Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
The Big Sleep (1946) Directed by Howard Hawks.
Vivian: What will your first step be?
Philip Marlowe: The usual one.
Vivian: I didn't know there was a usual one.
Philip Marlowe: Well sure there is, it comes complete with diagrams on page 47 of how to be a detective in 10 easy lessons correspondent school textbook and uh, your father offered me a drink.
Vivian: You must've read another one on how to be a comedian.
The Big Sleep is perhaps the best example of Film Noir. Film Noir has been described as Urban, nocturnal, featuring amoral characters, and sexual motivations. It is a style, and style is frequently more important than substance. It frequently features hardboiled types like Private Eyes and Gangsters, and the ever present Femme Fatale. Certainly this film has all these elements.
In an interesting note, Howard Hawks set the tone for the movie from it's inception. The Studio was desperate for another hit like To Have and Have Not, and gave Hawks $50,000 to secure the rights. Hawks bought the rights for $5,000 and pocketed the rest.
Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is a Private Eye. He is hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his last role) to deal with a slight matter of blackmail. His daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) has been signing promissory notes to an unscrupulous bookseller named A.G. Geiger. The General assumes they are gambling debts. He wants the matter taken care of with a minimum of fuss.
In talking to each other, they realize they have a friend in common; Sean Reagan. He was the General's companion, enjoying the whiskey and cigars the fragile old man could no longer have, and regaling him with stories of his days as a bootlegger. It was from those days that Marlowe knew him, on the opposite side of the law. Now Sean has gone missing, and it bothers the old man.
Before Marlowe can take leave of the house, he is summoned by the older daughter, Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). She is very curious as to what her father wants with Marlowe, but Marlowe is not in the habit of revealing his clients business. Their banter becomes...heated...on several levels.
Vivian: I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
The trail leads Marlowe into a seamy world; while the movie, adhering to the Hays code, did not state things plainly, I will, drawing on the original book. A. G. Geiger (Theodore von Eltz- Uncredited) runs a "rare book shop" which is really a pornography rental. He takes some of his own pictures, and uses them for blackmail. He is helped by his boyfriend, Carol Lundgren (Tom Rafferty- Uncredited) and Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin- Uncredited) who runs the shop.
However, when Marlowe catches up with Geiger, he is dead on the floor, and Carmen is drugged out of her mind. Worse, the camera used to photograph her in (and out of) a Chinese dress is empty; someone took the film. Marlowe takes Carmen home, and returns, only to find the body has vanished!
As Marlowe digs deeper, he keeps finding bodies. He makes a few himself, in self defense. And through it all the Sternwood sisters continue their dance with the detective. Carmen's is a sleazy strip tease, a series of blatant propositions that avail her nothing; as Marlowe observed, "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up."
However, Vivian is another matter. She and Marlowe circle and feint like fencers. At first, Vivian is trying to see if Marlowe is investigating Sean Reagan's disappearance. Marlowe is trying to figure out what she is after. Later, both of their motivations change; they are still working at cross purposes, but neither of them is unaware of their mutual attraction.
Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.
This little bit of dialogue was added later, to increase the heat between Bogie and Bacall. In an interesting side note, it was written by William Faulkner. Yes, that William Faulkner. Also, several scenes with Martha Vickers were cut because she so over shown her on screen sister. All was carefully crafted to enhance the romance between the leads.
Eventually, Marlowe untangles the web of lies, deceit, betrayal and protection that has obscured the whole mess...except for one detail...who shot the Chauffer? When the screenwriters were working on the script, they hit that snag, and ended up calling Raymond Chandler, the author. After awhile, Chandler had to admit he too had no idea who had shot the chauffer. And so no one knows.
One of the things that makes this movie so successful is the character of Philip Marlowe. While Film Noir may be typified by amoral characters, Marlowe has a code. He won't talk about his client's business, he doesn't hurt anybody if he doesn't have too, and he tries to see things through. The main thing that sticks in Marlowe's craw is the disappearance of Sean Reagan. The old general liked the man, and Marlowe respected him, and so he could not let the case go, even after he had satisfied the terms of his employment.
Vivian: Why did you have to go on?
Marlowe: Too many people told me to stop.
There are a hundred reasons this film works; the cinematography and lighting were masterful, Syd Hickox was a genius, and used shadow to brilliant effect. The music of Max Stein was flawless. The pacing was perfect, and the plot, delightfully convoluted, and wickedly clever.
And the acting; so much talent in such concentrated form. Bogart is the ultimate hardboiled detective. Bacall makes a convincing Femme Fatale. Those performances alone could have carried the film. Martha Vickers was such a scene stealer as the nymphomaniacal Carmen Sternwood that several of her scenes had to be cut so she did not overshadow Lauren Bacall. Think about that a moment. That is a performance. Also, there were still many brilliant bit parts; Dorothy Malone as the proprietress (or Improprietress) of the Acme Bookstore where Marlowe staked out Geiger added a lot of heat with just a few lines, Norris, the butler (Charles D. Brown) was a delightful mix of comedy and competence;
Philip Marlowe: You made a mistake. Mrs. Rutledge didn't want to see me.
Norris: I'm sorry, sir. I make many mistakes.
And Elisha Cook as Harry Jones, Agnes ardent admirer, and fall guy. A tiny part, but it really sold the movie, and added depth to Philip Marlowe.
This movie is one of the best Film Noir, and made Ebert's list of 100 best movies. It is #118 in IMDB's top 250. It won no awards. Hmmm.
Infinitely watchable, the movie is timeless. It has its setting, but it is as entertaining sixty three years later as it was the day it aired. That is the mark of great cinema.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12