A private eye thinks he’s ready for his next case, but didn’t prepare himself for the tricky situation – and the even trickier women – that he is about to encounter.
This 1946 film noir directed by Howard Hawks was adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, from the book written by Ramon Chandler. It was the second of four films that would star Bogart and Bacall, who were married 3 months after the filming was complete. While rife with friction on the set due to the leading actors’ extramarital affair, the film has become a classic of its genre.
We meet Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he is meeting General Sternwood, his next client. Marlowe meets the youngest daughter of the general, and we are then introduced to Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), a hot-to-trot party girl who can’t seem to tell Marlowe “You’re cute” enough times to satisfy her. He brushes her flirtatious advances off brusquely and from that moment forward, Carmen is determined to catch his eye. Unfortunately for Carmen, after meeting with her father and getting the scoop on his next case, Marlowe meets her older sister Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), and almost forgets there are other females in existence. Almost. After a brief – but heated and witty – exchange of words, Marlow and Rutledge part ways.
“I’m sure I don’t care what you say, Mr. Marlowe.”
The mystery goes a little something like this: a man that has blackmailed General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in the past is doing so again, and the general’s right hand man is missing. Sternwood needs someone to find out what happened to his number one guy, as well as finding out everything possible about the blackmailer. Marlowe soon finds out that some of the general’s adversaries live right under his own roof. His daughters both have secrets to hide and agendas to meet, and know how to make a man lose sight of his goal with their beguiling feminine wiles. Marlowe plays it cool and forges ahead. How does he fare with so much pitted against him? Watch and find out, Constant Viewer.
A recurring item in the film is the presence of fiery young women with gorgeous faces. The general’s daughters, the librarian, the women who work as clerks at the bookstores in town, the cigarette girls at the club, and even the taxi driver, are all drop-dead gorgeous. Add to that a cast of rough-and-rowdy men – and the fact that everyone seems to have a sharp wit and a tongue to match – and you have a delight to the intellect and libido in one film presentation. Bogart’s dialogue with Bacall’s character during their first meeting is a spectacular spat between two strong-willed individuals. The bookstore clerk knows her stuff, too, and the witty exchange between her and Marlowe is as seductive as it is intelligent. So much so that you almost feel sorry for her when Marlowe leaves with a simple “So long, pal”. There are so many excellent conversations between Marlowe and the other characters that I can’t begin to go into them all here. Suffice it to say, the zingers fly and if you can keep an amused grin off your face, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Pay particular attention to Marlowe in disguise as he inquires about a copy of Ben Hur from 1860. Though there was some dispute over who came up with this alter ego – whether it was Hawkes or Bogart himself – the truth is that the description of the character was in the book by Chandler. The skill with which it was pulled off was all Bogie.
The sexual tension between the characters is extremely well communicated but never quite blatant, except in the case of Miss Sternwood, who has no problem draping herself over Marlowe any time she has the chance. She has a habit of biting her thumb to draw attention to her mouth, and Marlowe makes no pretense about how disgusted this makes him. Marlowe is rough with his women and has no problem extending a helping (back)hand in correcting them when needed. He eventually breaks her of the habit. The growth of the attraction between Marlowe and Ms. Rutledge, however, is one he doesn’t try to suppress. In fact, when the time comes for the first big kiss between the two, it is Marlowe who leans in and claims his prize, leaving Bacall’s flawless lips gleaming with moisture. It is a breathtaking moment to watch, and she affirms it was breathtaking to be a part of when she tells him “I like that. I’d like more.”
One bit of trivia that is especially endearing to me is the reason behind the development of Bacall’s trademark under-the-eyelashes look. She has been noted to say that, because she was such a nervous wreck when acting with Bogart, she had to find a way to steady herself while the camera rolled. She discovered that by tipping her head down and looking at Bogie from that angle, she was able to calm herself. Thus was born The Look, and she never stopped using it to her advantage.
The Big Sleep has been hailed as a classic. It has also taken much criticism due to its complexity and some loose ends as far as plot goes. Some say it is not clear who is guilty of some of the murders – and there are quite a few. Some cite the existence of characters without lines, without screen time, or that don’t show up on screen until near the end of the movie, as being pointless and confusing to the viewer. I won’t lie and say that this is a movie you can swallow and digest properly in one viewing. What I will say is that this film has enough humor, human beauty – both sexes – and enough clever dialogue to make it possible to watch it several times without becoming bored with it. Because of that, the complexity does not detract from the value of the film itself. Rather, like the book it is based on, the movie is guaranteed to be enjoyed through multiple viewings, with the audience discovering some new bit of information or action from a character with each run. The mystery, suspense, sexual tension, and gripping romance that unfolds holds the viewer captive as if it is brand new every time. Isn’t that the definition of a classic, and the stuff of which great films are made?