It’s not every confusing
mess of a film that becomes a bona fide movie classic but then 1946’s The
Big Sleep isn’t just any old
confusing mess. Based on Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel, it’s one of
Hollywood’s most influential noirs and, along with 1944’s Murder, My Sweet (adapted from another of Raymond Chandler’s novels, Farewell,
My Lovely) and John Huston’s 1941
version of Dashiell Hammett’s sublime The Maltese Falcon, it gave us the blueprint for the archetypal hardboiled
detective movie; a cynical, world-weary but ultimately honourable tough guy
hero, a tough, gorgeous femme fatale, a poisonous stew of odious bad guys and a
murky plot full of double- and triple-crosses.
Cynical private detective
Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by rich, retired General Sternwood to
recover some compromising photos of his slutty nymphette daughter Carmen (“She
tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”) who’s being blackmailed by a sleazy bookshop
owner/pornographer. Pretty soon he’s hip deep in bodies, flirting with
Sternwood’s headstrong eldest daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and trading quips
(and shots) with all manner of LA lowlifes. As the body count rises, Marlowe
finds himself sucked deeper into a mystery where nothing is what it seems and
no-one can be trusted.
While it pretty much glosses
over some of the novel’s more salacious, less Hays Code-friendly ingredients
(the homosexuality, nymphomania, drug abuse and pornography that are, well,
kinda central to the plot) and has a plot so convoluted that, famously, not
even author Raymond Chandler really understood what was going on. Seriously.
They called Chandler to ask him who killed a particular character and he
hadn’t a clue! Adapted from
Chandler’s novel by a veritable dream team of jobbing screenwriters (William
Faulkner, Jules Furthman and
Leigh Brackett, not to mention an uncredited Philip Epstein), the screenplay is
crammed chockfull of quotable one-liners and bears the trademark snappy
playfulness Brackett brought to films as diverse as Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back.
The Big Sleep is a stylish walk on Hollywood’s seamier side but
the plot is largely irrelevant. While the film has enough skulduggery and murky
goings-on for half a dozen film noirs, the real reason to watch The Big
Sleep both in 1946 and now are its
leads; Bogart and Bacall. The chemistry between the two is electric. Having
just come off the success of To Have And Have Not and having embarked on a scandalous affair which
ended Bogart’s marriage and saw him marry the much younger Bacall, the pair
were the hottest couple in Hollywood and the public couldn’t get enough of
them. Their scenes together crackle with sexual tension and while the film may
at times be a confusing mess it’s the most watchable confusing mess you’re
liable to see.
It may not make a lick of
sense but The Big Sleep buzzes
with vitality; it’s a movie to be sucked into and swept away by, to be
experienced. Don’t worry about the plot. That all takes care of itself. Just relax
and go with the flow, let the wit and charm of the movie take you and like
Bogie you’ll end up being seduced by Bacall’s husky insolence.