A Raymond Chandler story, an all-star cast and a powerhouse director: ‘The Big Sleep’ works like a sexy dream

The Big Sleep/1946/Warner Bros. Pictures/114 min.

Howard Hawks added romance and comedy to the dark tone of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Every scene with Bogie and Bacall sizzles.

“The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is almost too much fun to be pure noir. Actually, it’s not pure in any way because under the thriller surface, it’s all about sex. The women in this movie especially are thinking a lot about the bedroom.

(That’s pretty much the case with most of the film noir canon, but this movie is an outstanding example.)

“The Big Sleep” was released in 1946, the year after World War II ended. Having been man-deprived for four long years while their guys were all over the globe fighting battles, all of a sudden, everywhere the ladies looked, Men, Glorious Men! For the vets, being welcomed home and hailed as heroes by women, who likely weren’t playing all that hard to get, was not too shabby a deal.

Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe. Cynical, stubborn and streetwise, Marlowe is impervious to the trappings of wealth and power, though, given his line of work, he often finds himself dealing with the ultra rich. Marlowe flings sarcastic barbs as casually as they drop cash, even when his companions are slinky, sharp-tongued women, like spoiled society girl Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, played by Lauren Bacall.

Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is a rich party girl who constantly courts trouble.

Vivian’s Dad, a wise and way-old patriarch known as General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), has hired Marlowe to get a blackmailer named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) off his back and to track down a missing chum: Sean Regan (a character we never see onscreen).

Fueling Brody’s scheme are the, uh, antics of Sternwood’s other daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), a sexy party girl who sucks her thumb and likes posing for cameras with very little on. Snapping the pics is seedy book dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), whose snippy clerk Agnes (Sonia Darrin), has, as her “protector,” feisty little Harry Jones, played by film noir’s number one patsy, Elisha Cook Jr.

That’s just one piece of a very complicated puzzle, full of false leads and red herrings, bad guys and blind alleys, and more plot twists than I can count. By the time Marlowe puts it all together, seven are dead. But the best part of the movie for me is the dry humor and that sexy subtext I was talking about. Even the title, “The Big Sleep,” referring to death, could be a play on the French phrase for sexual climax: “le petite morte” (the little death).

Bogart’s Marlowe charms a bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone).

By the film’s end, Marlowe’s had propositions aplenty. For example, as Marlowe gathers info on Geiger, he strolls into the Acme Bookstore and meets a bespectacled brunette clerk(Dorothy Malone, later more famous as a blonde). They chat, she provides a description of Geiger, and Marlowe tells her she’d make a good cop. It starts to rain and he suggests they have a drink. Next thing you know, she removes her glasses, lets down her hair and says, “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.”

Then there’s the perky female cab driver who tells Marlowe to call her if he can use her again sometime. He asks: Day and night? Her answer: “Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Apparently, all Marlowe has to do is get out of bed in the morning to be inundated with offers to climb back in. Most importantly, of course, is Marlowe’s innuendo-heavy badinage with Vivian Sternwood. They’re attracted from the moment they meet and, with each subsequent encounter, they turn flirting and verbal sparring into an art form. Here’s a quickie (sorry, I couldn’t resist):

Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse-racing and other amusements.

“You go too far, Marlowe,” says Vivian.

He replies: “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”

Perhaps their most famous exchange occurs when they trade notes about horse-racing – with Vivian comparing Marlowe to a stallion.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a 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, uh…I don’t know how – how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.

Marlowe: There’s one thing I can’t figure out.

Vivian: What makes me run?

Marlowe: Uh-huh.

Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work. It’s been tried.

The horsy banter was added after the 1945 version was completed and shown overseas to audiences of U.S. soldiers; several other changes were made for the 1946 stateside release. In the late 1990s, the original version of the movie turned up. Though the original made the plot points more clear, most critics and viewers prefer the altered (second) version.

Whichever version you prefer (both are available on the Warner Brothers DVD), “The Big Sleep” is full of all kinds of pleasure, thanks to director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers. Hawks was known for being a master of all genres, garnering great performances from stars like Bogart, John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Marilyn Monroe, and for perfecting the bromance, long before the term came into currency.

In “The Big Sleep,” the pace is brisk, the characters are richly drawn, there’s loads of action and the scenes with Bogart and Bacall truly sizzle. Though the cinematography by Sid Hickox doesn’t bear the expressionistic stamp of the more Germanic noir directors, the film certainly holds its own in terms of visual panache. And Max Steiner’s original music lends sonic verve.

Marlowe gets details from his client, the wealthy and weak Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron).

Also brilliant, and not just for its subtext, is the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The dialogue, much of which comes straight from Chandler’s novel, is both colorful and economical, as shown by this exchange between Gen. Sternwood and Marlowe:

Sternwood: You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life – crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?

Marlowe: Not particularly.

Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Flesh, perfume, sweetness and corruption permeate “The Big Sleep,” my favorite of Bogart and Bacall’s great noirs. (The others are “To Have and Have Not” 1944, also directed by Hawks, “Dark Passage” 1947, and “Key Largo” 1948.) What’s not to love, or at least lust after, for 114 minutes?

Too bad Lauren Bacall never made a guest appearance on “Sex and the City.” She could have taught Carrie and the girls a thing or two.

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Extolling virtues of ‘Dark Passage’: Bogie, Bacall and more

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

“Dark Passage” was the third of four films Bogart and Bacall made together.

I recently wrote about 1947’s “Lady in the Lake,” a Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe tale, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. Its chief claim to fame is the experimental subjective camera – the story is told entirely from Marlowe’s point of view.

In that review, I noted that “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, also from 1947, uses a subjective camera as well, though just for the first half-hour of the movie. The limited use of the technique in “Dark Passage” pays off much better than the full-on treatment in “Lady.” Though “Dark Passage” wasn’t a huge hit in its day – audiences weren’t crazy about being deprived of Bogart – it’s a film noir treasure that rarely gets its due.

Admittedly, the plausibility police would have a field day with this one. From the moment we meet Bogart as escaped San Quentin prisoner Vincent Parry and Bacall as Irene Jansen, his mysterious helper/wealthy benefactor, the phrase “never gonna happen” pops into your mind and lingers as the rather bizarre plot unfolds. This is not a realistic movie. So sue director/writer Delmer Daves and novelist David Goodis, who provided the source material.

Bogart has an awful lot to account for in “Dark Passage.”

I don’t think the filmmakers’ aim was to tell a story that’s relatable in a literal sense. The idea was to explore ideas about trust, identity, revenge, isolation and paranoia in the shell of an entertaining thriller that’s also infused with the famous Bogie-Bacall chemistry. At the same time, the sometimes-unwieldy narrative has depth and intelligence – it’s not merely a slapdash concoction of the outlandish and absurd. Goodis was a particularly pessimistic writer and a harsh social critic.

Here Bacall’s Irene is calling the shots, outwitting the cops and doling out shrewd suggestions to Vincent in her singular husky voice. Irene is the only person who believes in Vincent’s innocence –that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Dressed to elegant perfection in every scene, she spurs Vincent to spruce up his wardrobe as well. But Vincent needs more than a fashion overhaul if he is to avoid recapture.

Besides the leads, “Dark Passage” has a tremendous cast – Bruce Bennett shines as Irene’s solid, decent friend and the inimitable Agnes Moorehead sparkles as Madge, the ultimate conniving shrew, with a penchant for animal prints, no less. Houseley Stevenson is unforgettable as the unsavory but highly skilled Dr. Walter Coley. The creepy doctor proves pivotal in Vincent’s quest to remake himself. Even the small parts –a small-time crook, a chatty cabbie and a diner waiter (played by Clifton Young, Tom D’Andrea and Tom Fadden) – are great fun to watch.

The Franz Waxman score, along with San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox, result in a noir rapture – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later. Every detail of this strange little work, though not a great film, feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic.

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‘Dark Passage’ quick hit

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

The sometimes-neglected “Dark Passage,” by writer/director Delmer Daves, has ingredients that result in a noir rapture: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall leading a terrific cast (Agnes Moorehead shines as a shrew with a penchant for animal prints), a bizarre story, Franz Waxman’s score, San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later.

Every detail of this little film feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic. A subjective/first-person camera is used for the first half-hour of the movie. Based on a David Goodis novel.

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