The Big Sleep (1946)

Directed by Howard Hawks

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”

The Disc

Oof, this is a real throwback to the early days of DVD.

Probably dating back to around 2000, there’s a trailer and that’s it – it actually has the audacity to count ‘Interactive Menus’ and ‘Scene Access’ as special features.

In fairness, it’s a pretty cool menu design, but this sort of content would make me furious on a modern release.

Why Did I Get This?

I’d love to say it’s because I’m the world’s biggest fan of classic Hollywood, but while I’ve a love for it, I bought this while I was studying film at uni and taking a module on either classic Hollywood or literary adaptations (my memory sucks).

Either way, I read the book and watched the movie for Film and Literature, so I’m pretty sure I bought the disc simply to be able to rewatch it without hoping the library copy would be available rather than because I didn’t want to read the novel.

Honestly, I might’ve watched it once more since leaving uni. Still, it’s a legit classic, so let’s rectify that…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will cover the film from start to finish in depth, so it’s pretty long, and you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!

We open (after the classic Warner Brothers logo), with the credits over silhouettes of Bogart lighting Bacall’s cigarette, then both placing their smokes side by side in the same ashtray… almost as if the producers are trying to highlight the fact they’re up to something off-camera, eh?

From what I remember, Bogart and Bacall were pretty much the hottest couple in Hollywood at this point, so it makes sense for Warner Brothers to strike while the iron’s hot. Or a more suitable metaphor, I dunno.

So Bogart, as Private Investigator extraordinaire Philip Marlowe, arrives at the mansion of General Sternwood looking every inch the iconic fedora and trenchcoat-wearing PI he became. He’s immediately on the receiving end of some severe flirting by young Carmen Sternwood who’s trying to tease him into trouble.

Right off the bat, the dialogue is cute and snappy. Carmen tells him “you’re note very tall are you”, and Marlowe replies “I try to be”.

He’s shown in to a hothouse to meet General Sternwood – he’s old, infirm and looks every inch the Scooby-Doo villain, huddled under blankets in the greenhouse complaining to Bogie and comparing himself to a newborn spider.

During their chat, Bogart tells the General he’s 38 years old. Christ, I guess people aged differently then. He’s charming as hell though, and despite there being a tonne of exposition in this scene, it works really well.

Turns out, Marlowe used to “swap shots between drinks, or drinks between shots”, with Sternwood’s former employee and IRA commander Sean Regan, who has disappeared right around the time Sternwood’s being blackmailed over Carmen’s gambling debts. Bogie advises him to pay off the blackmailer, but the General wants them out of the picture completely.

Marlowe’s costs run to $25 a day plus expenses – that’s upwards of $350 with inflation, apparently. I don’t know what the going rate for private detectives is these days, but that doesn’t seem like a bad income. provided you’re willing to drink brandy in a greenhouse with an old man.

As he leaves, Marlowe is called into a side-room to meet the General’s older daughter, Vivian. Bacall looks utterly amazing. She quizzes him and gives him her smartarse routine with yet more snappy dialogue, before Marlowe heads off to the Hollywood Library to do some research into rare first editions (following a lead from the blackmail note).

The librarian flirts with him – he’s Humphrey Bogart, after all – and he tells her he “collects blondes in bottles too”. It’s good to have a hobby I guess, Bogie.

Pausing outside the rare bookshop, Marlowe chuckles to himself, then puts on his shades and tilts up the brim of his hat before heading inside and acting all camp and nervy to the shop assistant who, apparently, knows nothing about rare books and first editions.

He goes across the street to another classy book store – remember when there was more than one book shop in a street? Man, I miss those times – where he hits on the attractive assistant and waits out the rain with her and a bottle of pretty good rye while waiting for Geiger (the fella who owns the other bookshop), to show himself.

There’s a point as he’s chatting up the assistant where he asks her to remove her glasses, and after she lets her hair down seems genuinely taken aback by her beauty – is this where the sexy librarian trope comes from?!

Eventually, Geiger and his right-hand man leave, so Bogie follows their car to a nice cottage on the Warner Brothers backlot and sees Carmen arrive at the house. He takes a nap in his car and is woken by a scream and gunshots, before an unidentifiable male flees the scene. Rushing into the house, he finds Geiger dead, Carmen stoned out of her mind, and a hidden camera that’s been pointing at her. He slaps her, she flirts with him, he throws her on the sofa to come round, then discovers the film’s missing from the camera – I suspect there’ll be more blackmail to come!

Marlowe pauses to take a coded ledger with Sternwood’s name in it, then Bundles Carmen home, where he has another punchy scene with Vivian as he realises Carmen might’ve been involved with Regan’s disappearance. Marlowe walks back to his car at Geiger’s house, and discovers Geiger’s corpse is missing, then heads back to his office and tries to decipher the ledger.

As he’s doing that, he gets a 2am visit from his mate in the local Homicide squad who tells him the Sternwood’s chauffeur has been pulled from a car in a nearby dock. His buddy Barney jokingly suggests it’s not Marlowe’s style, and he looks momentarily worried, but it’s laughed off.

Back at his office the next morning, Vivian’s waiting for him to arrive. She makes a quick Proust reference, there’s some sparkling banter about honesty, and she tries her best not to scratch an itch on her leg for fear of looking improper, before he tells her “go ahead and scratch”.

She’s had a blackmail note asking for $5,000 for negatives of compromising pictures of Carmen. There’s a lovely, if lengthy, prank as they phone the police and mess with the desk sergeant – there were a whole bunch of reshoots for this movie to better utilise the chemistry that developed between Bogart and Bacall, and I fully expect this was one of them.

Back to Geiger’s bookshop we go, and Marlowe spots his hood – a fella named Carol – clearing out the back office, so jumps into a cab (driven by a woman who pretty much makes it obvious she’d like to jump him too), and tells her to follow that car – Bogart is irresistible to women in this flick!

Next, he goes back to Geiger’s cottage, and discovers Carmen, who is instantly given a grilling and zero sympathy for being drugged and photographed and blackmailed the night before. Before she can flirt again with him, gambler Eddie Mars – the guy she’s in hock to – turns up and there’s some great back and forth between him and Marlowe (and then the two goons he’s brought with him).

Already, it feels like there are far too many characters and storylines to keep track of, but when the dialogue works, it’s stunning. I know one of the scriptwriters, Leigh Brackett, went on to work on The Empire Strikes Back, and if you loved the verbal sparring between Han and Leia in that, then you’ll dig this too.

So… the blackmailer never phoned Bacall back, and Marlowe looks worried. Whenever he’s thinking or working something out, he frowns and tugs on his earlobe. I can’t remember if that’s in the book, but it’s pretty pronounced when Bogart does it – which is pretty often.

Working on a hunch, he visits an apartment building (genuinely not sure where the hunch came from), and sees Bacall arrive. Following her up to a flat, he discovers Geiger’s shop assistant and her fella Joe Brody – in a whirlwind of exposition and speculation, we’re told Brody killed Geiger and stole the pictures to blackmail the Sternwoods.

But wait… now Carmen’s at the door, gun in hand, and threatening to kill Brody!

Wait, now Marlowe’s got all the guns, and he’s sent the Sternwood ladies home.

Hang on… now Marlowe’s suggesting the chauffeur (remember him?), killed Geiger, then Brody followed him, hit him across the head and sent the car into the dock.

Seriously, this got confusing fast.

The door goes again, and Brody is shot and killed by Carol (remember him?!), so Marlowe chases him out to the street, gets the drop on him, gets him into his car and tells him on the drive to Geiger’s house that he’s killed the wrong guy – Brody didn’t kill Geiger.

Confused yet?

After knocking Carol out and tying him up, he discovers Geiger’s body lying on top of the bed with candles burning. Absolutely no idea why. He phones his mate in Homicide and tells him to come along and solve a murder case.

Some time later, we’re in a fancy bar and Bacall swans in wearing a shiny, pointy-shouldered jacket. She overpays Marlowe for his work and they engage in some highly suggestive, horse racing based flirting/innuendo to get each other really revved up. Once again, their chemistry here is astonishing, but Bogie tells her he knows when he’s being “sugared off”. She storms out, and he’s left tugging his ear.

Once he’s finished tugging (not like that, get your mind out of the gutter), he heads to Eddie Mars’ casino/club, where Vivian’s entertaining the room by singing a cheery, upbeat song about domestic abuse. Lovely.

He quizzes Mars about Sean Regan (remember him?!), who it turns out ran off with Mrs Mars. Mars sort of takes the questioning in good faith, but makes it clear Marlowe should probably leave it there. He does, and heads out into the casino where Vivian is playing roulette and winning… big.

She’s already $14,000 up, and fighting to play on. Mars agrees to extend her credit, and she doubles her money. As she’s cashing her chips, Marlowe runs out to his car and activates a cool little flick down panel with two handguns attached – couple of decades later, 007’s itching for one of these great little arsenals hidden in his Aston Martin.

As Bacall strolls out to her vehicle, Bogart gets the jump on the villain Mars has sent to rob her, bundles her into his car and they drive off. He makes it clear he still doesn’t trust her, kisses her, then grills her some more and makes it clear he doesn’t believe there’s $28,000 in the bag.

At this point, I’ve lost track of where they’re going and why, but next thing, Marlowe’s back at his office where Geiger’s shopgirl is waiting. He kicks her out, and the cops phone to tell him to steer clear of the Sternwood case.

I’m sure that’ll happen.

Instead, he heads to his Homicide mate and lays out the crumbs he’s found so far. His buddy explains the District Attorney wants him off the case, but he trusts him to follow his hunch.

Honestly, this all flies by a lot faster on film – you should watch it, but until you do, I’m gonna use a few bullet points to speed things up…

  • Bacall tells Bogart she’s found Regan and is going on a trip. He’s suspicious.
  • Bogart gets clobbered by a couple of Mars’ goons in an alleyway and told to lay off the case.
  • He’s helped up by Harry Jones – a brand new character (FFS), who’s apparently been following him for a while.
  • Jones is in love with Geiger’s shopgirl (turns out her name is Agnes), and offers information on the whereabouts of Mrs Mars for $200.
  • When Marlowe turns up at Jones’ office, he finds him being threatened by Camino – Eddie Mars’ goon – who forces an address out of him before making him drink poison, killing him instantly.
  • Marlowe works out Jones gave Camino a false address just as Agnes calls the office, discovers her fella is dead, and says she’ll still give him the info for the money.
  • Marlowe meets her and she gives him the info (which the music suggests is very important), then buggers off out of the film.

Marlowe goes to the address Agnes gave him, lets down a tyre on his car then bangs on a barn door to ask for help, whereupon he discovers Carol and assorted goons, who knock him out.

He wakes up bound next to Mrs Mars and Bacall who berates him for sticking with the case… what is the case now? I’m really not sure. Either way, he’s got a big bruise on his jaw where he was socked by a roll of quarters, but he’s still able to piss Mrs Mars off enough to leave, and to convince Bacall to fetch a knife and cut him free.

Bogart was just that charming.

Using Bacall as a distraction, a handcuffed Bogart runs out to his car and uses his cool little flip-down arsenal to grab a fresh gun. He scares off one goon, then hides as Camino leads Bacall out at gunpoint. She distracts the baddie, Bogart kills him, and they drive off, having pointed conversations and realising they’re in love with each other.

Back at Geiger’s house (AGAIN), Bogart phones Eddie Mars (who owns the house), and tells him to come and have it out with them. While they wait for him to arrive, there’s a nice moment when Marlowe’s struggling to load his gun as he’s shaking. He admits to Bacall that he’s scared, which for a manly character in 1946 feels like it’s pretty progressive.

When Mars arrives, Marlowe gives more exposition and says he knows the goons waiting outside will murder the first man to leave through the door, so he acts crazy, shouting and shooting at Mars and forcing him to head out the door and get cut down by machine gun fire.

Marlowe phones his mate on Homicide and tells him what’s happened, and he’s left for one last bit of post-exposition banter/flirting with Bacall…

Vivian: “You forgot one thing. Me.”

Marlowe: “What’s wrong with you?”

Vivian: “Nothing you can’t fix.”

Sirens. Cigarettes. THE END.

Thoughts on the film

Man, that’s a whirlwind of a film. Bogart and Bacall really make this, but it’s a classy affair throughout. If you had to pick one film to be the example of Classic Hollywood, you could do a lot worse than this.

While something like Man With The Screaming Brain was a lot of movie with not enough budget, The Big Sleep is a lot of movie with just the right amount.

Alright, so it doesn’t make a lick of sense in places. There’s been plenty written about it, but the best-known story is that during shooting, nobody knew who killed the chauffeur. The filmmakers even sent a cable to the novel’s author Raymond Chandler who said he was clueless too, and studio head Jack Warner kicked off about the 50-cent cost of that fruitless research.

Logic be damned though, it’s cool, exciting and racy, and features true Hollywood icons at the height of their power. Outstanding.

The Verdict

Brilliant, if baffling. Possibly a little too much plot for one film to handle. I know there was another version made in the late seventies, and the pre-reshoot version (made in 1945), is also available. I’d like to see them both, out of curiosity if nothing else.

Perhaps they’ll make future Late Reviews, but in the meantime, consider this version highly recommended.

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