The Big Sleep is arguably the noirist of noirs, packed to the gills with unrepentant decadence — hoods, cops, dames, and druggies lurking around a cynically iconoclastic Humphrey Bogart. After the seductive pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (see previous review in The Independent, 6/27/18), two years later Warner Brothers decided to reunite them in this film rendition of detective writer Raymond Chandler’s best-selling thriller — and to re-enlist the previous film’s successful behind the camera team of William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, screenwriters, and Howard Hawks, director.
Hawks then embellished his screenwriting team with Leigh Brackett, one of Hollywood’s early female professional writers, who was at her best with genre plot and crackling dialogue, from science fiction to pulp fiction. Faulkner and Brackett divided up the job by writing alternative scenes, letting Hawks sort out any conflicts, and Furthman came in at the end to add material. Bogart called on Brackett, who he nicknamed “Butch,” whenever he wanted any of his dialogue toughened up. (Hawks also reportedly used as a script doctor a six-foot-two showgirl called “Stuttering Sam” with whom he was involved.)
To today’s viewer, The Big Sleep is enjoyable for its 1940s types — its male characters’ tough guy bravado grafted onto its females’ startlingly flirtatious boldness. The resulting tension is apparent not only in the sparks generated by the leading stars’ obvious on-and off-screen relationship (Bogie and Bacall married immediately after the film’s completion), but also in the scenery-chewing energy of its secondary performances.
Interestingly, Bacall’s role, though important to the film as a whole, was originally smaller, in keeping with the original novel. But with the first provocative appearance of Martha Vickers as a barely post-Lolita nymphet (she plays Bacall’s younger out-of-control sister), the studio worried that she would steal the movie from Bacall. (Bogie’s astonished comment on Vickers’ ingratiating introduction is “She just tried to crawl into my lap standing up.”) And the script, embellishing on the original book, also added concern by giving Bacall additional competition — an aggressive shop girl who pulls down the shade when Bogie pulls out a flask, a cheeky librarian who has her own card catalog in mind, a saucy taxi driver who can’t resist volunteering her private phone, a sullen moll fronting for a rare-book pornographer.
But Bacall, as proven both in her earlier introductory film and in her later successes, can easily hold her own in a crowd. To counter the parade of wise-cracking supporting dames, and to accentuate Bacall’s sexy presence, Hawks encouraged his screenwriters to further inflame the script with surprising innuendo. They pumped up added scenes with suggestive conversation — for instance, in their famous racing repartee, after Bacall compares Bogart to her optimum horse, he replies in turn, “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go,” and Bacall responds, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
The violent script hews closely to Chandler’s cinematic novel — every time actions reach a stalemate, they are resolved with gunfire (by my count, five on-screen and three off-screen murders). The ensuing complications are held together (just barely) by Hawks’ fast-paced direction, which favors momentum over explanation. A telling example is the confusion over who killed Owen Taylor, a minor but important figure to the plot. Bogart asked Leigh Taylor, who asked Faulkner, who didn’t know, so Hawks telegraphed Chandler himself, who replied, “Dammit, I don’t know either.”
In fact, to try to keep straight the twists and turns of the labyrinthine plot can lead to a massive headache. It is much better simply to hop on board and go with the energy of the film’s myriad outrageous characters as they interact with a bemused Bogart. But by the end of the film, even if you don’t know exactly what has happened or who has done what to whom, it all comes down to Bogart and Bacall again — rather improbably patching up their mutual differences and betrayals with an emotionally, if not intellectually, satisfying embrace.
The movie is available on FilmStruck and iTunes, streaming or disc.