The Big Sleep is a 1946 film noir starring the married couple of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart plays Private Detective Philip Marlowe who is employed by a retired General to help resolve the gambling debts of one of his two attractive daughters. Marlowe soon discovers that there is more at stake than simply some unpaid debts and a confusing and ever deepening plot unfolds, one which contains blackmail, duplicity and murder.
The movie is powered along thanks to some great dialogue and obvious chemistry between the two leads. Its plot however is as impenetrable as a Nun’s chastity belt and just gets more and more confusing as it progresses. The story throws out leads and clues which subsequently lead to more leads and clues, many of which ultimately end nowhere. Raymond Chandler, the writer of the novel upon which the film is based, famously stated that not even he could answer some of the questions the plot places in front of the viewer.
The film is at its strongest when Bogie is on screen, doing what he does best; asking questions, getting to the bottom of mysteries and sucker punching bad guys. His character is fantastic, a hard man who operates alone, mostly without a gun. He’s calm and cool and the ladies love him. Quite hilariously, every single female character, from co-star to a taxi driver, throws herself at the leading man. It’s great fun to watch his magnetism displayed on screen. Some of the innuendo is risqué for the time and much of it was added once the film was initially completed in order to ramp up the Bogart and Bacall scenes. By 1945 their private relationship was well known and the studio wished to exploit the public’s interest by shooting additional racy scenes. The movie’s release was delayed to allow these scenes to be completed as well as to allow Warner Bros. to release their remaining War Pictures, fearing the public would lose interest in these with the war’s conclusion.
Bogart plays his character as the ultimate cool guy and he plays him excellently. Lauren Bacall struggles at times alongside him and fades into the background more often than not. Her sultry looks aid her performance but she’s hampered by a charismatic co-star with a great character to play with. She’s also out-shined by her on screen sister, the lively and playful Martha Vickers. Vickers steals her scenes, even up against the illustrious Bogart. One of the problems with the plot is that there are so many side characters that no other actor is given much of a chance to shine. They come and go with such regularity that as soon as a character beds in, they’re either killed off or scarper from Marlowe’s watchful eye. The handsome John Ridgely is the only actor besides those mentioned who sticks in the mind.
The film is shot in an assured manner by Howard Hawks, a director who was at the very top of his craft by the mid 1940s. It’s not particularly flashy and the noir stylisation is much subtler than in the likes of The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity but all the central themes of the genre are there. The score works well alongside the visuals, increasing in ferocity when required by the drama or tension that unfolds. The cars, suits and hats are all suitably appealing to my 1940s loving eyes. As I’ve already mentioned, the film’s main drawback is its plot which just doesn’t allow the audience to settle in and enjoy. You expect mystery but you also expect to be rewarded by paying close attention and unfortunately The Big Sleep doesn’t reward its audience, it merely baffles them.
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