Cine-East Film Club Presents #53: 1946, The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)

by George_East on September 28, 2014

Vivian Rutledge: ‘You go too far Mr Marlowe’

Philip Marlowe: ‘That’s a harsh thing to throw at a man, especially when he is walking out of your bedroom’

Bogart and Bacall. Maybe the greatest of all on (and off) screen romances?  Tracy and Hepburn are more like your favourite eccentric middle class Aunt and working class bruiser Uncle – who work perfectly together, somehow against all the odds, and whose getting together is something of family legend. Garbo and Gilbert? Yes – but Garbo’s iconic glacial remoteness and untouchability, meant that was not a partnership of equals.

Bogart and Bacall on the other hand. Well, what can you say?   They only made four films together (and one Delmar DavesDark Passage is seldom seen)  but in those films is much that makes the golden age of Hollywood of the 1940s still the standard against which pretty much everything that has come since in the world of cinema is to be judged.   Sitting at the very pinnacle of this greatest of all periods of cinema are the two films they made with one of the very greatest of the directors of the Hollywood golden age, Howard Hawks.

To Have and Have Not (1944), in which the 19 year old Bacall was paired for the first time with a Bogart at the peak of his powers (essentially reprising the idealist beneath the hard-nosed cynic Rick role from Casablanca that he made his own), showed that the young model (who had been discovered by Hawks’ wife) could match Bogart line for line. It is a wonderful film, in my personal top 10, and will undoubtedly feature as a Cine-East Film Club presentation at some point.   But this week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation and long overdue tribute to Lauren Bacall (who sadly died earlier this year) is the pair’s second film together and second for Hawks, The Big Sleep.  

The Big Sleep was not the first adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel or the first film portrayal of his great private detective character, Philip Marlowe. Indeed one of those earlier films, Edward Dmytryk’s Farewell, My Lovely with Dick Powell in the role is itself a wonderful film noir. Because that is what we are talking about here with The Big Sleep: the first appearance in the Cine-East Film Club of a film noir – those dark, pessimistic, atmospheric, fatalistic, urban crime movies that emerged during the Second World War and lasted through to the late 1950s and that number among them  some of Hollywood’s finest achievements.

Bogart is, I think, the coolest actor ever to grace the screen. That he would be so is unlikely in itself – he was short, of slight build and with too long a face to be considered conventionally good looking. He was certainly no Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen.  He also emerged from being third on the bill in Warner Brothers gangster pictures in the 1930s to become a leading man relatively late in his career – he was 42 years old by the time Raoul Walsh turned him into a fully fledged star in the fantastic heist film, High Sierra (1941).

Part of Bogart’s skill and his coolness was his ability to deliver a line – slow in diction but fast in thought, straight talking, a little sarcastic, with a hint of something else going on – as if he was always two steps ahead of whoever he was speaking to.   In The Big Sleep his Marlowe has these characteristics in spades.

When, at the beginning of the film, he first meets the retired General Sternwood at the family mansion to discuss the possibility of taking the job to discover who is blackmailing the younger Sternwood daughter, Carmen, he is asked how he takes his brandy.   His response, ‘in a glass’, suggests both a man who is not of the same social class as the general and his family, an ordinary working man not interested in anything fancy, but also that you get what you see with Marlowe – like, the glass, he is transparent.   This is contrasted with the corruption and decay amongst the wealthy – they meet in the fetid atmosphere of a greenhouse (the general needs to keep warm) surrounded by rotten smelling orchids.

The plot of The Big Sleep is famously convoluted – so much so that Raymond Chandler himself said he didn’t understand it. The screenplay, written by American literary novelist William Faulkner, Leigh Bracket (who would go on to write the screenplays of Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back among many others) and Jules Furhman does not try to simplify things, as one expects – coherence being the hallmark of a classic Hollywood film from the golden age. Indeed given the additional constraints of the Hays’ censors office, the film, is, if anything, even more confusing than the novel.

Suffice to say that it involves pornography, gambling debts, adultery, blackmail and murder, not necessarily in that order. It has a multitude of characters and that means, for a film of this period, a multitude of great character actors, including Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Sonia Darrin (as Agnes Lowzier) and the rodent-like Elisha Cook Jr (Harry Jones).

But the plot really doesn’t matter too much – no matter how many times you see it you will find yourself thinking – of course, I forgot that bit. The film is not about the solving of a crime though but instead the investigation (by Marlowe) of a family (the Sternwoods), and how it becomes more than a job for him ($25 per day, plus expenses or not).   The highly sexual Carmen (Martha Vickers) (who appears to be on one substance or another every time we encounter her and calls every man she meets ‘cute’) whose first meeting with Marlowe is memorably recounted by him, as ‘she tried to sit on my lap, while I was standing up’, is contrasted with the highly intelligent but manipulative older daughter, Vivian.

Which brings me neatly onto Lauren Bacall, because although she gets a fraction of the screentime that Bogart gets, her Vivian is the rock around which the film orbits. If Marlowe is one step ahead of most of those he meets, Vivian is always one step ahead of him.   It is never clear, even at the end, whether she can be trusted; is she just using Marlowe to clean some very dirty family laundry? Vivian constantly appears, apparently out of nowhere, in Marlowe’s office, at Eddy Mars’ casino and at the hideout of Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen), in which Marlowe will be taken prisoner (‘I might have known you’d be here’). Everywhere important she seems to be.

But more than that, it is to Vivian who Marlowe is instantly attracted and The Big Sleep is blessed  with fantastic mutual cat and mouse seduction throughout. Hawks’ films are often noted for their strong female characters and The Big Sleep is no exception. The chase here is both ways, as much Vivian after Marlowe, as the other way round, and complete with Hays’ Code era innuendo, including this wonderfully written exchange:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.

Marlowe: Find out mine?

Vivian: I think so.

Marlowe: Go ahead.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

They don’t do dialogue like that anymore.

Throughout the Big Sleep Bacall, with that knowing smile of hers and that look from under her heavy eyebrows, is every bit the match of Bogart. You long for the scenes in which they both appear, to revel in their repartee and watch the screen sizzle with sexual tension.

Lauren Bacall RIP


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Multiplex October 1, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Lovely review George.

I had the pleasure of seeing ‘Le Grand Sommeil’ on the big screen a couple of weeks ago and its style and wit are timeless.

You haven’t mentioned my favourite scene, the ‘Very Small Favour’ scene in the Acme bookshop with Dorothy Malone, which for me is the whole film in 3 minutes; sexy, funny, smart, confusing and surprising in equal measure.

All it lacks is a Ben Hur, 1860, third edition, or the Chevalier Audubon, 1840! And Lauren Bacall of course.


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