Oh, look. Another installment of my Cinematic Century list and another classic noir. I’m nothing if not consistent. And we’re going to be talking about a pretty huge figure in the world of noir today to boot. Good old Humphrey Bogart. Now, I would say that Bogart’s most famous noir role is probably undoubtedly the Maltese Falcon, which is still one of my favorite noirs of all time. It just had the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Citizen Kane, leaving it in the dust. And, I’ll be honest, it’s a little disappointing that what may very well be the best noir detective film isn’t a Raymond Chandler adaptation. When I was first getting into hard-boiled detective literature I quickly realized that the two titans of the genre were Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And, because for whatever reason when you have two choices it’s easy to pick one of them as your personal favorite, I became a Raymond Chandler fan. I definitely think that all of his stories are more enjoyable than Hammett’s, and it’s a real shame that no Chandler adaptation has reached the peaks of the Maltese Falcon. Which may seem like I’m selling today’s film, the Big Sleep, a little short. But I don’t mean it that way. The Big Sleep may not be as perfect a film as the Maltese Falcon, but it’s still one of my favorite film noirs of all time. And, as weird as it is to have Humphrey Bogart portray literature’s preeminent hard-boiled detectives, I love seeing him bring Phillip Marlowe to life. And that’s enough to push the Big Sleep up to be my favorite film of the year, beating two movies that may seem like more traditional choices. Hitchcock’s Notorious came out in 1946, and while it’s not my favorite of Hitchcock’s films, it’s still a lot of fun. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant hunt down Nazi’s? But the real draw for 1946 is probably Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’ve had a very strange relationship with this film. As we all know, it’s on constantly over the winter holidays, since a complicated copyright issue makes it easily available to play, and my main experience with the film was seeing it chopped up between commercials as a kid. And I was not a fan! That initial reaction really stuck, and for most of my life I held It’s a Wonderful Life is disdain as homespun treacle that was only popular because of a legal snafu. But, I recently re-watched the film with open eyes, and I have to admit, it’s good. Still not my favorite, but it’s certainly gone up in my estimation. But not enough to beat old Bogey playing one of my legitimate favorite characters of all time.
By 1946 the film noir genre was well-established, and Hollywood was very wiling to mine the world of pulp fiction to bring new salacious stories to the silver screen. Just as long as it didn’t run up against the Hayes Code. Which, as we’ve already discussed here on Cinematic Century, was an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. Luckily, they didn’t have as big an issue adapting the Big Sleep as they did last week with Mildred Pierce. Because there wasn’t nearly as much sex to deal with in the Big Sleep. There still was some, but the novel deals with it in a much more peripheral way, making it easier to create an accurate adaptation that didn’t have to throw extra murders into it just to make it palatable to the folks behind the Hayes Code. But, even though they were able to make a pretty solid adaptation of the Big Sleep, they were still forced to sit on the film for a while, for a very strange reason. This film was shot and ready to be released by 1945, but Warner Bros. found themselves in a strange predicament. World War II ended, I suppose before the studio expected it to, and they had a serious backlog of War movies that they needed to get out to the theaters before they became irrelevant. So, the Big Sleep sat on the shelves until Warner Bros. weeded down their apparently vast stable of war movies, just in time to cash in on the obsession with costar’s Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s real-life relationship. People have always found movies featuring real couples interesting, and sensing that their relationship could bring more people in they even went so far as to re-shoot some scenes to play up the relationship between Bogart and Bacall. Which I suppose was more important that fixing some of the references in the film that place it during the War. But, I guess they made the right call, because they were still able to produce one of the most satisfying hard-boiled detective films from the era.
The Big Sleep is the story of a private eye named Phillip Marlowe, who opens the film by accepting a case from an aging rich man named General Sternwood. Marlowe meets with the General, and learns that the General has two wild daughters, Carmen and Vivian. Carmen has recently been blackmailed by a local bookseller named Geiger. Normally Sternwood would have had a man who worked for him, Sean Regan, investigate this, but Regan had recently gone missing. Marlowe accepts the case, and also ends up picking up a secondary case from Vivian Sternwood, who is convinced that the General actually is curious about the location of Regan, and she hires Marlowe to look into Regan as well. But, Marlowe decides to tackle the Geiger case first, and starts staking out Geiger’s rare bookshop, quickly realizing that things aren’t on the level there, since his employee Agnes clearly doesn’t know anything about books, and seems to be hiding the store’s real purpose. He is able to follow Geiger back to his home though, and stakes him out for a while until he hears a gunshot inside the house. Marlowe races in, right as two cars speed away from the house, and he finds two worrisome things inside. First, Carmen Sternwood who seems to be drugged, and second, Geiger’s shot and murdered body. Marlowe realizes that Geiger had been taking incriminating photos of Carmen, but whoever killed him also took the film. So, Marlowe takes Carmen home, and returns to Geiger’s house to deal with the body, only to find it missing.
And things are made more complicated the next day when Vivian shows up at Marlowe’s office with the incriminating pictures of Carmen. She says that they’re being blackmailed a second time, this time from a local creep called Joe Brody, an accomplice of a gangster named Eddie Mars. So, Marlowe heads to Brody’s apartment and finds him perfectly willing to admit that he’s behind the blackmail, and he’s not particularly sorry. However, as soon as he admits that there’s a knock at the door, and Brody is shot by an assassin who turns out to just be a friend of Geiger’s, implying that Brody was the one to kill Geiger just to take over the grift he was already running on the Sternwood’s. But, this does take care of the whole Carmen case, leaving Marlowe to start looking for the location of Sean Regan. And there’s a pretty clear direction to begin investigating. Because the rumor is that Regan was killed by Eddie Mars because Regan had been fooling around with his wife. So, Marlowe heads to Mars’ casino, and runs into Vivian there. She begins acting incredibly suspicious, and after talking with Mars a bit learns that she may have been involved with Regan as well, and currently owes him quite a bit of money from gambling debts.
But, the next day Marlowe is visited by Vivian, who says that he’s to stop looking into Regan. She gives him his money for dealing with the Carmen thing, and tells him to drop it. But, he doesn’t. He keeps poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, and apparently is on the right path, because pretty soon Eddie Mars starts pushing back too, trying to convince Marlowe to give it all up too. However, Marlowe does strike some paydirt when he’s contacted by Geiger’s former assistant Agnes and her boyfriend Harry Jones who are trying to get out of town, and want to help Marlowe out in exchange for some money. He agrees, and they tell him that Mars’ wife Mona has been living in a house behind a motor garage, and Regan is probably there. So, Marlowe heads out, and ends up quickly getting knocked out by some goons, coming to only to find Vivian and Mona waiting for him. It turns out that Regan is actually dead, and Mars has been blackmailing Vivian, telling her that Carmen killed him while drugged. This is not true, but Vivian can’t let the mystery out, and has been playing along. So, Marlowe heads to Geiger’s old house and calls Mars, having them meet up. Marlowe explains that he’s figured everything out, and then forces Mars out of the house, where his awaiting gunmen shoot him, thinking he’s Marlowe. So, the Sternwood family are now clear, no one is blackmailing them, and they can be at peace knowing what happened to Sean Regan.
Philip Marlowe is my favorite hard-boiled detective character of all time. A majority of the characters in this genre tend to be rather similar, sarcastic and cynical tough-guys who aren’t afraid to shoot a goon in order to protect a dame. But there’s always been something about Marlowe that’s connected with me. He’s even more sarcastic than most, and is often able to lay his soul out a little more than the others, not afraid to leave himself a little vulnerable. And, while this movie maybe doesn’t get too deep into that second idea, it sure delivers on the first. It baffles me that Hollywood has never gotten a Philip Marlowe film series off the ground, leaving us with an odd bunch of self-contained movies about the same character that have little to nothing to do with one another. But Bogart does a pretty great Marlowe. He’s charming, full of quips, and really nails that “flying by the seat of his pants” aesthetic that the Marlowe character does so well. The movie maybe gets a tad bogged down by the whole Bogey and Bacall thing, adding in as many scenes of Marlowe and Vivian flirting as possible without straining the credulity of the story, but it more or less works. The two do have great chemistry with one another. But the thing that I most appreciate about the Big Sleep, and the reason that it’s my favorite film of 1946, is the fact that it’s an incredibly accurate adaptation of the feeling you get when reading a Philip Marlowe book.
Which his to say, it barely makes sense. Hard-boiled detective novels, almost by their nature, are Gordian Knots of plots, practically requiring flowcharts to fully understand. More often than not the detectives are given at least two cases, most of which end up blending together, taking the detective all around town and letting them see everything from the heights of wealth to the drugged out gutters, showing that crime unites us all. These novels have their roots in the pulps, a format that often paid writers by the word, leading to exceedingly drawn out and rambling stories to pay the bills. And the Big Sleep, both the novel and the film, are perfect examples of this style of noir. They’re both borderline incomprehensible. And I say that as positively as I can. There’s a famous story about the making of this film, possibly apocryphal, that the filmmakers became so confused about a plot-point involving a murdered chauffeur, that’s so inconsequential that I didn’t even mention it in the plot breakdown, that they called Raymond Chandler to ask him who actually killed the character. And even he had no idea! This style of noir, one of my personal favorites, are baffling experiences. You get tossed into an incredibly confusing and complicated world where literally every character you come across has their own agendas, and are trying to obfuscate things in order to get ahead, and you get attached to a wise-guy detective who has to run around trying to make sense of the plot. It’s a disorientating experience that for whatever reason appeal to me more than a traditional mystery story. You can often read a mystery and figure out the solution before it’s laid out before you, because you can follow the clues. Hard-boiled detective stories are a tad different. They’re bizarre stories that purposefully withhold things to make them as mysterious and confusing as possible, putting you in the shoes of a befuddled private eye who has to figure out which of the twenty lying characters are coming the closest to the truth. And I love it. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy the type of story perfected by writers like Raymond Chandler and Micky Spillane, this film is one of the best versions of that phenomena you can find on the big screen.
The Big Sleep was written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, directed by Howard Hawks, and released by Warner Bros., 1946.
Categories: Cinematic Century