The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946) is a superlative complex classic film noir sizzler of a private detection crime film starring Lauren Bacall and noir's ever faithful ace — Humphrey Bogart.

Directed by Howard Hawks, an apogee of the 1940s expression of crime, sexuality, and everything that film noir stands for, The Big Sleep almost defies description in terms of its script, perhaps down to the fact that no final script was truly ever available during its initial shooting, and then the film was delayed, due to a backlog of war related films which needed to be released and out of the way.

Between principal work in 1945 and release in 1946 footage was condensed, altered and eliminated and new footage had been added. The film was released to capitalise on the publicity already generated by the Hollywood romance between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart — the She and He of film noir and one of Hollywood's most celebrated couples.

What kind of film noir is The Big Sleep (1946). Superlative indeed are its treatments of pornography and narcotic abuse. There is some straight from the dark side work in  The Big Sleep and two firm film noir subject matters with noir being the only place this can be dramatically presented. The presentation is one of a kind, with a cruelty and fear largely being amplified by the super vulnerable Carmen Sternwoods played by Martha Vickers — arguably the star of the show, if one is allowed to ignore the mega-famous burning brightness of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Martha Vickers superlative in film noir classic
The Big Sleep (1946)

Two of film noir's key female tropes are all but missing from The Big Sleep (1946) — the femme fatale of course and the paranoid woman. Nor are there any housewives nor wifelets of noir in The Big Sleep. The women have their own own roles, and although one of these is to throw themselves upon Humphrye Bogart, there is still a variety and complexity to the female roles.

Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946)

So there stand three in depth and utterly fascinating roles for women — Lauren Bacall as Vivien Sternwood — Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood — and Sonia Darrin as Agnes Lowzier.

Despite not getting to slap anyone about and so suffering some of the film's slaps, the women are players. Most of all probably Sonia Darrin who is as a supposed supporting cast member, is no fixture, but a mover — even better work in a film like The Big Sleep which doesn't have any cohering plot at times.

Humphrey Bogart and Sonia Darrin in
The Big Sleep (1946)

All three women play with Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, and there is a couple of bookshop scenes — the first one being his cold and clever silly hat and sunglasses bobble with Sonia Darrin, which is funny and cold, and one of the great scenes from films in bookshops that there is.

Bookshop sex scene in The Big Sleep (1946)

Bogart doesn't begin in the bookshops, but we see him as Philip Marlowe hard researchin' down the library and flirting there too — before he heads down to the book district. Inasmuch as he flirts, he does tell the female clerk there that he collects blondes and bottles as well as books.

One man, one Plymouth in The Big Sleep (1946)

Down in the book district Marlowe then proceeds to make moves in a kind of proto-Bondean investigative romance quickie — with Dorothy Malone who does the business with the CLOSED sign on the front door of the shop — before pulling down the screen. This is Bogart's Philip Marlow with an hour to kill — making The Big Sleep an unusual entry in any film canon as it is a classic film noir with two bookshop scenes in it. Not many films can say that.

There are in fact some other small ideas in The Big Sleep which make of Marlowe an early type for James Bond, more notably perhaps the hidden gadget in his car which reveals and dispenses guns, a gimmick he makes use of twice.

This Hollywood bookstore is however a front for a large scale blackmailing racket. Having both sisters mixed up in this and the slightly fast-unfolding story which seems to go back on itself, a claustrophobic feel is everywhere. It's not just Marlowe caught up with sisters, it's the threat of violence they bring. Things like disappearing bodies too also feed into this.

Marlowe's car seems to feature large in this mix too, and excellent character acting from all the hoods and hard livin' criminality of LA — and Elisha Cook Jnr, who does pathos and threat, and then vulnerability to sheer perfection. Violence leads to violence but Elisha's end is a memorable one — as Marlowe crouches in the next office in a film noir interior officer setup making he fullest use of shadow possible.

Some of this confusion around the story and circularity can be explained by the unexplained, such as the murder (or suicide?) of Sternwood's driver, who is found in the harbour in his car. Raymond Chandler himself remembered in 1949 that during production he was sent a telegram asking him who had killed the driver, although he had to confess himself that he did not know.

Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe is great to behold because of how he inhabits what he creates. He deals with the lines well and maintains cynicism at all times, again really being able to create something that is so timeless you don't even notice it.

He leads the film and the action and the adventure in a super-sweaty scene at the Sternwood's at the head of the film, a massively strong start, and is the outsider among the rich, but it is the world of the rich and the criminals that blackmail him that we go into.

The full effect is not just classic film noir but arthouse before there maybe was such a thing. As a whole, the entirety is effect rather than the resolution of a whodunnit story.

A typical and corny use of the glasses gotta go trope features early on, in one of these sexy bookshop scenes. Before drinking and likely a bit more action that just that with the book shop clerk, Marlowe requests that she take her glasses off. She complies quite happily and even says that she doesn't really need them anyway.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart almost invented a whole language of cigarette and drink interactions in The Big Sleep. And within the casino scene, where we see Lauren Bacall singing, And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, a popular song and jazz standard first published in 1944. The lyrics were written by Joe Greene, with music composition by Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence.

The song was also performed in part by Lauren Bacall. The song is played by a band and sung by Vivian Rutledge at a Eddie Mars's casino while watched coyly by Philip Marlowe.

Some sources state that Bacall (who does her own singing) is accompanied by a group known as The Williams Brothers, a singing quartet who formed in the mid-1930s and were in Hollywood at the time that The Big Sleep was filmed. The most famous member of the brothers was Andy Williams, who had a solo singing career and recorded well into the 1970s.

The song in question appears to be a celebratory number about domestic violence and philandering, perhaps humorous in 1946 but would undoubtedly fail to play in later decades for its rather cruel humour:

He would spend it on the ponies

He would spend it on the girls

Buy his mother gin and roses

For her poor old henna'd curls

And when his wife said "Hey now!

What did you get for me?"

He socked her in the choppers

Such a sweet, sweet guy was he!

And her tears flowed like wine

Yes, her tears flowed like wine

She's a real sad tomato

She's a busted Valentine

Knows her mama done told her

That her man is darned unkind

"And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" in
The Big Sleep (1946)

Marlowe's car features large in The Big Sleep, and is a 1938 Plymouth Deluxe - the same car Humphrey Bogart drove in High Sierra. In the book Marlowe lists his age as 33. In the film he lists it as 38, though Bogart was actually 45 at filming.

Who killed the Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor? Brody? Eddie Mars? Suicide? An accident due to his suffering a concussion? Raymond Chandler admitted he had no idea.

Admittedly, all flashbacks are averted. Howard Hawks did not like flashbacks and never used one in over 40 years of directing films. Although the flashback is a film noir staple, framing a story and usually offering a certain point of view, some privileged information or vital back-story, The Big Sleep (1946) seems to survive without it. A flashback might have sorted out some of the plot holes, but perfection is a tough cookie to crack, and The Big Sleep (1946) ships with no such relief, and what you see is what you get. The end product is almost a new kind of film in and of itself, and the confused edges seem to be a virtue rather than a fault. It's a style that seems to persist in the films of David Lynch, for example, where absences and ambiguities seem to be a strength, and a certain reflection of a world that is incomplete and frightening seems evident in the form.

The Hays Code resulted in some elements of the novel being toned down for the film. In particular most references to sex, homosexuality, and nudity were removed, and Carmen's role in the murders is only vaguely implied. As a result the ending was changed and Carmen has ultimately a smaller role. This is also due to the fact however that Martha Vickers was in danger of upstaging Lauren Bacall.

Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep (1946)

Vickers was certainly admired by director Howard Hawks and steals the show not just with her sexy performance but as the great fun good time girl.  The censors wouldn't let Carmen be the killer because that would've made Vivian, the love-interest, an accessory. Also, Mars is punished for his role in Sean Reagan's murder because the Hays office believed criminals should be punished for their crimes. However, Marlowe does flirt with a lot more women in the film than he does in the novel, or rather the women flirt with him, and seem to all come on to him, even unto the taxi-driver who requests a night date with him during their 'follow that car' routine.

She is in fact a great wartime reminder, the female cabbie who picks up Bogart at some point, but even a modest scene like this cannot help but be epic, when framed by all the mood and threat around events that are more mood pieces or film noir skits. 

In-vehicle romancing in The Big Sleep (1946)

This is fully film noir style and the medium at its height, because the visualisation — which is quite expressionistic — is acting instead of storyline. There is a story but the finished item is more episodic as a fascinating collection of characters pull the mood to the floor — there is a terrific feeling of a Los Angeles — or at least suburban California, as the locals are not always named — with illegal activities going on behind closed doors.

Howard Hawks (1896 – 1977) was one of the most versatile directors of The Golden Age of Hollywood. Starting out in silent films as an assistant director and other production jobs, Hawks became one of Hollywood's top directors for the next several decades. Among the genres he handled successfully were gangster films, romantic comedies, screwball comedies, westerns, detective movies, and even musicals. 

Unlike other directors at the time, he wasn't tied to one particular studio. Also, though he worked with a number of well-regarded writers on his films (among them Ben Hecht and William Faulkner), he was also known for changing the script as he was shooting it.

Though Hawks directed a number of hits throughout his career, he fell out of favour with critics in the '50s, but came back to light and full vindication thanks to "auteur" critics like François Truffaut who helped restore his reputation. 

A later generation of directors would cite him as a major influence, second only to John Ford, due to his versatility in moving between genres, with the likes of John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Gregg Araki, and Jim Jarmusch testifying to his influence.

People leave The Big Sleep with a busy feeling, as there are often many people on screen at the same time. This supporting cast of hard men includes Bob Steele as Lash Canino — a fairly awesome name — matched only here by the name of the garage owner which is Art Huck, played by Trevor Bardette.

Sonia Darrin - - without credit in The Big Sleep (1946)

Incredibly Sonia Darrin is not given a credit in the film, despite being in it to quite an extent. This is because her agent had a argument with the studio which resulted in a dispute that would have otherwise seen her removed. Having shot the film already however, and unable to excise her from the project this was the best Warner Bros. could do to get their own back. She hardly deserved this, and it's an ice-cool classic noir performance that benefits the picture no end.

The Big Sleep (1946) Wikipedia

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