After my brain failed me at the movie theater last night, I took solace in the idea that I could return to Roger Ebert’s compilation of The Great Movies. The next film on the alphabetical list is 1946’s The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. But upon seeing the almost two-hour runtime, I realized watching and reviewing the film would interfere with my own big sleep (not the big sleep referenced by the title, just my shot at a full eight hours). So – much like the scholars have always espoused – I put off for tomorrow what I technically could have done today. Well, just like that, tomorrow has arrived and so has The Big Sleep.
The film, an adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe private detective novels, stars Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by an elderly general (Charles Waldron) to handle a blackmail situation in which his younger daughter (Martha Vickers) has gotten tangled up. Marlowe’s curiosity draws him deeper into a web that includes the general’s older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), and a local crime boss, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).
The Big Sleep is an excellent example of film noir, the pseudo-genre that swept Hollywood in the forties and fifties. It was not so much a genre, as it was a tone, characterized by witty dialogue, femmes fatale, and deep shadows. The Big Sleep isn’t as noir-ish as modern viewers might expect from the parodies they have seen in the ensuing years. It is light on the ambiance, opting instead to allow Bogart to set the film’s feel.
This is Bogart at the height of his powers, exuding charisma and sexuality throughout the film, despite the overt restrictions of the time period. Every conversation Marlowe has in the film is like a boxing match, and the private dick always comes out on top. He is incredibly intuitive and quite creative throughout the investigation, which we get to see from beginning to end, including seemingly pointless stakeouts and lackluster undercover work. Bogart sells all of this, which would easily slip into boring territory in the hands of a lesser actor.
In fact, Marlowe as portrayed by Bogart is almost too perfect. He makes a couple of silly mistakes and errors in judgment, but Marlowe is the type of guy who seems to always know the score. Then we get to the film’s final act, which really cements its “great” status. Throughout the picture people die – that’s the nature of the crime drama – but Marlowe never has to face that death directly. Until the entrance of Canino (Bob Steele), a thug under Mars’s employ. Canino is like a dark version of Marlowe – smart and cunning, but without the moral streak. As Canino cuts a swath through the film, Marlowe’s humanity, which he had previously covered up with quick banter, begins to shine through his tough exterior. His very real reaction to violence (including the violence he commits himself) contrasts greatly with the world surrounding him – a world where murder is a rather common occurrence, and often nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Film noir often takes place in an artificial world – all film does, really. And while many writers use this effectively to entertain, Hawks and the screenwriters manage to use this inherent ersatz reality to comment on violence in the real world. It is interesting to say the least, but Bogart really drives it home. The truth about the big sleep (death, not the movie) is that there will be no dreams, and there will be no waking up. Marlowe is the only one in the really seems to understand that. And it might be the only thing that saves his life.