Friday, March 27, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946) [NR] ****+

A film review by Michael Reuben for on Feb. 26, 2016.

The Big Sleep isn't just a detective film; it's the detective film. The characters are genre archetypes (cynical shamus, dodgy heiress, blackmailed rich man and assorted gamblers, chiselers and goons), and its dialogue crackles with the peculiar mix of wit, intrigue and sexual innuendo that defines hard-boiled. The seedily corrupt atmosphere clings to everything, much like the fetid air of the hothouse where the hero-detective meets his new client. So thoroughly does The Big Sleep cast its spell that it's the rare film which gets away with having an incomprehensible plot. Event by event, the film is so engrossing that you end up not caring who did what to whom. The filmmakers themselves gave up trying to figure out the mystery. During production, director Howard Hawks and his trio of screenwriters famously realized that one of the story's murders had no killer and cabled novelist Raymond Chandler for assistance. As Chandler later said: They sent me a wire . . . , and dammit I didn't know either.

Much of the film's magic derives from the re-teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose marriage after Bacall's scorching debut in To Have and Have Not made the pair one of Hollywood's best-known couples. Warner Brothers rushed The Big Sleep into production to capitalize on the Bogart/Bacall chemistry, and the film was completed less than a year later, with scenes clearly intended to echo Bacall's debut (e.g., having her sing with a jazz band, as she did in To Have and Have Not). The trailer proudly announced: That man Bogart—and that woman Bacall—are that way again!

In an unexpected twist, however, The Big Sleep had to be delayed, because the studio wanted to get all of its war-themed releases into theaters before the imminent conclusion of World War II. While the film awaited its turn, Bacall's agent persuaded studio head Jack Warner to expand and enhance his client's role. When The Big Sleep finally reached theaters in August 1946, significant portions had been reshot. Not until the 1990s was a copy of the film's original cut, often known as the Pre-release Version, discovered in the studio archives, allowing scholars to analyze the extensive changes.

The Warner Archive Collection (WAC) has now added The Big Sleep to its roster of beautifully restored black-and-white classics. The film is presented on Blu-ray as it was released in 1946, with a copy of the Pre-release Version included in the extras in standard definition. A detailed comparison of the changes by film archivist Robert Gitt rounds out the extras.

The Big Sleep finds Bogart stepping into the shoes of Raymond Chandler's famous detective Philip Marlowe, previously played by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. Here Marlowe's client is the wealthy and ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who receives his guests in a humid orchid nursery where he watches them drink the brandy his doctor no longer permits him. Aside from a loyal butler named Norris (Charles D. Brown), the General shares his home with two wayward daughters, who bring him nothing but trouble. The elder, Vivian (Bacall), goes by her married name of Mrs. Rutledge, even though the marriage is over (or, in Marlowe's cynical phrase, it didn't take); Vivian's father describes her as spoiled, exacting, smart and ruthless - a description that would pique Marlowe's interest even if Mrs. Rutledge weren't already sniffing around her father's reason for hiring a private investigator (P.I.). The younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), combines the worst qualities of a drug addict and a nymphomaniac, greeting every man she meets with her signature catchphrase, You're cute! Marlowe's description sums her up dryly: She tried to sit in my lap - while I was standing up. Carmen is the immediate cause of the General's current predicament; he is being dunned for her alleged gambling debts by a man named Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), who purports to be a rare book dealer but whose real business is blackmail.

Marlowe's efforts to clean up the General's domestic mess drop both the detective and the viewer into a cauldron of intrigue peopled by dubious characters, including yet another blackmailer, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), a gambler named Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and an assortment of small-time hoods and enforcers. Aside from Carmen's gambling markers, the case includes incriminating photos, a coded journal of secret information and a dead chauffeur fished from the ocean in a car belonging to the Sternwood family. Meanwhile, a lot of people want to learn the whereabouts of a former Irish freedom fighter and bootlegger named Sean Regan, who used to work for General Sternwood but has now disappeared.

While Marlowe trades notes with his police buddy, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) - another genre staple - he keeps his eye firmly on the elder Sternwood daughter, Vivian, whose intense interest in the investigation marks her as more than just a bystander. Alternately cajoling, insulting, seducing and exchanging wisecracks, Vivian is one of Bacall's most memorable characters, one who is ideally suited to the actress's purring delivery and sloe-eyed insinuations. Still, Vivian has plenty of competition for the P.I.'s attention, because women literally throw themselves at Marlowe. The bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone) who helps him stake out Geiger, the taxi driver (Joy Barlow) to whom the detective gives the time-honored instruction to follow that car, and even the cigarette girl (Shelby Payne) at Eddie Mars's gambling establishment all light up in the investigator's presence. Detective work may not be glamorous or lucrative, but Bogart gives Marlowe a confident animal magnetism that anticipates James Bond. Even Agnes (Sonia Darrin), the girlfriend/assistant of the despicable Geiger, ends up looking at Marlowe with longing in her eyes.

But just as the trailer promised, it's Bacall's Vivian who has to be the ultimate destination for Bogart's Marlowe, a result that seems predestined from the pair's first encounter, where they survey each other warily, feinting and dodging. The resourceful P.I. does ultimately fulfill his assignment, extricating the Sternwood family from the clutches of assorted villains, handing the cops a neatly packaged bundle and earning Vivian's undying gratitude. Having walked together on the wild side, the couple is finally ready to get serious, after the credits roll. [Reuben’s rating: ****½ out of 5 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Despite glowing critical reviews, I was confused by the incomprehensible plot, which frustrated the original novelist Raymond Chandler, the screenwriters, director, producers, actors and viewers. I mean, really… there’s a murder victim with no perpetrator? 

Labels: crime, film-noir, mystery, thriller

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