—The Very Definition of “Classic Film Noir”—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Howard Hawks
Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by a reclusive millionaire (Charles Waldron) after his family is blackmailed with damning information about his young daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers).
What I Thought
There are two things worth dying for in The Big Sleep – money and the truth. Almost every character is after one or the other exclusively, and the stronger they pursue their desired commodity, the closer they get to danger. In fact, the only character who appears truly safe is General Sternwood who’s confined to his mansion due to health problems. He wants neither money nor the truth as he’s willing to spend as much of his fortune as possible in order to keep the truth about his daughter from coming to light.
As cash and facts are exchanged back and forth, the plot begins to double back on itself as Marlowe follows a case that starts over gambling debts, but then diverges off into blackmail, pornography, and murder. It seems that every character has some small piece of the overall story, and Marlowe spends his time chasing those pieces down as everyone tries to use their bit of knowledge to barter a payoff.
While I’ve never thought that the plot was as confusing as its reputation alleges (does it really matter who killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor?), you definitely need to pay attention or you’re going to get left behind. This was at least my fifth time watching the film, and I’ll admit that every time I view it, I come to understand how the whole puzzle fits together a little better.
What sets up The Big Sleep as a film noir classic is the fact that the cast, director, and style of the film more than make up for the complicated plot. You don’t need to grasp every little detail to enjoy the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall – or Bogart and every single other female in the film for that matter. There are no wasted characters here, as Howard Hawks has assembled an amazing cast and knows exactly how to make them interact so that we get the most bang for our buck.
This is a film where the sum of the whole is greater than the parts, and the parts are pretty doggone fantastic. So the plot isn’t ironed out because they dropped some key scenes to make way for more Bacall and Bogie magic? It doesn’t matter in the end. Hawks visually and audibly gives us exactly what we yearn for and so we can forgive him the rest.
The Bogart Factor
All right, I’m ready to declare this the coolest Bogart role in his filmography. I know that I’ll change my mind when Casablanca rolls around, and then again when I pop in To Have and Have Not, but for tonight – Philip Marlowe is king.
In Philip Marlowe we get an über playful Bogart as he smiles, quips, flirts, and drinks his way out of every situation. The sunglassed bookstore nerd . . . The prank phone call to the police where he and Bacall switch roles so fast that they end up playing their own parents . . . The way he uses his charm more powerfully than his gun against the bad guys . . . This was a role that Bogart was born to play. He carries this film and makes it look easy. How can you keep from rooting for a guy who wants the truth above everything else, including his own life?
There are stories in all of his biographies and on the web about his personal problems offset while filming The Big Sleep. His affair with Bacall was blazing away while his marriage to Mayo Methot was collapsing. His drinking was beginning to bleed over into his work life for the first time and the studio was very worried about news of the affair leaking through the press.
But guess what? None of that personal stuff matters. The film, and especially Bogart’s performance, is remarkable.
Lauren Bacall, as the older sister Vivian Rutledge, is amazing. I’m sure it helped that additional scenes were added to try and capitalize on her momentum from To Have and Have Not. She smolders when she needs to and pulls off a very good performance as the untrustworthy foil that Bogart’s willing to get a little intimate with.
Martha Vickers as the troubled younger daughter, Carmen Sternwood, is very good as well. I really want to track down the alternate version of the film where she’s apparently given more time to shine. What’s here though, is plenty. Her first scene where she tries to sit on Marlowe’s lap while he’s standing up is such a mischievously potent introduction to Carmen that it’s one of the most memorable moments in the film.
Charles Waldron is so convincing as General Sternwood that we can practically see his mouth watering as he watches Bogart drink his liquor. One of my favorite parts of watching his scenes in the film is feeling cold as I look at him all bundled up in the greenhouse, and then instantly feeling the stifling heat of the room as the camera switches to Bogart’s sweat-soaked torso.
John Ridgely is a multi-time costar of Bogart’s and appears here as gambling racketeer Eddie Mars. He’s tough and intimidating, and I need to do a write-up in “The Usual Suspects” portion of this blog on him as he’s appeared in quite a few Bogart films.
Louis Jean Heydt has a small but solid role as one of the film’s many blackmailers, Joe Brody.
There are so many good actors in supporting roles here that I could just keep typing names followed by “was very, very good here!” So just to name a few – Regis Toomey as Bogart’s police liaison, Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls, is wonderful, as is Elisha Cook Jr. as the small statured flunky Harry Jones, and Charles D. Brown as the butler, Norris.
Don’t Forget to Notice
Look! It’s Bogie Film Blog favorite Ben Welden as Pete, one of Eddie Mars’ two henchmen! Weldon plays his thugs either very straight and tough, or smarmy with a wide and devilish grin. I prefer the devilish Welden, and that’s what we get here! He gets to mug “He kills me!” as his partner in crime, Sidney (Tom Fadden), deadpans to Bogart multiple times. Pete and his partner Sidney got their monikers in honor of two other Bogart regulars – Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
Classic Bogie Moment
I’ve written about it before, but Bogart had a reputation for paring down his lines to make the most out of a little. Perhaps my favorite character moment for Philip Marlowe in the film comes when gangster Eddie Mars has him dead to rights and threatens to use force:
Mars: We could make you talk.
Marlowe: It’s been tried.
Marlowe: (CASUALLY SHAKES HIS HEAD)
That little head shake? So powerfully clear. You can try to rough me up, but you’re going to regret it. It’s not going to work, and you’ll probably end up suffering as much as I do. Such a wonderful choice to make instead of inserting a trite line of bravado.
The Bottom Line
If you’re here and still reading this, it means that you love the movie enough to read everything there is to read. If, by some chance, you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s take, you should!