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Movie Critique - The Big Sleep

For review of all movies starring Humphrey Bogart, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: The plot spins your head; it gives shivers, murder, sex, mob and mystery; making it a very classic film noir with some tough dialogues; well places characters; and excellent direction. A must watch for all those film noir buffs out there!

The Big Sleep is a 1946 film noir becoming the first film version of the 1939 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. Directed and Produced by Howard Hawks, the film has Humphrey Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. They are supported by John Ridgley, Martha Vickers, Charles Waldron, Regis Toomey and Sonia Darrin among others.

Private Eye Philip Marlowe is called to the mansion of General Sternwood (portrayed by Charles Waldron) who wants Marlowe's help in resolving gambling debts made by his youngest daughter Carmen Sternwood (portrayed by Martha Vickers). However he gets intrigued by Sternwood's older daughter Vivian Sternwood Rutledge and starts falling for her. As his investigation progresses nothing seems as it is seen; he unearths several secrets that may not wanted to be unearthed; and gets tangled in family secrets.

This is the second of the four films pairing Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The other three being - 1944 To Have and Have Not; 1947 Dark Passage; and 1948 Key Largo.

Philip Marlowe first appeared in the novel the film is based on in 1939 by Raymond Chandler. However Marlowe's first film appearance was the 1944 American film noir Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Marlowe. Granted that Murder, My Sweet became a very successful platform for Powell to change his career from musicals into hard boiled mystery films giving him a second career. And that Murder, My Sweet also had been by far the most successful adaptations of Chandler's novels. However, Bogart's portrayal of Marlowe tops Powell's version.

American novelist William Faulkner was part of the writing committee for the film which consisted of Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Faulkner also provided writing support in To Have and Have Not, the first Bogart-Bacall venture in 1944. 

Hays Code policies heavily restricted all the sexual themes the book otherwise carried. Several changes were made to the script accordingly. Yet in the theatrical version that finally got released in 1946, we see scenes with sexual innuendos that were re-added later in 1945.

Hawks also made every female in the film sexually attracted to Marlowe, specially the scene with the Acme bookstore proprietor (portrayed by Dorothy Malone) which alludes to the viewers that after the scene ends Marlowe and the bookstore proprietor make love; and the famous horses scene filled with double entendre.

The Acme Bookstore scene: 

This bookstore scene has since been spoofed in the 1978 The Conspirators, Season 7 Episode 5 of TV series Columbo. There is a scene in that episode where a pretty mousy looking book store girl with glasses interacts with Columbo.

And the horses scene filled with double entendre:

And a few memorable dialogues from the film:

Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe. / Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom.
Lash Canino: What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a gun before? What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?
Philip Marlowe: I collect blondes in bottles, too.
Philip Marlowe: What it is you're trying to find out? You know, it's a funny thing. You're trying to find out what your father hired me to find out, and I'm trying to find out why you want to find out.
General Sternwood: Do you like orchids? / Philip Marlowe: Not particularly. / General Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.
Vivian: So you're a private detective? I didn't know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you're a mess, aren't you?

The central plot is not about the end results of a criminal investigation or trial, but about how the entire criminal investigation process goes on. It certainly is a very complicated and twisted plot keeping the viewers guessing who the killer(s) was. There were several questions unanswered with regards to who killed the character Owen Taylor in the end. 

The film is available in multiple versions - the original 1944, a few scenes omitted in the 1945 version and re-added in the final 1946 theatrical release. Even the 1944 version had been reshot with significant changes from the very first version. Because of the reshot, the original actress Pat Clark who played Mona Mars was replaced by Peggy Krudsen, whom we see in the movie now. 

At the time of the filming Bogart and Bacall's love affair off-screen was very much in play causing marital problems for Bogart, who was already married then. The tension between them due to real problems in life clearly comes across in the film as well. None the less they got married four months after this film was released.

The opening credits show Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in silhouettes smoking cigarette, and then placing them in the ashtray towards the end. Each credit is swept away with a cloud of cigarette smoke and new credits appear.

Martha Vickers plays the role of Carmen Sternwood, the one around whom the story keeps revolving. She played a nymphomaniac with addiction to gambling & drugs, and a mile long short-temper. Her acting almost shadowed Lauran Bacall's in the original shooting, and the film makers either cut many of her scenes or reshot a few to make Bacall more prominent in the film. Yet Vickers comes out on top in my opinion as a semi-antagonist in the plot. 

The two sisters - Vivian and Carmen - around whom the story mostly runs are cut with the same cloth in their nasty nature. While Vivian is spoiled, smart and ruthless; Carmen portrays an innocent child who likes to perhaps kills little birds or peal wings of a grasshopper or a butterfly. In the essence both are corrupted in their own ways, that inadvertently draws Marlowe towards them.

A fine thread of sarcastic humor laced with sinister intentions in the background runs through the entire plot. There were at times that I felt shivers on my back imagining what the unseen scenes were after an incident in the film, what worse could have happened which the viewers are not privy to.

Just like in To Have and Have Not film, Bacall has a musical number in this film too. She sings a number called And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, Music by Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence and Lyrics by Joe Greene. The song is played by a band at the casino, the patrons around join Bacall in the song.

Though Bogart played Marlowe in this one film, yet he immortalized the character. The plot spins your head; it gives shivers, murder, sex, mob and mystery; making it a very classic film noir with some tough dialogues; well places characters; and excellent direction. A must watch for all those film noir buffs out there!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Sonia Darren portraying the very critical role of Agnes Lowzier in the film incidentally was unbilled due to conflict between her agent and Jack L. Warner, the studio head. She is also not credited on screen because of that.

b. This was the final film of Charles Waldron who portrayed the role of General Sternwood. He passed away before the film premiered.

c. The Big Sleep was remade in 1978 with James Stewart playing the role of General Sternwood. Incidentally Waldron had played Stewart's father in the 1937 Navy Blue and Gold. This was James Stewart's last film role as well.

d. The entrance hall of the Sternwood mansion was reused as the Beragon Mansion entry-way in the 1945 Mildred Pierce. However this film released a year after Mildred Pierce although completed a year before.

e. In the Acme Bookstore scene, the book "The Wire Cutters" by Mollie R. Moore Davis is visible in the background.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. General Sternwood is shown as a paralytic person from the waist below confined to wheelchair. Yet in the opening scene where he meets Marlow we can clearly see his legs moving underneath the blanket. 

b. When Marlowe leaves Sternwood, there is a huge wet spot on the back of his shirt, which we can still see when he is talking to Vivian. However, in the few mins of the scene, the wet spot dries very fast.

c. In the public library, a close-up shot shows Marlowe copying from a book with a new chapter opened. However in the long shot it shows that he is copying from a full text page.

d. Marlowe asks about an 1860 edition of Ben-Hur while at Gieger's rare book store. Lew Wallace, the author of the book hadnt published it until 1880.

e. The way the pencil in the hand of Acme bookstore proprietress is pointed, changes direction between scenes while talking to Marlowe.

f. Mailbox in front of Geiger's house clearly shows "A. G. Geiger 460". However when Marlowe calls the D. A. Office, he gives the address as "7244 Laverne Terrace".

g. The window that Marlowe uses to get into Geiger's home is seen having wooden slats from outside, but when the shot is shown from inside it is regular glass paneled window.

h. Marlowe who is reputed to be a well-known private eye, leaves his fingerprints all over in Geiger's house when he is looking around.

i. After bringing Carmen from Geiger's home to Sternwood home, Marlowe is seen without a trench coat. However when he leaving the house, the butler Norris gives him a trench coat. Where did that come from?

j. The door of Marlowe's apartment has a bracket holding a card reading "Philip Marlowe - Private Investigator" with the number 206 on top. A few seconds later when he opens the door again for a visitor, the bracket with the card is not there. Just the number 206 is seen.


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