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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Director William Friedkin reveals the father of film noir

Mystery writer Georges Simenon “probably invented film noir,” said Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin on Thursday at a tribute to the famed Belgian author. The panel discussion and cocktail party at the W Hotel in Hollywood was hosted by Georges Simenon Ltd. and the Ile de France Film Commission.

An image from the Simenon tribute invitation

One of the best-selling writers of the 20th century, Simenon (1903-89) was uncommonly prolific – he produced 191 novels and 160 short stories, in addition to other writing.

His spare, minimalist crime stories (particularly his tales of the pipe-smoking café-frequenting Inspector Jules Maigret) clicked with millions of readers and the likes of William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jean Renoir, Claude Chabrol and Akira Kurosawa.

Simenon’s work inspired 70 feature films and 500 hours of TV worldwide.

“I started reading Simenon around the time I made ‘The French Connection,’ ” said Friedkin. “I certainly was influenced by his writing. He’s thought of as a thriller writer but he defies genre. The ‘romans durs’ [tough novels] were the ones that most resonated with me. They’re so simple and yet complex in their portrayal of character.”

Friedkin pointed to “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949, Burgess Meredith) as one of the most exciting Simenon adaptations. Based on the novel “A Battle of Nerves” and starring Charles Laughton as Maigret, Friedkin said the scene in a crowded restaurant as the murderer and detective get into a heated talk amid ever-louder violins is “absolutely magnificent and may be my favorite scene in the movies.”

(More of Friedkin’s cinematic influences and inspirations likely will be revealed in his forthcoming book, “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir,” which he confirmed at the party is scheduled for publication in March 2013.)

Joining Friedkin on the panel were John Simenon (one of the author’s sons), scriptwriter John Brian King and Olivier-René Veillon of the Ile de France Film Commission.

John Simenon confirmed that his father’s friendships with cops, criminals and doctors (he also read medical journals regularly) lent his work a gritty authenticity. Furthering the inventor-of-film-noir description, Veillon explained that the city of Paris, which was radically rebuilt and modernized in the 1860s according to Baron Haussmann’s vision, served as a gift to artists, especially Simenon.

“All the characters are defined by their location and their relationship with the city,” Veillon said. Just as the reconceived Paris and its denizens provided rich fodder for Simenon’s imagination, his fiction is ripe for new adaptations on screen.

Friedkin also asked John Simenon to recount his relationship with his father. “He was demanding in terms of how to conduct yourself and how to be a man. But he was there and he was very present, much more present than many fathers are today and more present than I can be for my son.”

Georges Simenon, 1963, by Erling Mandelmann.

One of the first questions from the audience came from a sly Brit, who wanted to know the secrets to Simenon’s sex life, referencing the notion that Simenon was one of the great Casanovas of his time and claimed to have slept with 10,000 women.

First noting that he had not inherited this trait, John Simenon said this comment was “totally overblown” and “more of a joke” stemming from a reported conversation with director Federico Fellini. Between his work, his children and his love for food and cooking, that much bed-hopping would have been a mighty scheduling challenge.

His personal life aside, one of the most important women Georges Simenon knew was the French novelist Colette (1873-1954), whom he met early in his career and who advised him to eschew the literary, to cut his stories to the bone.

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The Noir File: Hawks, Hemingway, Bogie and Bacall Have it

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Pacific Standard (listed first) and Eastern Standard.

Saturday, July 21

Bogie and Bacall create one of the most magical moments in movies.

5 p.m. (8 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). One of my all-time favorite movies is this crackling adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of boating and gunplay, reset in wartime Martinique and legendary for its incendiary love scenes between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (They met on the set here and later married.) Bogie is at his toughest and most likeable as Harry Morgan, a charter fishing boat captain torn between Vichy government thugs and French partisans.

The sensational 19-year-old Bacall plays singer/adventuress Marie (a.k.a. Slim), who memorably asks Harry “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” The supporting cast includes piano man Hoagy Carmichael, Marcel Dalio (“Grand Illusion”), Dan Seymour and Walter Brennan (great as Harry’s pal, Eddie the Rummy). Two Nobel Prize winners, both friends of Hawks, were among the writers here: original author Hemingway (whose book was considerably changed) and screenwriter William Faulkner.

Tuesday, July 24

7:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). Two strangers meet on a train: social-climbing tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming rich-kid psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Since they both have someone “ruining” their lives (Guy’s estranged wife and Bruno’s father) Bruno proposes, seemingly playfully, that they swap murders. Guy thinks it’s a joke, but Bruno is dead serious. One of Hitchcock’s best: a superb noir adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s classic literary thriller, with an amazing performance – blood-chilling, hilarious and strangely moving – by Walker. Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Marion Lorne and Hitch’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock are in the supporting cast. Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters.

9 a.m. (12 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1953, John Sturges). Barbara Stanwyck, desperately trying to save endangered hubby Barry Sullivan – trapped by an accident and the rising tide under a Pacific Ocean pier – is herself kidnapped by Ralph Meeker, a ruthless outlaw with a yen for Stanwyck. A real nail-biter, directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape,” “The Magnificent Seven”). Scripted by Mel Dinelli.

1:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m.): “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté). Quintessential noir. Edmond O’Brien, as an accountant visiting San Francisco, is slipped a dose of slow-acting poison; he has only a day to find his mysterious killers. With Luther Adler, Pamela Britton, Beverly Garland and Neville Brand. Co-scripted by Russell Rouse.

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Sly guys, coffee, pie: It’s all in ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce/ 1945/Warner Bros./ 111 min.

"Mildred Pierce" was Joan Crawford's comeback role and she won an Oscar for her performance.

I saw “Mildred Pierce” for the first time nearly 20 years ago on a Sunday afternoon in my small, studenty London flat – pale gray walls, Venetian blinds, a Victor Skrebneski print opposite the TV.

Just before the opening scene unfolded – a shooting in a shadow-drenched California beach house with a sinister vibe – I remember popping a batch of popcorn in oil on the stovetop and making American lemonade (fresh lemons, sugar and water). Such wholesome snacking for the decadence on the little screen.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Mildred Pierce” is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, adapted by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited help from William Faulkner. Joan Crawford plays the title character, a wife and mother, who tries to buy the love of her spoiled and ungrateful teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is easy to love, but Mildred is determined to win Veda over as well.

Hubby Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) doesn’t think Veda is worth it and they break up over Mildred’s intense maternal devotion. Some subtexters theorize that Mildred’s love has romantic overtones; I don’t think there’s a strong case for that.

Mildred works as a pie-baker and a waitress, then opens a chain of restaurants to pay for Veda’s clothes, music lessons and extravagant taste. Problem is, nothing’s ever good enough for the Everest-level high-maintenance Veda. “I can’t wear that rag,” she snarls, upon seeing a dress Mildred bought for her.

Besides sniping at loved ones and spending their money, Veda enjoys hatching blackmail plans and singing in sleazy nightclubs. So it’s no shocker that she also has designs on Mildred’s new love interest Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Monte is an aristocratic playboy who’s always short of cash but really rather useful for Veda’s plan to become patrician.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as daughter and Mumsy

No matter what, Veda sinks her serpent’s teeth deeper and deeper into Mildred’s flesh, which, by the way, at 40, was still very shapely. Curtiz wisely gives Crawford plenty of opps to show off her gams. And her little hats, tailored suits and ankle straps are the picture of retro chic. [Read more...]

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