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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Big Sleep (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

Two years after she taught him how to whistle in To Have and Have Not, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were together again in The Big Sleep, where Bogart played the second of his great screen detectives (the first being Sam Spade in the film that made him a bona fide star, The Maltese Falcon). This is a dark, cynical story about the decaying morals of the upper class, the members of which are drowning in so much vice that they hardly notice their foundation is crumbling. No one gets off easy here, no one is really “good.” It’s a bad world and it’s full of bad people, all of whom want to get in on the action while the getting is good.

Bogart plays Phillip Marlowe, a more polished, less rough and tumble detective than Sam Spade. They share a few things in common – both are smart, can get tough if they have to, and have a soft spot for potentially dangerous women – but they’re ultimately quite different. Spade thrived in his seedy environment, whereas Marlowe is more of a gentleman detective; not itching for a fight, not looking to pull anything over on anyone, just aiming to accomplish the job he was hired for. Then again, perhaps Marlowe just seems more polished because the world he’s moving in is that of high society – albeit a high society with a dark, gritty underbelly. The plot of the film hinges on multiple murders, pornography, and two sisters whose indulgences in booze, sex, gambling and God knows what else, has led their father (also an indulger in all those things) to write them off as being no good.

The father is General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who hires Marlowe to take care of the gambling debts of his younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Carmen is a drunken nymphet who wastes no time making eyes at Marlowe (“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up”) and proves to have a deeper involvement with Geiger - the man to whom she supposedly owes money for gambling debts - than was originally thought. The General’s other daughter, Vivian (Bacall), is also quick to call herself to Marlowe’s attention, though her intentions (at first) are less amorous. Her interest isn’t in Marlowe himself, but in what her father has hired him to do. Namely, she believes that Marlowe has been hired to find Sean Regan. The two elements are, of course, related, resulting in numerous dead bodies (many of which end up, at different times, in the same house) and some wonderful verbal exchanges. The dialogue itself is arguably the best thing about the film, especially in the scenes between Marlow and Vivian, which capitalize on the real-life relationship between Bogart and Bacall.

The plot of the film can be difficult to follow. There’s a famous anecdote with regards to the death of a chauffer that no one involved with the story – including Raymond Chandler, who wrote the source novel – could explain. But the thing about this movie is that the first time you watch it, you don’t even really realize that you’re not completely following the thread of the mystery, because the plot itself is really secondary to the dialogue and the characters. In a genre defined by smart dialogue, this is one of the sharpest, with the characters dodging each others barbs twice as often as each other’s bullets. Bogart, naturally, gets the lions share of the best lines, but there’s an exchange between him and Bacall about horses that provides her with her sizeable number of zingers and double entendres. Part of the joy of watching this film is just watching Bogart and Bacall play off of each other.

There’s another version of the film in which Vickers gets more screen time and makes the most of every moment, more or less showing up the film’s leading lady. Because of this, and because Bacall generally seemed a little stiff in some of her scenes, it was decided to cut many of Vickers’ scenes and reshoot some of Bacall’s so that a potentially viable leading lady would not find her career crushed before it could really get off the ground. It’s true that Bacall is overshadowed by Vickers in the first version, and that she herself delivers a better performance in the second, but there are some other minor changes to the second/“official” version which ultimately serve to make it tighter and more focused. It’s a shame for Vickers, whose film career never really had a chance to take off, but the cutting and the reshoots did, ultimately, make for a better film. Both are worth watching, but the “official” version is the film that we want, with its wit and sharp edges and, of course, the interplay between Bogie and Bacall.


Rick Olson said...

"wit and sharp edges," indeed. Sharp review as well.

I didn't know about the alternate version ... so much for my junior cinephile merit badge.

Norma Desmond said...

The alternate version isn't very different. Aside from cutting Vickers' part, it more or less amounts to changing the locations in a couple of scenes and giving Bacall more scenes with Bogart. The alternate version is available as an extra on the DVD.