#260 The Big Sleep
(1946, Howard Hawks)
“I don’t know yet what I’m going to tell them. It’ll be pretty close to the truth”
Humphrey Bogart was pretty much the star of film noir during the forties. Best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca (which will be appearing on here at a later date), he also famously played acclaimed mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. I like me a good mystery thriller, so I should like this, right?
The Big Sleep sees Marlowe, a private investigator, being called to the offices of retired general General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Someone is blackmailing his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), and he wants Marlowe to find out who, and find a way to resolve those debts. Meanwhile, Sternwood’s older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), informs Marlowe that her father’s real motive for contacting him is to find a missing friend of his. What follows is a twisted tale of twists and mysterious motives.
So mysterious, in fact, that The Big Sleep is downright confusing. The movie is only ninety minutes long, but it tries to squeeze a lot more content into it than it really should. There are at least three cases for Marlowe to solve in this timeframe – find Carmen’s blackmailer, find Sternwood’s missing friend, stop a mob conspiracy – and none of them are given any space to breathe.
In addition to this attempt to weave too many plots into too little time, there are also far too many characters to keep track of. It’s hard to lose track of Marlowe and Sternwood’s daughters, since they’re central to everything, but everyone else is seemingly important but has little time to be properly explained. As such, everyone kind of bleeds into one another, making it hard to really tell who you should be shocked by when they’re revealed to be doing…whatever they were doing.
So what does all this mean? Well, it means that while I am absolutely on board for a tense detective thriller with twists and turns, I simply couldn’t get into The Big Sleep. There was no tension and the twists were difficult to understand. Everything felt rushed and confusing and I couldn’t follow anything.
The movie certainly made a good attempt at being entertaining, however. Bogart was fantastic, proving exactly why he was perfect for the hard-boiled detective role he often played. There were some exciting set-pieces, including a shootout and a chase following an intercepted covert meeting, and some of the interaction between Bogart and Bacall was excellent.
There were also moments when the movie became vaguely easier to follow, proving that there was a great plot underlying the mess somewhere. Such moments included an intriguing scene where Carmen is found in a strange house with a hidden camera and the aforementioned covert meeting between suspects and witnesses and other important characters.
But these moments are few and far between, and the confusion takes over. Part of the problem appears to be a determination to stick as closely to the novel as possible while simultaneously emphasising its leads and trying to stick within the limitations of the Hays Code, resulting in a movie that really is trying to do much more than the film-makers’ capabilities will allow.
That said, I’m curious to see what the 1945 pre-release version was like, because it apparently has a slower pace and takes more time to explain the case. Failing that, I am interested in reading the novel instead.
So, The Big Sleep, a detective movie that failed to impress someone who likes detective stories. But I’m willing to dig deeper and see if other versions of the story make more sense, so it managed that at least.
Starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall
Written by Raymond Chandler (novel) and William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman
Produced by Howard Hawks
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Sidney Hickox
Edited by Christian Nyby
Favourite Scene: When Marlowe discovers Carmen in a strange house, potentially being filmed by a secret camera. A very tense, mysterious scene.
Scene That Bugged Me: So, the car they found in the river, what was all that about? Just gonna forget about it? OK, fine.
Watch it if: You’re a Humphrey Bogart fan
Avoid it if: You like your mysteries to make a bit more sense