The Big Sleep (1946)


(director: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: William Faulkner/Leigh Brackett/Jules Furthman/from the novel by Raymond Chandler; cinematographer: Sid Hickox; editor: Christian Nyby; music: Max Steiner; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen), Regis Toomey (Bernie Ohis), Charles Waldron (Gen. Sternwood), Charles D. Brown (Norris), Bob Steele (Canino), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Harry Jones), Sonia Darrin (Agnes), Louis Jean Jeydt (Joe Brody), Peggy Knudsen (Mona Mars), Theodore Von Eltz (Arthur Geiger), Dorothy Malone (Bookstore Seller), Dan Wallace (Owen Taylor, Chauffeur), Joy Barlowe (taxi driver); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Hawks; Warner Bros./RKO; 1946)

“One of the most intriguing, energetic and playful film noirs ever.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the most intriguing, energetic and playful film noirs ever; the ultimate in an illogical whodunit that feasts on snappy dialogue rather than crime story conventions or trying to make sense to piece things together or providing much warmth for the uncertain world the characters inhabit. It’s based on the 1939 pulpish crime novel by Raymond Chandler and has a team of brilliant writers that include Nobel laureate novelist William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The film was completed shooting in 1944 and pre-released in 1945 to the American troops by director Howard Hawks (“Scarface”/”Twentieth Century”/”Only Angels Have Wings”), but Charles Feldman, Hawks’ partner and Bacall’s agent, sent a memo to studio head Jack Warner to make changes that would give the audience more of the sassy Bacall seen in Hawks’ popular “To Have and Have Not,” rather than keep the dialogue straight and the story linear as done in the poorly received next Bacall film of “Confidential Agent.” Warners agreed and had Hawks add more scenes of Bacall having good chemistry with Bogart and filling the dialogue with plenty of double entendres as written by the uncredited Philip Epstein of Casablanca note; it was reshot in 1946 and released to theaters to become the version most people saw. The problem was that it cut out 18 minutes from the original pre-release, which left the story line muddled in parts (including the cutting of the scene telling who was the murderer of General Sternwood’s chauffeur — the one in which Bogart tells the cops and the DA everything we need to know about the first two murders). My review is of the original film, as I prefer clarity to sauciness. But I also saw the later version and enjoyed it better after seeing the earlier version and how it cleared up many of the inexplicable things that left me scratching my head.

The indefinably complicated plot has loner hard-nose Los Angeles shamus Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) retained by the crippled and badly ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to get a blackmailer named Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz) off his back, who has some indiscretions on his nympho child-like mentally unbalanced younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe had been recommended to the General by his honest homicide detective pal Bernie (Regis Toomey), whom he had known when he worked for the DA before removed for insubordination. The General’s other difficult daughter is the divorced Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), who had previously been blackmailed by low-life Joe Brody (Louis Jean Jeydt).

Their meeting takes place in the hot greenhouse, where Marlowe has to sweat while he drinks brandy, something the General can’t do but nevertheless takes vicarious pleasure in someone else enjoying life’s vices. The General also tells of being despondent that his former confidant, an ex-bootlegger and colorful character named Sean Regan, hired to do his drinking, had suddenly quit and hasn’t been seen since. Rumor has it that Regan split to Mexico with the pretty blonde wife (Peggy Knudsen) of gambler Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Vivian is a regular at Eddie’s gambling house and has lost bundles there, which have been paid by her father. Upon meeting the wicked Vivian, it’s love at first sight for ladies man Marlowe.

When Marlowe uncovers that Geiger’s Hollywood rare bookstore is a front for a scam, he tails Geiger but finds him dead in his house with a drugged Carmen there. Things get very messy when Marlowe learns a second man has now blackmailed Carmen and before you know it there are a number of murders, which Marlowe suspects involve Eddie. The General is satisfied that the shamus cleared things up with Carmen, but Vivian is upset that Marlowe persists on the case and goes after Eddie when the General has paid him handsomely and doesn’t require his services anymore. But things pick up when Marlowe is visited by patsy Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the new boyfriend of Geiger’s shady cold-hearted bookstore clerk Agnes (Sonia Darrin), with info on where to find Regan. It leads to the death of Jones by Eddie’s vicious henchman Canino (Bob Steele), and Marlowe tracking down the mystery of Regan’s disappearance and Vivian’s involvement. It further leads to a confrontation with Canino and Eddie, and with the shamus going the extra mile to clear Vivian of involvement in the messy crime. After six murders and matching wits with gamblers, blackmailers, booksellers and murderers, Marlowe realizes he’s really in love with Vivian. Maybe it was all about that overwhelming sexual attraction between Bogey and Bacall, and the crime story was just thrown in as a bone to a dog!