The Big Sleep (1946) Directed by Howard Hawks. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers. (118 min).
Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe is one of noir’s defining heroes, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Bogart spars with sultry Bacall, with whom he had just fallen in love. “One of the great film noirs, a black and white symphony.” (Roger Ebert).
When classic films began to be rediscovered in the 1960s, there were twin deities, W.C Fields and Humphrey Bogart. Fields, because of his anti-establishment humor, and Bogart, whose essential –and existential—cool was indisputable. Imitated by Jean Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, and invoked in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the early 1960s, art houses began to schedule Bogart Festivals. Time magazine sent a reporter to the Brattle Theater in Boston, where it was reported, When Bogart lights a cigarette on the screen, girls respond with big sexy sighs.” When a Radcliffe student was asked to explain, she said, “Bogie is everything we wish Harvard men were. Bogie’s direct and honest. He gets involved with his women, but he doesn’t go through an identity crisis every five minutes” (Kanfer 233).
When Woody Allen asked the shade of Bogart for romantic advice in Play It Again, Sam, he cemented Bogart’s revived late 20th century reputation. David Thomson said in his book length appreciation of the star, “All those years of hacking his way through guy films was over. Ida Lupino, Ingrid Bergman and now Bacall had made it clear: the secret to Bogart was a tenderness that he had once feared to reveal. With that lock sprung, the women of the world adored him” (Thomson, Bogart 78). The Big Sleep is one of Bogart’s glorious cinematic keystones.
Raymond Chandler’s classic LA detective story, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. Chandler was 50, married to a woman 18 years older than him, and an uneasy transplant to the City of Angels. The landscape of Southern California was integral to the book. He had arrived, via Nebraska and London, after being fired from his oil company job during the Depression, for drinking and philandering with company secretaries. He felt mystery writing was something he could do. He read the pulp fiction magazine Black Mask and said, “it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000-word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward” (Chandler in Powell).
Even the initial reviews of the book hinted that Humphrey Bogart would be perfectly cast as Phillip Marlowe, before he became a bona fide star with High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Bogart and Marlowe shared a wry way with a quip, although it was the star’s taste in clothes that defined him on screen (in classic Hollywood, men in modern dress films often wore their own clothes) as Marlowe in the novel was known to rock the powder blue suit with a dark shirt.
Although LA was integral to Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep on screen was studio bound. “It does rain in the movie, but this is the rain laid down on studio streets by sprinkler systems, the puddles placed like beauty spots, the lights arranged so that the rain looks like the night’s negligée” (Thomson 11) As you can see, he has been carried away with some Chandlerian metaphors.
Chandler also worked in the movies, and you can see the fruits of his first screenplay collaboration in Double Indemnity. Under exclusive contract with Paramount, he could not work on the adaptation of his own novel.
This was the second film that Bogart made with Lauren Bacall. They were married by the time The Big Sleep was released, and it is a visual record of their mutual passion. Betty Perske was a model at 18 and posed for the March 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. She stands in front of a frosted glass door labeled Blood Donor. As David Thomson described her, “She does look 18, and yet she looks thirty-five, too, with a hint of twice that. The look on her face is lethal. There’s a low light on her face and her wide mouth. It’s noir lighting, no matter how close we are to medical help. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel she’s the vampire who waylays you on your way to give blood.” This picture was spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife, Slim, who suggested she’d look great in the movies. Hawks remade her in the image of his wife, the voice, the hair, the clothes, the look. She did whatever he wanted, shy of the sex he probably craved (he was a notorious womanizer) but wary of his anti-Semitic remarks, never told him she was Jewish.
After her screen debut, Bogart and Bacall’s second appearance together seemed an easy leap. Hawks wanted to do a comedy next, but he owned the rights to The Big Sleep, which he sold to Warners, along with Bacall’s contract. The film had a 42-day shooting schedule but ended up going twice as long. Bogart had broken off his affair with Bacall begun during To Have and Have Not, but his alcoholic third wife, Mayo Methot, pressured him into returning, and he made an effort to save his marriage. At the beginning, Bogart was his usual punctual self, arriving on time and well prepared. Hawks said he was “inspired” on the set, “He brought so much to it. Totally prepared, wonderful ideas, and Howard loved that” (Sperber and Lax 277).
Leah Rhodes did the wardrobe for The Big Sleep. You can see that Bacall has not been styled too differently from the magazine cover that originally caught Hawks’ eye.
Bogart felt he owed it to his wife to try and reconcile one more time. So, after not having seen Bacall for months, once again they spent their working days together and their sexual attraction to each other was rekindled. The first weeks of shooting included not only many of their scenes together, but those with the other attractive women in the cast, Martha Vickers (Carmen), Dorothy Malone (the bookshop clerk) Sonia Darrin (Agnes) and Joy Barlowe (the cabbie). Cecelia Ager in a contemporary review said, “Except perhaps for the showgirls in a Metro musical, there has never been assembled for one movie a greater and more delightfully varied number of female knockouts. But whereas Metro showgirls at least look content, every woman in The Big Sleep is feverishly hungry for love…and though every one of them would prefer Humphrey Bogart, they settle instantly for anybody” (McCarthy 387). The improvisatory atmosphere on the set was something that Hawks enjoyed, so much so that Jack Warner, head of the studio sent him a memo, “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop” (Ballinger and Graydon 63).
Bogart was patient with the supporting players, helping them with bits of business, and requesting retakes if a scene could have gone better for somebody else. Hawks loved rewriting on the set, which began to sabotage the schedule, and he worked with Bacall, still young and inexperienced, trying to get the most effective performance from her. But then, Bogart’s marriage imploded, and the actor who was never late began drinking heavily and putting things further behind. Bogart and Bacall announced their engagement three days after wrapping The Big Sleep, at the end of January 1945. Bogart divorced Mayo Methot on May 10, and married Bacall on May 21.
Star quality cannot be substituted and is worth waiting for. Raymond Chandler wrote of Bogart, “As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt. (Alan) Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy, Bogart is the genuine article. Like Edward G. Robinson when he was younger, all he has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it” (Sperber and Lax 289).
Leigh Brackett, one of the screenwriters said, “Bogart was the greatest actor that ever happened…It was a joy to watch him on the set because he was stage trained. On a Hawks film, nobody gets their pages until five minutes before they’re going to shoot. Bogart would put on his horn-rims, go off in a corner, look at it, then come back on the set and they’d run through it a couple of times, and he’d have it right down, every bit of timing, and he’d go through about fourteen takes waiting for other people to catch up to him” (Meyers 183). Just as Bogart had improvised the last line of The Maltese Falcon, some of The Big Sleep was all his idea, like the character of the fussy fellow in the bookstore.
The censors allowed a great deal of double entendre dialogue and intimations of nymphomania, pornography, and homosexuality (strictly banned under the Code as “sex perversion”) to slip through their clutches. All this shown in great detail in last week’s film, the revisionist noir LA Confidential. When asked to grant an export license for the film in 1948, at least one person paid attention to what was going on and condemned it as “a thoroughly immoral film in the widest sense of the word. Blackmail and murder are mere incidents in it. The entire atmosphere is sordid, and there are many suggestive situations and not a little double meaning dialogue. Altogether an unsavory picture for which a certificate cannot be granted” (Meyers 181).
UCLA offered me the original cut of this film, screened for the armed forces in 1945. The difference? The studio decided there had to be more of Bogart and Bacall, and more scenes were written to highlight their real-life romance. Show the rarely screened curiosity, or the film crafted for the enjoyment of the viewer. I think you know which one you are seeing tonight.
Famously, one murder within the plot remains unsolved. Bogart asked who had done one of the killings and nobody could answer. Not Hawks or his writing partner, Jules Furthman. Not the screenwriters, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Not even Raymond Chandler. An expository scene which carefully explained who killed whom was one of the scenes cut in favor of Bogart and Bacall badinage.
Alistair Cooke wrote of Bogart’s classic detective hero that he is “a direct descendent of Sherlock Holmes…a depressed, eccentric bachelor of vast, odd knowledge…which in the moment of resolution slices through the butter of the surrounding confusion…As a Victorian bachelor-hero, Holmes must be asexual. Bogart, too, is a lone wolf, but with a new and equal stress on the noun. His general view of women implies that he was bought up, sexually speaking, no earlier than the twenties. Hence, he is unshockable and offhand, and one, gathers, a very devil with the women, who is saved from absurdity by never having to prove it” (Sperber and Lax 290).
David Thomson, one of the preeminent film historians begins his book on The Big Sleep this way. “For decades now, since a Saturday in 1961 when I saw it three times in a row, coming out of one screening at the National Film Theater’s original Hawks season and joining the queue for the next (as if the movie were a ride on a sensational fairground entertainment, I’ve regarded Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep as my favourite film. Or, if not quite that, then the most entertaining, the most rich, confident and comfortable. It’s a picture you want to curl up in, like Bogart and Bacall in their tiny car, just looking at each other and practicing kissing, while music and fate build up outside like a thunderstorm. It has always seemed to me, somehow, the happiest of films, so relaxed and yet so controlled; seeing it offers the chance of a rapture like that of being in love” (Thompson 9).
There are no scrapbook photos here, even though I have several scrapbooks from this time period. The (presumably) teen aged girls who scrapbooked obviously did not care for Bogart. If 1940s teenaged girls taste ruled, we would be watching movies with John Payne or Van Johnson, instead of Bogie and Bacall. Sources include: The Big Sleep: A BFI Guide by David Thomson, Introduction to The Raymond Chandler Omnibus by Lawrence Clark Powell http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Chandler, Bogart by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, Tough Without a Gun: the Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer, Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon, Howard Hawks by Todd McCarthy , LA Noir by William Hare, Humphrey Bogart by David Thomson.