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.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, film drama, film noir | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Howard Hawks’ production of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) is a slap happy mixture of 1930s screwball comedy and a Warner Brothers social conscience film from the same decade. It also looks forward to the social realist dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931) utilizing one of the screenwriters of that film, Charles Lederer. Both films were based on the play “The Front Page” by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. HIS GIRL FRIDAY underwent some gender bending, changing the main character of “Hildy Johnson” into a beautiful woman, and transforming the film – in a roundabout way – into a different sort of love story than the one originally envisioned.

In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a morally corrupt newspaper editor, wants his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to come back to work for his paper. Burns – for the purpose of selling papers – has taken up the cause of Earl Williams (John Qualen) who is about to be executed for the murder of a cop. He may or may not be innocent by reason of insanity. Hildy was Burns’ best writer, and he is convinced her writing skills will get Williams the reprieve he desperately needs. And Burns desperately needs the reprieve – you guessed it – to sell more papers.

The gender bending of HIS GIRL FRIDAY goes beyond the switcheroo with the main character. Walter Burns constantly refers to Hildy in masculine terms. When trying to convince her to come back to work for him, he implores “You’re a newspaperman!” Since Burns claims he was drunk when he proposed marriage, he scolds her for accepting with “If you’d have been a gentlemen you’d have forgotten all about it!” Hildy is engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) because he treats her “like a woman” and says sappy things such as “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” She eats it up. Though Burns gives her the “one of the guys” treatment most of the time, he is not above occasionally treating her like a child, inviting her to sit on his knee after delivering this loo loo: “Theres’s a lamp burning in a window for you, right here.” Refusing, she responds with “I jumped out that window a long time ago.”

Though she seems to desire the delicate female treatment, a hint of her inner fire is displayed in lines such as the above (which also prefigures a suicide leap by a secondary character) and also in her wardrobe. Throughout the film she wears bold striped designs while her ex-husband is seen in conservative grey suits. And her husband to be is a buttoned down guy as well – an insurance salesman who is looked down upon by her ex. In fact Bruce is viewed by Burns as so milquetoast that the editor grabs the handle of the insurance man’s umbrella, shaking it instead of his hand, on their first meeting. The umbrella, like the goloshes he wears, signify to Burns (and us) that Bruce is a bit of a sissy, who doesn’t fully exist without the conveniences of modern life. And he may be right about the whimp factor. When the three principles go to dinner, Bruce (who is not paying attention) accidentally sits in Burns’ lap! And Bruce is mixed up in other ways: When defending his profession, he ridiculously states “We don’t help people much when they’re alive – but when they’re dead – that’s what counts!” Even stranger, Bruce plans to take his mother on the couple’s honeymoon and he and Hildy intend to live with Mother after the nuptials.

The cynicism about the insurance industry is mild compared to what the filmmakers unleash on the newspaper business. Before and after taking the job (Burns buys a hefty life insurance policy in order to persuade her) Hildy makes clear her distaste for her profession. When her fellow reporters fabricate salacious stories about Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) and Earl Williams (she brought flowers to his cell after being touched by his plight) Molly bursts into tears, shouting “They’re not even human!” Hildy responds with “I know, they’re newspaper men!” Perhaps Hildy’s disgust at being treated like a man stems from the fact that all the reporters she has encountered throughout her career happen to be men. As the Earl Williams story progresses she is more and more seduced by her old life and career and becomes much more like the man Burns has always admired. After Earl’s escape from the police station, with cops and everyone else in hot pursuit, she chases down the Warden (Pat West) and literally tackles him in the street to get the story. This is perhaps the funniest scene in the film and the one most evocative of 1930s screwball comedies, including Hawks’ own BRINGING UP BABY. On a darker order, gallows are being built outside the press room. The “Gentlemen of the press” as Hildy sarcastically calls them, are doing their best to see Williams hang. The symbolism is obvious.

And then there are the politicians…and the Doctors who analyze Williams for the state…and everyone else in the bureaucracy. They all come in for cynical dissection. The politicians manipulate Williams’ fate for their own political purposes, with the Governor (whom we never see) being a fan of “red menace” conspiracy theories and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) issuing a “shoot to kill” order against Williams to further his reelection bid. The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart) announces excitedly “I have the tickets for the hanging here boys!” as he enters the press room, as though the state sponsored murder were a stage show. The Sheriff and Psychiatrist (Edwin Maxwell) discuss banalities in front of Earl Williams, ignoring him completely. When the poor man objects, the shrink offers a half-hearted apology:”I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Williams. I forgot you were there.”

There are countless witty touches and inside jokes scattered throughout the film. Feigning heartbreak (though he truly loves Hildy) Burns dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief saying “Maybe she’ll think of me after I’m gone”, then gently taps Bruce on the shoulder to make sure he will not miss this piece of finely tuned choreography. Near the end of the film Burns refers to a nefarious character named “Archie Leach”, which is Cary Grant’s real name.

Despite these light touches HIS GIRL FRIDAY remains a most cynical piece of film history. It is to newspaper professions what Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) is to the movie business. This is perhaps the reason Wilder himself chose to do yet a third version of the film in 1974, under the play’s original title. A fourth version – by the way – called SWITCHING CHANNELS was made in 1988 updating the story to the television era and using the gender make up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play THE FRONT PAGE by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Photography by Joseph Walker. Music by Sydney Cutner. Edited by Gene Havlik. WITH: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Abner Biberman, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Alma Kruger, Edwin Maxwell.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment