January 07, 2013

The Big Sleep

For my money, The Big Sleep (1946) is the best detective thriller ever made. Let's forget, for the moment, that the plot is at times incomprehensible (more on that later). It's the film's shadowy stylishness and gaudy L.A. decadence--a sort of bowdlerized decadence, emblematic of Hollywood's most conservative era, when everything taboo had to be referred to in code--that makes The Big Sleep an explosive, hugely entertaining movie. Of course, it's the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart--as the hardboiled private eye Philip Marlowe--and Lauren Bacall--as the spoiled socialite whose father hires Marlowe to protect his other daughter from a blackmailer--that turns The Big Sleep into more than a thriller. This was their second film together (after 1944's To Have and Have Not), and by the time it was released, Lauren Bacall was Mrs. Humphrey Bogart.

The plot has so many confused threads that trying to figure it out is a fool's errand. As the famous behind-the-scenes legend goes, nobody (including the film's three scenarists, Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, and William Faulkner) could figure out who was responsible for one of the film's murders, and even Raymond Chandler, on whose novel this film was based, was stumped when consulted about the matter. Nobody minded much, because The Big Sleep was too much fun to concern itself with the dreary demands of a lucid plot. (I'll be the first to carp when a movie is deliberately convoluted, but in this case, the confusion seems to further this film's dreamlike mood: it's the most entrancing of the 1940's film noirs.)

The DVD comes with two versions of the film: the 1946 theatrical release, and the 1945 pre-release, which was shown overseas to American soldiers. The studio heads called for a number of significant changes after the film was initially completed and shown overseas--including the addition of several more scenes with Bogie and Bacall, cashing in on their considerable spark--and these changes, most agree, improved the film.

Directed by the great Howard Hawks. With John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Sonia Darrin (uncredited), Elisha Cook, Louis Jean Heydt, and Dorothy Malone. Remade in 1975 with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. 116 min.

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