The Big Sleep

The first entry in our Philip Marlowe Marathon is “The Big Sleep.” This is probably the most famous of the film adaptations featuring Raymond Chandler’s fast-talking private eye. Humphrey Bogart takes on Marlowe in an iconic performance and has some sizzling moments with future wife Lauren Bacall. Let’s take a closer look at “The Big Sleep.”

I tried to watch “The Big Sleep” one evening last week. Around halfway through, I could feel myself starting to drift off. So I turned it off and decided to finish it the next day. When I woke up the next morning, I thought about the story and realized that even though I had seen half the movie, I didn’t remember (or understand) a damn thing that had happened so far.

The next day, I basically watched the whole thing over again, but I had to pause it on a few occasions to read a plot summary to figure out who was working for who, who killed this certain guy, and why the entire plot focused on a person we never see on screen.

Now, I’m giving away the fact that I did basically zero research on this movie before I watched. Because if I had, I would’ve found that “The Big Sleep” is renowned for the complexity of its plot. Actually, the more I read about it, and the more I thought about what I had witnessed on screen, it became obvious to me that the plot of this film doesn’t really matter at all. It’s not the point.

In his “Great Movies” essay, Roger Ebert said this movie “is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” That’s a great line, and it seems true on the surface, but I don’t even think “The Big Sleep” is really about that process either. Really, this movie is about crackling dialog, sexual tension and, probably above all, the atmosphere of film noir.

To speak to my latter point, this production is quintessential film noir. You’ve got your private investigator on a dangerous case, you’ve got your femmes fatales, you’ve definitely got your sex, and you have enough low light scenes to suit the biggest fans of the genre. Director Howard Hawks paints this work with shadows, rain, fog and sparsely-lit rooms and streets. With a story this convoluted, the feel of the production becomes so important and Hawks nails it here.

Now for the dialog. There is A LOT of it. Fortunately, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is a master talker. In one moment, he’s charming you with a genial conversation, then before you know it, you’re giving up what he wants to know to help him with his case. Marlowe turns that key with stunning quickness and efficiency. He also has the often-hilarious habit of asking a question of someone else, then letting them get a word or two in before answering it himself. His investigative world is his chess board, and he’s usually a couple moves ahead of his opponent. (Also, he was more like 4 or 5 moves ahead of me.)

Bogart’s Marlowe also operates with a wit that is both razor-sharp and extremely quick. If anyone puts a cool line on him, he returns the favor before his opponent knows what happened. Consider this exchange the first time he meets gangster Eddie Mars:

Or this one between Marlowe and Vivian:

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

Ouch. All that from one sentence about his manners.

Speaking of Vivian, much has been said and written about Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They were lovers on screen and off, and their chemistry is on full display here. The famous nightclub scene, which was a re-shoot that was added to the film after the original cut was completed, is probably the most sexually-charged scene I can imagine from this period of film history, and again it’s all driven from the dialog. Bogart and Bacall are a worthy match for each other in this scene, and each delivers the innuendo-laced lines with a bit a of gleam in the eye. I have to admit, a scene like this was more intriguing when all of the subtext is left to the imagination. Today, if a scene like this cuts immediately to the bedroom, I feel like it would cheapen the dialog and the build-up. Less is more here. I guess it’s an unintended benefit of the Hays Code.

The nightclub scene. Grab a cold drink for this one.

In terms of the Marlowe canon, it’s a bit hard to size up Bogart’s version, as it’s the first one I’ve seen. I will be surprised, though, if I encounter a cooler Philip Marlowe during this marathon. Bogart’s Marlowe remains calm and measured at virtually all times. Even after he’s beaten up in an alley or hiding behind cars waiting for possible shootouts, he keeps it together. That is part and parcel of Bogart, of course. If you don’t want your character to exude a certain coolness, don’t cast Humphrey Bogart.

From what I’ve read, this version of Marlowe is portrayed as a bit less introspective than Chandler’s written version. Chandler’s Marlowe also was apparently more wary of women and casual sex. Neither of those things worry Bogart’s Marlowe one bit. He is flirtatious at every stop, and I’m sure if he wanted to, he could’ve slept with every woman with whom he came into contact. He was not short on charm. And like the Chandler version, in “The Big Sleep” Marlowe is not afraid of a drink or five. Of course this habit never hinders him; in fact, it’s probably the opposite as he loosens up himself and his marks for some conversation about the case.

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, even though I already basically forgot all the plot machinations. But some movies are about the story, and some are about something more. No one’s walking around talking about what a classic “The Big Sleep” is because of all the twists and turns in the plot. No, they remember all of Marlowe’s quips, the Bogart-Bacall chemistry and all that beautiful darkness.