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The Big Sleep (1946)

by on 2011/03/05

Wikipedia describes the plot of The Big Sleep as “convoluted”. I can hardly express the relief — and understatement — of that discovery. No stranger to narrative complexity, I assumed I’d seen the movie before, but it seemed I was wrong on both counts. My notes boil down to adjectives like “complicated” and “confusing” and, by the movie’s end, I feared I’d lost my mind.

Throughout the viewing, I told myself the story was written by Raymond Chandler, the script involved William Faulkner, and the director was Howard Hawks. What did I know, compared to these greats? As it turns out, author and filmmakers alike were confused by their own effort, and so I feel exonerated, braced for a critical drubbing.

Oh dear . . . did I just give away the ending?

Set in California during World War Two, The Big Sleep introduces us to Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca) plays the 38-year-old private investigator. Educated but insubordinate, he’s nonetheless hired by an ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate a blackmail attempt by a man named Geiger.

While gambling debts may play a role, more likely Sternwood is protecting his daughter, Carmen, from exposure as a pornography model. Ominously, Marlowe is not the first person the general has employed. Another daughter, Vivian (Bogart’s real life wife, Lauren Bacall), wants to locate the original investigator.

Almost immediately, the floodgates open, unleashing a torrent of names, suspicious activities, and motives. It’s a web less intricate than entropic.

  • Sean Regan goes missing, possibly killed by Geiger’s thug Carol Lundgren.
  • Regan’s followed by Sternwood’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, who had an interest in Carmen and wanted to protect her from Geiger.
  • After Taylor’s death, the evidence he uncovered was taken by Agnes and Joe Brody, who decide to get in on the blackmail racket.
  • Their low-level scrabbling is overshadowed by Eddie Mars, a mastermind who might have killed Geiger himself, and is pinning the deed on Carmen.
  • Protecting Eddie are a series of flunkies including Sidney, Pete, and Canino.
  • Mars himself has marital issues with Mona, who had an affair with . . . drum roll please . . . Sean Regan.

Throw in additional reshot subplots to capitalize on Bogart and Bacall’s popular chemistry. Add in a cameo from Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby) as Marlowe’s ill-fated shadow. Taken all together, you’ve got the recipe for . . . well, I’m not sure I know quite what.

If The Big Sleep bears rewatching, it’s for necessity, not pleasure. If it had ended halfway through, I would have enjoyed it well enough, and yet it just keeps going and going and going and going. Every time it could reasonably wrap up, it doesn’t. In my book, it’s more hard-boiled mystery than film noir exemplar, and not even an internally consistent one.

Its reputation may be deserved less for conceptual obscurity than visual intent: a focus on hats and overcoats, smoke and silhouettes, shadows and crashing elements. Unfortunately — and this issue might relate to my video print — the images were as hazy with contrast as poor as fog. Night scenes look overly bright, the picture often washed out.

The operative descriptor here is “murky”, in all senses.

I don’t want to imply there was nothing to appreciate. Marlowe’s research scenes were a refreshing change to the fist-first approach of such pulp fiction detectives. He takes notes, visits the library, labours over a desk, and does legwork in disguise. Some of the dialogue was entertaining, particularly the first scene with Waldron, the exchanges with Bacall. and the various flirtations scattered throughout.

On balance, I was glad to see The Big Sleep at last, but not that glad. It’d be too easy to take the obvious shots: The Long Snooze, The Big Yawn, “it put me to sleep”, and so on. Still, there’s a ring of truth to those jokes. Could another viewing make sense of ideas even its creators struggled with? By the time I reached the end, I just didn’t care anymore.

* * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / unrated (United States)

114 minutes (theatrical version)

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