The second of super couple, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s noir pairings, The Big Sleep is considered to be one of the quintessential film noirs of the post war period. It’s dark, convoluted plot, charged chemistry between its leads and excellent portrayal of Marlow by Bogart, meant that in 1997, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and added it to the National Film Registry.
There are two versions of the film which exist. The first version of the film was completed in 1945 and was re-shot and edited in 1946, in order to highlight the charged onscreen presence of its two leads, who were involved in real life. The 1945 version was re-released in 1997, and there is a substantial difference in plotting and characters between the two, especially in terms of the size of Carmen’s role. Apparently, it was felt that was Carmen was overshadowing her older sister in the original version of the film, and many of her scenes were subsequently cut during re-editing.
According to critic Roger Ebert,
“The new scenes [of the 1946 version] add a charge to the film that was missing in the 1945 version; this is a case where “studio interference” was exactly the right thing… As for the 1946 version that we have been watching all of these years, it is one of the great films noir, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler’s ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.”
The film begins with Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) being hired by the invalid General Sternwood, who spends much of his time in his conservatory due to his poor health. Before he meets the General, however, Marlowe has a run in with Carmen Sternwood (played by Martha Vickers), who is spoilt and flirtatious.
Marlowe learns from the General that his client to be was blackmailed by Joe Brody five years before, and is now being blackmailed by A.G. Geiger, this time over Carmen’s gambling debts. He agrees to take the case, and is then summoned by Vivian Sternwood Routledge (played by Lauren Bacall), the General’s older daughter, who tries to cross examine him about what he’s been hired for, much to Marlowe’s amusement.
Marlowe then visits Geiger’s bookshop, where he pretends to be an intellectual, and learns through some questions about rare books, that don’t exist, that the shop is clearly a front. He goes to the bookshop across the street and gets information about Geiger from the attractive shop assistant, who confirms Marlowe’s suspicions that Geiger’s establishment is a front. After she removes her glasses and lets down her hair, she and Marlowe get to know each other better.
They see Geiger across the street, and Marlowe shadows him to Laverne Terrace, where Geiger is staying. Marlowe hears gunshots and sees two cars speed away from the house. He finds Carmen, who is high on absinth, there, as well as Geiger’s corpse on the floor. A camera is hidden inside of a buddha statue’s head, which matches the house’s Asian aesthetic, but its film is missing.
Marlowe finds a coded notebook in a small steel lockbox, and then takes Carmen home, where he instructs Vivian to provide Carmen with an alibi for that night, and to not tell anyone that he was there.
He returns to Laverne Terrace to find that Geiger’s body has gone walkabout. Back at his own apartment, Marlowe is visited by Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls and they go to see Sternwood’s chauffeur and car being retrieved from the river. Marlowe and Ohls ascertain that the chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was murdered. Ohls also tells Marlowe that many of the Sternwood chauffeurs have been sweet on Carmen and that it’s likely that Taylor was, too.
Vivian visits Marlowe at his office and divulges that Taylor wanted to marry Carmen. She also tells him that she is being blackmailed over incriminating photos of Carmen. Marlowe asks why Vivian doesn’t phone the police, but when she does, he stops her through a humorous exchange with the policeman on the other end of the line.
He then returns to Geiger’s bookstore, where the assistant from his previous visit tries to fob him off. During this exchange, he finds that the store is being cleared out. He proceeds to tail Geiger’s associates to the Randall Arms, where Carmen’s old blackmailer, Joe Brody lives. Marlowe goes to Laverne Terrace again and finds Carmen hiding behind a bush. He becomes impatient with her stalling and lying, and advises her to just keep quiet about everything. The owner of the house, Eddie Mars, arrives, and tries to interrogate Marlowe after threatening to phone the police because of the blood patch on the carpet.
Once Marlowe finally manages to leave, he stakes out the Randall Arms apartment building until Vivian arrives. Brody threatens him with a gun, but Marlowe is unconcerned and tells Agnes, Geiger’s ex-shop assistant, and Vivian, to come out of their hiding place in the next room. Vivian tells Marlowe that she wanted to handle the situation on her own. Marlowe tells Brody that Carmen will frame him for Geiger’s murder even though he’s not guilty. Brody gives Marlowe the shots and negatives of Carmen after Carmen comes into the apartment and tries to get the photos at gunpoint. After Marlowe gets Vivian and Carmen to leave, Brody admits that Taylor, the chauffeur, killed Geiger, and that he took the film from Taylor after he knocked him out on the roadside.
Brody is then shot through the door by Geiger’s young male associate, who Marlowe tails. Marlowe holds the boy at gunpoint and makes him drive back to Laverne Terrace. Marlowe outwits the boy when he tries to attack and then kill Marlowe. Marlowe ties him up before finding Geiger on the bed in the main bedroom. He phones Bernie and the Chief Inspector arrests the boy for trying to cover up his employer’s murder and for shooting Brody.
Marlowe meets Vivian at a restaurant where she romantically propositions him, but Marlowe is unconvinced and accuses her of being involved with Eddie Mars in some way. After she storms off, he goes to Eddie’s gambling house, where Vivian is singing And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine. Marlowe questions Mars about Sean Regan, General Sternwood’s missing companion. Mars in evasive about Reagan and his own missing wife, Mona Mars. Vivian wins $28 000 at roulette, and when she leaves, a man tries to steal the money from her in the parking lot. Marlowe discerns, despite more romantic advances from Vivian, that this was in fact a set up to convince him that Eddie isn’t blackmailing Vivian.
Marlowe finds Carmen in his apartment, and throws her out after she tries to come onto him and then bites him for rejecting her. Marlowe pays Ohls a visit, and is told to lay off the case all together, especially Sean Regan’s disappearance. Marlowe phones the Sternwood residence, where Vivian tells him that Regan has returned from a stay in Mexico and that he is not well, before trying to pay Marlowe off. Marlowe is unconvinced by her story about Regan.
Marlowe is then beaten up in an alleyway by two thugs, before being approached by Harry Jones, who is involved with the scheming Agnes. Once back in Marlowe’s apartment where Marlowe tries to patch himself up after being thoroughly worked over, Jones tells him that Agnes supposedly knows where Mrs Mars and Regan are, and will sell the information for $200. Later, Marlowe goes to meet Jones in an insurance office that is closed for the night, and witnesses Jones being poisoned after he tells Mars’ associate, Lash Canino, where Agnes is staying. Agnes phones the office and Marlowe arranges to meet her. He finds her in a parked car where he gives her the $200. She directs him to a garage where she says that Mrs Mars is being held.
Marlowe makes his way to the garage and deliberately swerves onto the side of the road and lets the air out of his front tire, before going to the garage that Agnes told him about. Once there, the mechanic goes out to fix the car, but Lash Canino is also present and knocks Marlowe out. When he regains consciousness, Marlowe is tied up. He meets Mrs Mars, and as he expected, Vivian is there, too. Mona is unable to accept the extent of her husband’s illegal activities and throws a glass of water in Marlowe’s face before leaving the room. Marlowe persuades Vivian to free him from his ties, but he is still handcuffed. He manages to retrieve a hidden gun from his car, and shoots Canino after Canino tries to use Vivian as a human shield.
Marlowe and Vivian return to Laverne Terrace, and Marlowe phones Mars and arranges for them to meet there. Having been able to prepare for any of Eddie’s tricks, Marlowe gets the other man to admit that Carmen didn’t kill Sean out of jealousy, and he in fact killed the other man and hid the body so that he could blackmail Vivian. Marlowe gets Eddie to leave the house by shooting him twice in the arm. Once outside, Eddie is shot by his own men who mistake him for Marlowe. Marlowe phones Ohls for help, and tells Vivian that she must send Carmen to a rehabilitation centre so that she may be cured of her drug addiction and mental instability. The film ends as Marlowe and Vivian’s faces fill the screen as the sound of approaching sirens reach them.
This film is my favourite film noir, largely because it consists of what I think are the essential ingredients for an excellent film of that genre: fast paced, clever dialogue, a convoluted plot, a wisecracking detective, boatloads of subtext and intimation about the seedier side of life, and a thoroughly seductive and equally clever femme fatale. Although it is now widely considered a masterclass in the genre, The Big Sleep received mixed reviews upon release, with Bosley Crowther criticising the convoluted plot and Bacall’s acting abilities.
The ending of the film may seem happy, and in line with the Hays Code, but it is a happy ending that comes after much death and personal cost to many of the characters involved, especially people like Regan and Jones, who were caught in the crossfire.
Humphrey Bogart is also the best Phillip Marlowe, because he manages to imbue the character with a dry sense of humour and world weariness that shows his disgust with society and how this disgust has largely hardened him. Lauren Bacall’s performance perfectly matches Bogart’s. She is able to deliver every line of dialogue with a knowing raise of her perfect eyebrow, and she also manages to show the sacrifices her character has had to make over the years in order to protect her self destructive sister, and keep her father from knowing the full extent of his youngest daughter’s depravity.
The entire film is a masterstroke in the moody, cynicism of film noir. There are no truly innocent characters in this world in which Marlowe must try to maintain some order, even if he himself is no white knight.
This post is my first entry for “The Remake of the “They Remade What?!” Blogathon” hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please go and check out her blog on Blogspot for more info and to see everyone else’s entries.