Jan. 25, 2008

The Big Sleep (1946)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Elisha Cook Jr.

What it's about. A film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's bestseller, starring his Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, here ably played by Humphrey Bogart. Marlowe is hired by wealthy invalid General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants Marlowe to stop a blackmailer.

Marlowe quickly sees that his real duty is to keep Sternwood's two gorgeous twentysomething daughters out of trouble. And a tall order that is, since Carmen (Martha Vickers) is promiscuous and vengeful, while Vivian (Lauren Bacall) keeps company with career criminals. Marlowe also becomes interested in the whereabouts of Sternwood's previous hired detective, who has mysteriously vanished along with a crime kingpin's wife.

Interesting actors in bit parts include Dorothy Malone, who makes her film debut as a bookseller with the hots for Bogart, and Elisha Cook Jr., who makes a poor choice in girlfriends.

As the story unfolds, there are a remarkable number of murders and suspects, too many for capsule description or even comprehension. The Big Sleep is properly named, since "Star Trek" security guards beamed to alien planets have better longevity than the minor supporting actors in this movie. But in case you wish to keep score (or have a better chance of understanding the plot), a list of the murders and their motives can be found at the end of this review.

How others will see it. Crime dramas starring tough guy private detectives and multiple femme fatales will always be a popular genre. From the male perspective, Humphrey is ideally cast. Some women may consider Bogart to be too ugly or old to play the romantic lead, particularly with the likes of Lauren Bacall. Never mind that they became married in real life, shortly after making this film.

How I felt about it. Philip Marlowe tales are male fantasies. The private dick is the hero, incorruptible and unstoppable as he risks his life while wading through a sea of killer crooks, their molls, and their henchmen. At the same time, he risks imprisonment, since the police are naturally distrustful of anyone who regularly calls headquarters to report dead bodies and deliver suspects. Even more improbable than Marlowe's continued survival is the number of passes from beautiful women that he fails to take full advantage of.

All for $25 a day plus expenses. With Marlowe, the journey is the destination, since solving the case is never really the goal. Marlowe wants to rack up bonus points outwitting bad guys and seducing hot women who might be half his age.

As Marlowe/Bogart films go, The Big Sleep isn't as great as The Maltese Falcon. It lacks the tension and cohesion of John Huston's film. Howard Hawks, who directed The Big Sleep, preferred to mine for unexpected humor, such as henchmen Pete and Sid, who were allegedly named after Bogart's Casablanca co-stars Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Hawks also builds up the coy banter between Bogart and Bacall, following the path of their commercial success in Hawks' 1944 film, To Have and Have Not.

But although The Big Sleep has too many supporting characters and an overly complex plot, it is classic film noir. It features a screenplay by Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. And it's great fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon.

As promised, here is the list of The Big Sleep's murders and motives, presented in chronological order. Enjoy.

  1. Shawn Regan, detective for General Sternwood, murdered by Carmen, who was jealous of his preference for Eddie Mars' wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen).
  2. Mr. Geiger, bookseller and apparent merchant in stolen goods, murdered by Owen Taylor, who was General Sternwood's chauffeur. Geiger was blackmailing Carmen since he knew she killed Regan. Taylor was in love with Carmen, and murdered Geiger.
  3. Owen Taylor, murdered by Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). Brody, also a blackmailer, did not want competition for Sternwood's payoffs.
  4. Joe Brody, murdered by Carol Lundgren (Tom Rafferty). Carol worked for Geiger, and thought Brody had murdered Geiger. Carol hid Geiger's body to buy time to remove Geiger's merchandise.
  5. Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr), murdered by Canino (Bob Steele). Canino worked for crooked casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Mars is attempting to blackmail Vivian. Mars, for some reason, didn't like Jones tailing Bogart. Bogart is so impressed with Jones' martyrdom that he praises him to the skies to anyone who will listen, for the rest of the film.
  6. Canino is later killed in self-defense by Bogart.
  7. Eddie Mars, murdered by his own henchmen Sidney (Tom Fadden) and Pete (Ben Welden). They thought that they were shooting at Bogart and not their boss.