the 1945 film noir version on side-B.

Sexual Innuendo

The Big Sleep was made in the age of Hays Office censorship, and accordingly some of the more risqué elements of the plot were either presented discreetly or done away with altogether. In the novel, the books Geiger profitably rents are pornography, then illegal and associated with organized crime. The photograph of Carmen wearing a "Chinese dress" and sitting in a "Chinese chair" alludes to that.

In the film, Joe Brody is killed by Carol Lundgren who believes he killed Geiger. In the novel, Lundgren is Geiger's homosexual lover, a detail which goes unmentioned in the film.

In the novel, Marlowe finds pornographic photographs of Carmen and later finds her naked in his bed. In the film, the photographs show Carmen was at Geiger's house when he was killed (thus possibly implicating her in his murder). The novel's nude bedroom scene in Marlowe's apartment is altered in the film to a clothed Carmen awaiting him in an armchair.

Reception

Film critic Roger Ebert, who entered the film in his list of 100 Great Movies, praises the film's writing:

"Working from Chandler's original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: It's unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it's so wickedly clever."


The Washington Post Critics Corner calls the film "an unqualified masterpiece."

Although the film's reception was overwhelmingly positive a number of critics, whilst commending the performance of the leading actors have criticised the film for its convoluted and difficult to follow plot. Carlo Cavagna said of the film: "Bogart and Bacall are so good together that the story's impenetrability doesn't matter much."

Empire magazine added The Big Sleep to their Masterpiece collection in the October 2007 issue.

Awards and honors

  • In 2003, AFI named the character Philip Marlowe the 32nd greatest hero in film.


Classic-era film noirs in the National Film Registry
1940-49 The Maltese Falcon |Shadow of a Doubt |Laura |Double Indemnity |Mildred Pierce |Detour

The Big Sleep |The Killers |Notorious |Out of the Past |Force of Evil |The Naked City |White Heat


Re-release

In the late 1990s, a pre-release version — director Hawks's original cut — was found in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. That version was released to the military to play to troops in the South Pacific. Benefactors, led by businessman Hugh Hefner, raised the money to pay for its restoration, and the original version of The Big Sleep was released in art house cinemas for a short exhibition run, along with a comparative documentary about the cinematic and content differences between Hawks' film noir and the Warner Brothers "movie star" version. In 2000, a DVD was released with both versions and a briefer, edited version of the comparative documentary.

Cast



Notes

  1. Hiney, T. and MacShane, F. "The Raymond Chandler Papers", Letter to Jamie Hamilton, 21 March 1949, page 105, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000
  2. Hiney, T. and MacShane, F. "The Raymond Chandler Papers", Letter to Jamie Hamilton, 30 May 1946, page 67, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000
  3. http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/b/bigsleep.htm


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