****/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C
starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran
screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway
directed by Howard Hawks
THE BIG SLEEP
****/**** Image B Sound B Extras C+
starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone
screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
directed by Howard Hawks
Slim: You said 'go ahead,' didn't ya?
Steve: Oh yeah, that's right, I--I guess I did. You were pretty good at it too.
Slim: Thanks! Would you rather I wouldn't?
Steve: Wouldn't what?
Slim: Do things like that.
Steve: Why ask me?
Slim: I'd like to know.
Steve: Well, of all the screwy...
Slim: All right, all right, I won't do it anymore.
Steve: Look, I didn't ask you...
Slim: I know you didn't. Don't worry. I'm not giving up anything I care about. It's like shooting fish in a barrel anyway--men like that. They're all a bunch of... I'm a fine one to talk. The pot calling the kettle.
Embedded in their interplay, extratextually, is the dying of Bogie's relationship with his wife and the budding of his lifelong romance with Bacall. Intertextually, there's the weariness of a country at war and the cynicism that comes with a collective cultural deflowering and the constant reminder that the natural state of man is fallen. Bogie's cast here and in The Big Sleep as an extension of the same noir hero archetype he helped forge with The Maltese Falcon--the last moral man in a flattened, blasted wasteland. Chivalric codes are recast in kingdoms sick with war, told in a thick, courtly language and heraldic verse that reads like a secret among old friends or lovers. It's Hawks; it's Faulkner, too.
No wonder Hawks never really dates, because Hawks, in essence, works best as a channel for masculine cycles. (Small wonder, too, that this Steve character seems to be the primary source for the Han Solo character in another cycle mired in archetype: rapscallion mercenary reluctant to war. The picture even casts light on the genesis of shooting Greedo through a table.) When Steve decides correctly late in the game--not necessarily on the side of right, but on the side against wrong--To Have and Have Not subverts the high tragic ending of Casablanca, the putting of the girl on the plane for the good of God and country and all that, with Steve discovering his Slim back at the piano with this film's "Sam." The reward for the right thing in Hawks is a restructuring of civilization around a notion of grails that can be won.
Cricket: Hey Slim. Are you still happy?
Slim: What do you think?
The first fifteen minutes of The Big Sleep are magical--it's tempting to get lost in the text, only slightly revised from Raymond Chandler. The dialogue in this section of the novel reads almost verbatim like it does in Faulkner's script (Faulkner was one of three credited writers alongside legendary Leigh Brackett (later, apropos, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back) and again the prolific Furthman, who had a hand in at least one other masterpiece besides To Have and Have Not, Nightmare Alley)--save when crippled General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), briefing private dick Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in his hothouse, compares the smell of orchids to the "rotten sweetness of a prostitute." In the film, it's the "sweet smell of corruption," a substitution one naturally attributes to the Hays Code. Like so many Catholic-inspired feints and misdirections, however, the General's equation of orchids with the flesh of men and the stench of corpses somehow makes the picture naughtier, more quintessentially noir in its all its nihilistic, debauched glory. When the Coen Brothers remade the film as The Big Lebowski, it's no accident that they portrayed the antagonists as a band of German "nihilists": that's the heart of the genre, isn't it, the fall of society and the emergence of paladins, sprouting like white mushrooms on putrid meat, beholden only to their own ironclad idea of gallantry?
As for the rest of it, there's been a lot of trimming. Chandler's a legend and everything, but his prose reads clunky now, stylized for the sake of stylization--enough so that his introduction of fatale bimbo Carmen (Martha Vickers) reads like bad burlesque instead of, as it does in the film, alive with Hawks's jazzy spontaneity. Like most Hawks pictures, too, The Big Sleep has had a creation mythology spring up around it with a sticky half-life. This one has to do with the mysteriously neglected murder of a chauffeur character that, as legend (a legend perpetuated by raconteur Hawks) would have it, no one bothered to question until it came time to shoot the picture. The various writers consulted and a wire was fired off to Chandler, who confessed to having no idea. Probably untrue (Rosenbaum's more or less definitive review of the picture asserts that the original script actually contains a solution to the mystery), the stickiness of that story has a lot to do with that the only way to read The Big Sleep, i.e., as an exercise in style--the manifestation of Chandler's stylization, perhaps, literalized for the screen in a series of barely connected bursts of posturing and genre-primogenesis.
It's a favourite argument against narrative, and though the picture has a solution that makes a reasonable amount of sense, the real pleasure of the text comes in moments where Marlowe looks through a statue's head, hollowed out to receive a camera. It's insanely rich with detail, with rainstorms and crazed post-production inserts that saw Hawks and crew shooting and inserting expanded Bogie/Bacall scenes a year after the end of production. It lends the film a kitchen-sink feel, kids in the backyard with dad's 8mm, playing at heat and, lo, sparking. The chemistry between squat Bogie and lanky Bacall (Carmen's sensible sis, Vivian) is again palpable--and after Bacall's career took a header following To Have and Have Not, it's inevitable that the shelved The Big Sleep (shelved because with WWII drawing to a close, the studio wanted desperately to dump its propaganda pics before the market died) would be the vehicle for a Bacall comeback. As it happens, the new Bogie and Bacall material came from the pen of neither Faulkner nor Furthman, but an uncredited Philip G. Epstein (one of the writers on Casablanca, as it happens); The Big Sleep isn't an authorless text at all: it's a Hawks film through and through--something not exactly improvisational because it's guided by an unerring ear for interpersonal heat. Take a listen and consider that only a little of it is due the words:
Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.
More carnal than even To Have and Have Not, the picture is about nothing so esoteric as world politics--boiled down as they must be in Hawks to tribes of monkeys doing monkey things, albeit things related to the perforation of the flesh: murder and blood and sweat and sex.
Prior to the reshoots, Bogie and Bacall made their flirtation official, and that chemistry evidenced in their first encounter was elevated from hush-hush rags into royalty--but chemistry, white-hot, still, the first viable offspring of their union, Bacall's career post-bellum. The Big Sleep is dirty: it's virtually propelled by this promise of hedonism and smut, from its suggestions of porn, homosexuality, and anonymous afternoon quickies to its resolutions in downpours in the dark of night. It's a movie about pursuit and, a lot like To Have and Have Not, it's a pursuit with a possible resolution. But increasingly in Hawks, the pursuit is broken up into pieces that, by themselves, don't appear to have resolutions. Mirror shards, each reflecting a bit of that proverbial elephant fondled by that proverbial gaggle of blind men--each of them is onto something. Hawks predicts the paranoia pictures of the 1970s, when hard-boiled became the pursuit of nothing (Hawks is also the personification of literary Modernism--he, not Welles, should've adapted Heart of Darkness); and he predicts the French New Wave, of course, insomuch as the French New Wave modeled itself after Hawks to a huge extent. Though waxing rhapsodic about these two films and Hawks takes no great skill, of the classics I admire, these are among the few I adore. It has nothing to do with scholarship, but a lot to do with this rumble in my gut and tingle in my groin.
The keepcase releases of both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep unfortunately differ from their snapper counterparts in no other respect. To Have and Have Not, in particular, suffers from negative elements that have fallen into disrepair. Grain mars many a nighttime scene and there are a few noticeable scratches here and again; I don't want it so bright as to destroy the air of Jacques Tourneur island mustiness, but I wish I could leave a light on while watching it. Or do I? The attendant Dolby 1.0 audio is fine. "A Love Story: The Story of To Have and Have Not" (11 mins.) recalls the apocryphal tale of Hawks offering to Hemingway that he make a film of his worst novel. ("Which one is that?" "That pile of garbage To Have and Have Not.") It also recounts the early days of Bogie/Bacall's romance and the rift their affair caused between the pair and Hawks, who apparently had designs on Bacall himself. That tension, that ugliness--I'm speculating here--infuses The Big Sleep with a good portion of its brusque rancour. Next, 1946's Bacall to Arms (6 mins.) is an irredeemable Looney Tune directed by an uncredited Bob Clampett that locates Bacall as possibly one inspiration for Jessica Rabbit. Aping Tex Avery (once a prince in the WB stable, working for MGM by the time of this short), the cartoon depicts a very Avery-like wolf tearing down a theatre where a take-off of To Have and Have Not is playing. (Magnifying the offense, Daffy Duck, an Avery creation, has a cameo.) Ending with "Bogey Gocart" in blackface, it truly leaves no stone unturned. The radio-equivalent of the contemporary B-roll promo doc, a Lux Radio short from October of 1946 joins To Have and Have Not's theatrical trailer (which is sharper than the feature proper) in rounding out the presentation.
The fullscreen transfer of The Big Sleep is generally good but, again, not crystalline, though the grain that afflicts the earlier picture is blissfully absent. Shadow detail is strong--important given that The Big Sleep is oneiric--and while the brightness seems uneven, it's not enough to be terribly distracting. The DD 1.0 audio is just fine. The flipper houses the 1945 and 1946 versions of the picture on opposite sides, the former exclusively released overseas for our boys at war, the latter seen by audiences stateside. A nice little documentary comparing the two incarnations (15 mins.), presided over by UCLA film preservationist Robert Gitt, annotates every minute elided (all 18 of 'em) and every minute inserted (all 16 of 'em). Production notes cap the too-sparse presentation. Perhaps a special edition is in order? If so, ask Rosenbaum to do the commentary. Originally published: July 9, 2007.