The Big Sleep
I hadn’t seen The Big Sleep in many years; of the two most famous Humphrey Bogart detective movies, I immediately preferred The Maltese Falcon. It seemed sharper and wittier, with more engaging supporting characters. I recalled The Big Sleep as guilty of charges of being convoluted, making it a slightly lesser beast, to my mind, than its acclaim warranted. Well, this revisit has redressed that balance; it’s a blast. Yes, the plot is involved to the point of density, but it is followable, and it’s buoyed throughout by Bogie at his most appealing.
Carmen: Not very tall, are you?
Marlowe: Well, I tried to be.
Curiously, given the screenplay issues – there were three writers, including Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner alternating drafts; a 1945 original version that was earmarked for reshoots to beef up the Bogie/Lauren Bacall interplay; Hays Code edicts pared down the sexual content – it follows the novel pretty closely. That’s perhaps why it yields accusations of being labyrinthine and even incomprehensible; The Big Sleep doesn’t allow one any time to simmer the information provided (added to which, a notable scene of exposition with Joe Regan and the District Attorney was excised from the revised version).
As far as toning down the content goes, it seems Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), “who supplements his business activities as owner of a pornographic lending library in Hollywood by arranging sex orgies and blackmailing rich customers”, and Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty) were also in a gay relationship; the only inkling of this in the movie, and it’s too oblique to ascribe unless you know the novel, is the scene where Bogey returns to the flophouse and finds Geiger’s body laid out on the bed, reverently surrounded by lit candles. Marlowe tugs his ear in bemusement. Carmen (Martha Vickers), meanwhile, was a raging nympho (you can gather as much even from her tamed movie incarnation. Marlowe doesn’t intend to ask her who Arthur Geiger is because “If I did, she’d just suck her thumb and look coy”).
With regard to the question vexing the makers, of the demise of chauffeur Owen Taylor (Dan Wallace), and whether he was killed or killed himself – Chandler had no idea – the makers obviously landed on one side of the fence: Ohls: Could be drunk or a suicide; Marlowe: Yeah, but it isn’t. It seems Hawks’ was buoyed by the movie’s popularity in spite of criticisms regarding its coherence (“I’m never going to worry about being logical again”).
Carmen: Is he as cute as you are?
Marlowe: Nobody is.
Jay Dyer compares the “Bacchanalian” scene in which Marlowe “discovers secret porn and drugged women” – a slightly sensationalised account of what we actually see, but I’ll give him the markers – with a more explicit parallel in Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia. He attests “The Big Sleep was actually referencing a topic completely taboo to the audience of the day – sex, drugs and occult ritual”, accounting for the latter via the camera’s lens facing the third eye of the Buddha bust in which it is concealed. This he believes, suggests “a potential tantric theme was involved in the porn at the flophouse”. Which may seem like a stretch, because, if it wasn’t drawn to your attention, you’d think very little of it, which may, of course, be the point.
The consequence is that there don’t seem to be any ramifications in terms of the overall plot or parties involved. Jay has it that it’s “where secret porn is being filmed as girls are drugged and coaxed into sexual acts”. Albeit, it’s a still camera, and when Marlowe looks at the blackmail photo he declares it innocuous. The occult side aside, the movie is evidently soft-pedalling the novel, wherein the Geiger’s bookstore is a “pornography lending library”, and Carmen, in contrast to the much more discrete scene in the movie is found “drugged and naked, in front of an empty camera” (synopsis courtesy of Wiki).
Marlowe: She takes a nice picture.
Vivian: They want 5,000 for the negative and prints.
Marlowe: The demand came how?
Vivian: A woman telephoned me after it was delivered.
Marlowe: What else? There has to be something else? This thing isn’t worth 5,000 dollars to anybody.
Vivian: They think it is.
Both versions have Vivien coming to Marlowe about the blackmail, but the movie, Hays Code influenced, resists anything salacious (which obviously makes no sense, per the above exchange; she goes on to mention a “police jam” of non-specific nature. The original cut has Marlow tell her “The rest of the photographs, I’ll destroy them myself, if you don’t mind”, which he does, but they’re highly unlikely to send him one non-salacious picture as representative of nudey ones). Dyer also quotes L.A. Confidential’s Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) when he notes the film’s “tangential relations to the Black Dahlia case” – I’d be far more persuaded of such intent were it Huston (who knew suspect Hodel), rather than Hawks, helming it.
Marlowe: You made a mistake. Mrs Rutledge didn’t want to see me.
Norris: I’m sorry, sir. I make many mistakes.
No time is wasted in this movie, aside from the Bogie/Bacall love talk, and even that invariably comes back round to plot. The duo have undeniable chemistry, and the dialogue written for them includes many zingers. Witness the scene where they discuss “playing the horses”. Vivian’s preference for riding (“A lot depends on who’s in the saddle”) eventually gives way to Marlowe realising there’s a surreptitious motive involved in her presence (“Who told you to sugar me off this case?”) The two leads were married at this point, having got together during To Have and Have Not (under Hawks, who was not impressed by the development). Husky, mannish and loved-by-no-one Bacall was, it seems, one of the era’s foremost Hollywood hermaphrodites (others in the ranks including Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford).
Marlowe: She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.
Incontestably, Martha Vickers makes for a much more feminine (and vicarious) presence as Carmen, even or especially because she’s somewhat toned down (apparently, she’s partial to ether and laudanum cocktails in the novel. Although, that piece is of the view the film suggests Carmen murdered Regan “then switches the blame breathlessly to Mars”, which I’d say is more inferred than stated: “Why didn’t you know her when you walked in that day?” is Marlowe’s pertinent probing of Eddie’s assertion regarding the facts of the case and Carmen’s guilt). Chandler suggested Vickers’ role had been cut down from the 1945 version in favour of beefing up Bacall, but while the latter charge is undoubtedly the case, we don’t lose anything significant from the former. Of course, the movie is littered with women throwing themselves at Marlowe from every quarter (Hawks’ idea), most notably Dorothy Malone’s sexy bookstore owner (it would be another decade before she found fame via Douglas Sirk).
Sternwood: How do you like your brandy, sir?
Marlowe: In a glass.
Also of note is Charles Waldron – his final film role – as General Sternwood in a superb hothouse scene-setter where he bemoans his diminished physical status and daughters while Marlowe has a drink. The chair-bound instigator of the case was surely an inspiration to the Coen Brothers in The Big Lebowski. I thought it a shame we don’t get to see him again (in the novel, Marlowe reports back). Elisha Cook Jr, perhaps most memorable in Kubrick’s The Killing, gets himself poisoned (“A funny little guy, harmless. I liked him”). Charles D Brown is memorable too, as butler Norris.
Carmen: You’re cute.
Marlowe: I’m getting cuter every minute.
But yeah. Complicated. It is. Everyone agrees. Pauline Kael called The Big Sleep a “witty, incredibly complicated thriller” while observing of its characters, “All of them talk in innuendoes, as if that were a new stylisation of the American language”. Time Out’s Geoff Andrew likewise said “the story is virtually incomprehensible at points, but who cares when the sultry mood, the incredibly witty and memorable script, and the performances are so impeccable?” All that, and revealing the sodden underbelly of Hollywood too (Carmen may behave coquettishly but she’s twenty in the novel). Does it need Jay’s occult polish? Probably not, as sometimes a Buddha statue is just a Buddha statue. It always pays to consider all possibilities, however.
Marlowe: Take it easy. I don’t slap so good around this time in the evening.
As for which version is better, the 1945 or 1946, I don’t think there’s much between them. Pat Clark makes for a more likely Mona Mars than her replacement Peggy Knudsen, and the DA scene does provide clarification (but it’s also on the speedy-going side). Set that against some choice Bogie-Bacall badinage. Of course, that emphasis, on the two Bs, may be seen to diminish Marlowe the character slightly: the honest guy in a sea of vice now has his head turned and looks like he’ll be making a thing with her. When Elliott Gould essayed the character, even his cat didn’t want to be with him. The scene where the police cover for Sternwood isn’t in the release version, and Marlowe continues with the case (past that DA scene) because of his purity of purpose and disrespect for the fuzz (per Sight and Sound, the novel “makes it painfully clear that one of Marlowe’s main motives for being a private detective is that the public detectives are pretty thoroughly corrupt”). Such high standards are soft-pedalled in Bogie’s wiseacre ladies’ man.