Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) isn’t the best film noir ever made, but it certainly is one of the funniest. The Howard Hawks production based on the Raymond Chandler novel is stuffed with hilarious one liners and near perfect performances – especially from Humphrey Bogart as iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Bogart and co-star Lauren Bacall had previously teamed up with Hawks to creat TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), and that film was so successful they decided to collaborate once again. Good idea… For the most part. THE BIG SLEEP is an exciting breakneck ride with a labyrinth plot that causes the head to spin – perhaps a bit too much. For this is not so much a feeling of vertigo with all its inherent, though strange, pleasures, but more of an outright confusion, relieved by the laughs, excitement and romantic subplot. This confusion seems to have its roots in Chandler’s book, rather than in the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. As they adapted the novel, Hawks and his team were lost as to the identity of one of the murderers. When they contacted Chandler to find out who killed the chauffeur, they were amazed to discover that the original author himself had no idea!

Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the home of “General” Sternwood (Charles Waldron) an elderly and sickly millionaire who lives with his two daughters, the teenaged Carmen (Martha Vickers) and her older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Carmen is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger and the General wants to get to the bottom of it. Also of concern to the General is the disappearance of his friend and former employee Sean Regan. Marlowe’s investigation leads to a string of murders and an ever contorted plot and – at last – true love with Vivian.

Things happen so fast in THE BIG SLEEP, and with such increasing incoherence, that we soon decide the best thing to do is laugh when we can and enjoy the carnage. But there are also clever asides to a sort of playful thematic development. The General meets with Marlowe in a greenhouse where the detective sweats it out as the old man sits in a wheelchair under layers of blankets. Says the General “It’s too hot in here for any man who has any blood in his veins.” The elderly coot’s iciness runs through his entire family – especially Carmen. The greenhouse which wildly sprouts all manner of exotic plants and flowers is like a petri dish – as is the entire Sternwood home. Some wild things grow there! If in true noir fashion the women are especially wild, there is also an exotic aura surrounding the feminine mystique as depicted in the film. Geiger’s cottage is decorated with statues and figurines of female nudes and a large head of a Hindu goddess, which conceals a hidden camera. Everything about women is subterfuge in THE BIG SLEEP, and when Carmen is revealed as a murderer it seems totally logical.

There is also a subtle but elegant highlighting of pairs in the film. The opening credits end with a shot of two burning cigarettes resting in an ashtray – a foreshadowing of the Marlowe, Vivian hook up. When Marlowe leaves Eddie Mars’ (John Ridgely) gambling den, he is met simultaneously by two cigarette girls both there to deliver the news that Eddie’s good friend and frequent customer, Vivian, wishes to speak with him. The young girls at first stumble over each other’s words then share a laugh with Marlowe over the awkwardness of the situation. During the course of the movie Marlowe is beaten up twice – first by two thugs in an alley – then by a different pair of brutes in an auto repair barn. The film ends as it began – with a close-up of two cigarettes smoldering sensuously in an ash tray.

But the thing most people remember about THE BIG SLEEP is the dialogue – especially the banter between Marlowe and the film’s many femmes fatales. Vivian: “You’re a mess, aren’t you?” Marlowe: “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.” Or try this exchange as they discuss sex in terms that satisfy the censor by using horse racing euphemisms. Marlowe: “I can’t tell until I see you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Vivian: “A lot depends on whose in the saddle!” Or this hilarious wower as a tied down Marlowe expresses concern about the imminent return of an infamous gangster: “He’ll beat my teeth out then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”

Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood history. From the mid twenties until 1970’s RIO LOBO, Hawks mastered every imaginable genre. There were gangster films (SCARFACE), screwball comedies (BRINGING UP BABY), thrillers (THE BIG SLEEP), westerns (RED RIVER being the best remembered) and musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS). He even directed parts of a low-budget horror film (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – which he also produced) going uncredited for his work in that capacity. Hawks was not a stylistic virtuoso like Hitchcock or Orson Welles. His was a more subtle approach letting the actors and the scripts (on which he frequently collaborated) shine. But he was an innovator: During the 1930s he helped develop the use of overlapping dialogue several years before CITIZEN KANE. Above all he was a storyteller. And spellbinding stories they were – and remain to this day. With the exception of SCARFACE and its dated star performance by Paul Muni, Hawks’ films seem as fresh and potent today as the day they premiered. A fact of which any director could be proud.

CREDITS: Produced by Howard Hawks. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Art Direction by Carl Weyl. Edited by Christian Nyby (who also directed most of THE THING). Music by Max Steiner. WITH: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cooke Jr., Bob Steele, Regis Toomey and Louis Heydt.

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August 7, 2013 - Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, film drama, film noir | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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