"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Big Sleep

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon over at The Midnite Drive-In Blog.

The Big Sleep (1946) is often considered one of the quintessential classic film noirs and with good reason. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name by none other than William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks, it stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who had previously appeared together in To Have and Have Not (1944). The studio wanted to capitalize on the undeniable chemistry between the two actors and the public’s fascination with them. The end result is an atmospheric private detective story masterfully told and expertly filmed.

Philip Marlowe (Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood house to speak to its patriarch about a job. While waiting in the foyer he meets the youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), who coyly flirts with him. “You’re not very tall are you?” she says and without missing a beat he replies, “Well, I try to be.” She practically throws herself at him but he wisely and politely rebuffs her playful flirtations.

Marlowe meets with General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in his greenhouse and the man is a no-bullshit kind of person that has no problem speaking his mind. He’s being blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) and the man who usually took care of these matters has disappeared. It seems that Carmen owes a sizable amount of money to Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), a rare book dealer. Sternwood hires Marlowe to get rid of Geiger and so begins his journey into a shadowy criminal underworld.

Before leaving, Marlowe visits with Vivian (Bacall), the eldest daughter, and it gives us a chance to see the sparks fly between Bogart and Bacall as their characters engage in some wonderful verbal sparring until Marlowe delivers a lengthy zinger:

“I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me, drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

Bogart delivers this dialogue clearly and quickly with just the right amount of withering sarcasm that puts Vivian in her place. The Big Sleep is full some of the best-written, snappy dialogue, like a memorable exchange early on between Marlowe and the Sternwood’s butler (Charles D. Brown):

Marlowe: How did Mrs. Rutledge know I was here?
Butler: She saw you through the window, sir and I was obliged to tell her who you were.
Marlowe: I don’t know I like that.
Butler: Are you attempting to tell me my duties, sir?
Marlowe: No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.

While the butler delivers his lines emotionlessly, Marlowe has a wry smile on his face as he enjoys messing with the man. Writing clever dialogue and having someone talented enough to say it has become a lost art and this film is a potent reminder of just how entertaining it is to watch a film that is so well-made.

After doing some legwork, Marlowe trails Geiger to his home and we get the first proper noir set piece as the private investigator hangs back while his target makes his way in the pouring rain at night. Time passes, the rain stops and a flash of light goes off in the house followed by a gunshot forcing the P.I. into action. No more playful flirting for Marlowe as he becomes embroiled in a convoluted mystery.

I was never a big fan of Humphrey Bogart’s but watching The Big Sleep again made me rethink my stance on him. Watching the actor deftly shift gears in a given scene, changing tone from comedy to drama and back again, is seeing a very skilled thespian masterfully plying his trade. He could play a ladies’ man, coyly flirting with women, and also be a tough guy, like when Marlowe finds himself in a dangerous situation.

Bogart’s Marlowe is quite the ladies’ man, flirting with nearly every woman that crosses his path, from the Sternwood women to a cute librarian (Carole Douglas) to a sexy bookstore proprietress (Dorothy Malone) who all happen to be gorgeous knock-outs. It is interesting to see the number of women from all walks of life that Marlowe encounters – a reminder that it took place during World War II when many men were overseas fighting. With the amount of flirting that goes on in this film maybe it should have been called The Big Flirt.

Lauren Bacall plays the quintessential “tough dame” that often populated film noirs. She more than holds her own against Bogart considering their difference in age and acting experience, but she had natural ability and a screen presence that is always interesting to watch. She even gets to sing in one scene – “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” – which provides an enjoyable moment of levity. She is more than capable of handling the screenplay’s twisty dialogue and portraying a sophisticated woman.

The scenes between Bogart and Bacall crackle with sexual tension as their characters flirt with each other and, as it turns out, they were in love with each other in real life. It is easy to see in the way they look at each other in a given scene – that is genuine chemistry between two people. It is also a large part of the film’s appeal.

After the success of To Have and Have Not, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner wanted to find another film for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to star in after audiences responded to their on-screen chemistry. He asked Howard Hawks, who had directed them in To Have and Have Not if he had any ideas. He had been talking with William Faulkner about possibly adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

In 1939, Warner Bros. had toyed with the idea of buying the film options to the book but feared that the subject matter (pornography, nymphomania, homosexuality, etc.) would never get past the censors. Hawks assured Warner that he could get a screenplay that would pass the censors. Enticed by the re-teaming of Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio chief green-lit the project.

Hawks employed Faulkner to write the script and while he tackled the plot, the director hired first-time novelist Leigh Brackett, whose novel No Good from a Corpse impressed him, to work on the dialogue. Hawks told his writers, “Don’t monkey with the book – just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.” They proceeded to soften or omit the less savory aspects of Chandler’s novel to appease the censors. It took them only six weeks to produce a shooting script.

Principal photography began on October 10, 1944. There was tension between Bogart and Bacall, who had an affair while making To Have and Have Not, when, before filming, he told her that since his wife had stopped drinking, he was going to give their marriage another try. This made Bacall very nervous during filming and she relied on Hawks to make it through the endeavor

The emotional toll of his turbulent marriage affected Bogart, who still loved Bacall, causing nights of little sleep and heavy drinking. His on-again-off-again relationship with his wife put terrible strain on him to the point that in one instance he was unable to report to work. Fortunately, Hawks covered for him with the studio. It got so bad that by November, the film was 17 days behind schedule.

Illness and injuries to various cast members also slowed down filming as well as continual rewrites of the script. Eventually, Faulkner burned out and left the production and Hawks brought in Jules Furthman to sharpen dialogue, reshape scenes and come up with a new ending. To make up time, the director shot faster and cut pages from the script. Principal photography finished on January 12, 1945. It took 76 days to film – 34 more than had originally been scheduled.

The Big Sleep had its world premiere in the Philippines in August 1945 and by October it was being shown to United States servicemen in several bases overseas. Hawks felt that the Marlowe-Vivian relationship needed more work. In addition, Bacall’s film Confidential Agent (1945) was released and bombed with the actress receiving bad notices. Worried that this might affect The Big Sleep, it was felt that three to four additional scenes of her and Bogart together would improve the film. Philip Epstein, co-screenwriter of Casablanca (1942), was hired to write these new scenes.

The new version, which debuted in 1946, featured 18 minutes of new material but was actually two minutes shorter. In addition to the scenes between Bogart and Bacall, another one was added with Marlowe and Carmen. Cut from the 1945 version was a scene where the facts of the case are reviewed by Marlowe and Chief Inspector Ohls (Regis Toomey). As a result, the version we know and love came across as a tad confusing or “enigmatic” as Leonard Maltin put it.

With the atmospheric sounds and memorable score by Max Steiner, coupled with Sidney Hickox’s richly textured black and white cinematography, Hawks creates a fantastic mood and, at the right moments, a sense of danger that is vintage noir. The common complaint is that at some point it becomes impossible to figure out what The Big Sleep is about but for me I hardly notice it because I get caught up in what’s going on, enjoying a given scene – the interaction between characters and the snappy dialogue that is bantered back and forth, which makes the film such a pleasure to watch again and again.


Grimes, William. “The Mystery of The Big Sleep Solved.” The New York Times. January 9, 1997.

McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press. 1997.


  1. Great article on a wonderful film, even better in my opinion than To Have and Have Not. Hawks, Bogart, Bacall and cast are spectacular. Love Bogie as Philip Marlowe here, this and Sam Spade are his quintessential roles for me. Bacall and Bogie are wonderful in those combative first scenes...she is the perfect noir mystery woman/femme fatale, as good as Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon.
    Look forward to checking out your prolific blog.

  2. I read the book before I saw the movie, and although I knew my prurient interests would not be fulfilled, I must admit not getting to see Martha Vickers' Carmen naked was a disappointment. Still, this is my second favorite Bogart noir. Even if they did have to keep most of the actual story under wraps for fear of the censors.

    1. Yeah, it is interesting to see what stuff they kept in and what they had to cut because of the censors.

  3. You're right about the dialogue. It's fantastic stuff, and it means the writers took Hawks' advice to heart about making "a script from the book". Also, it's so beautifully filmed that a person can overlook the, uh, plot idiosyncrasies.

    1. Agreed. There is so much going for this film that its flaws are minor at best.

  4. My goodness the scene w Dorothy Malone in the bookstore is one of my favorites in all of film!