Just Ignore That Discombobulated Plot
Many fans of this classic film are drawn to it because of Bogie and Bacall, who do indeed make a deft acting duo. Here, Bogie plays Philip Marlowe, the tough talking, street savvy PI, who has his roots in the crime novels of writer Raymond Chandler. Bacall plays Vivian Sternwood, the adult daughter of a wealthy man. Vivian is just as tough and cagey as Marlowe. And she has a younger sister named Carmen, who seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. It’s up to Marlowe to investigate, and to save the Sternwood family from financial ruin. “The Big Sleep” is a story of blackmail, murder, multiple motives, lies, and all manner of general mayhem.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are certainly persuasive in their roles. I also like the script’s snappy dialogue. For example, in a conversation with General Sternwood, Marlowe responds: “Hmm”. Sternwood follows up: “What does that mean?” To which Marlowe fires back: “It means, hmm”. Marvelous.
But the film’s plot is an incoherent mess. It is hard to follow, disjointed, and has obvious lapses. Further, secondary characters (Geiger, Brody, Mars, et.al.), and their interrelationships, are poorly defined. To some extent that vagueness and lack of precision are fairly common in 1940’s pulp detective stories.
The best approach to “The Big Sleep” is to engulf the relationship between Marlowe and Vivian, marvel at the acting of Bogie and Bacall, enjoy the witty dialogue, and ignore the discombobulated plot.
Classic private eye tale with Bogart and Bacall in fine form
Author: Dennis Littrell from United States
12 December 2001
This classic of American cinema, actually made during the war and released in 1946, got a whole nation of young men affecting Bogey mannerisms, raising their eyebrows or showing their teeth while grimacing, and especially pulling on their earlobes while deep in thought, a smoking cigarette dangling between their lips. It was the genius of Howard Hawks, who directed, to do everything possible to make Humphrey Bogart a matinée idol, including having Lauren Bacall slump down in the car seat so as not to tower over him. With this movie a new kind of cinematic hero was created, the existential PI, a seemingly ordinary looking guy gifted with street smarts and easy courage, admired by men, and adored by women.
Hawks fashioned this, part of the Bogart legend, with a noire script penned by William Faulkner, et al., adapted from Raymond Chandler’s first novel, that sparkled with spiffy lines, intriguing characters, danger and a not entirely serious attention to plot detail. Hawks surrounded Bogey with admiring dames, beginning with the sexy Martha Vickers who tries to jump into his lap while he’s still standing (as Marlowe tells General Sternwood), and ending with the incomparable Lauren Bacall, looking beguiling, beautiful and mysteriously seductive. In fact, every female in the cast wants to get her hands on Bogey, including a quick and easy Dorothy Malone, bored in her specs while clerking at a book store. Hawks also employed some very fine character actors, most notably Elisa Cook Jr., and Bob Steele, the former as always, the little guy crook, (Harry Jones), and the latter, as often seen in westerns, the mindless heavy with a gun (Canino). Charles Waldron played the world-weary general and Charles D. Brown was the butler.
I was reminded somehow of the old Charlie Chan movies with the dark, mysterious, ornately-decorated interiors heavily carpeted and studded with ethnic statuettes, especially the house on Laverne Terrace that Bogey keeps coming back to, and the glass-paned doors and glass-separated cubicals of his office and others. The atmospheric L.A. created here has been much admired and imitated, cf., Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), two very superior movies that continued the tradition.
In comparing this to the book, I have to say it’s a little on the white-washed side, and not as clearly drawn–‘confused’ some have said. Of course liberties were taken with Chandler’s novel to make it romantic. Chandler’s novel emphasizes cynicism, and romance takes a back seat to manliness and loyalty to the client.
An especially striking difference is in the character of General Sternwood’s younger daughter, Carmen. She is vividly drawn in the book as something of monster, a degenerate sex kitten who would try and do just about anything. She is twice encountered butt naked by Marlowe, once in his bed. Being the sterling guy he is, he turns her away. (Right. I could do that.) Another difference is in all the sleazy details about the low-life underworld of Los Angeles that are omitted or glossed over in the film, including Geiger’s homosexuality and his gay house guest, Carol Lundgren. (Of course there was a code in those days.) Bacall’s character in the movie is actually a fusion of Vivian and Mona Mars from the book, made nice for movie fans. In the book, Marlowe kisses Vivian, but turns down her invitation for more intimate contact. In the movie, of course, there is no way Bogart is going to say ‘no’ to Bacall. In the book Marlowe seems to prefer whiskey to women.
Most of the sharp dialogue comes right from Chandler’s novel, including Bogart’s grinning line, ‘Such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains.’ Interesting is the little joke on Bogart in the opening scene. In the novel, Chandler’s hero is greeted by the purring Carmen with the words, ‘Tall, aren’t you?’ Well, the one thing Bogey ain’t is tall, and so in the movie Carmen says, ‘You’re not very tall, are you?’ Bogart comes back with, ‘I try to be.’ In the novel, Marlowe says, ‘I didn’t mean to be.’
By the way, the film features Bacall singing a forties tune and looking mighty good doing it.
Complex plot, but well written and well scripted with tough dialogue and great characters
Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
2 May 2004
Philip Marlowe is a private detective who is hired by General Sternwood to investigate a case of blackmail involving his youngest daughters’ gambling debts. The General has lost his right hand man, Shaun Regan, and needs a man able to do the job. Marlowe investigates the blackmailer, Geiger and tails him to a house. When he hears shots he rushes in to find Geiger dead and Carmen strung out of her head. With Geiger dead, Marlowe follows the trail to Joe Brody, who also gets rubbed out, and then to Eddie Mars, who’s wife is rumoured to have run off with Regan. As he digs deeper Marlowe finds only corruption and deceit but also starts to fall for the General’s eldest daughter, Vivian Rutledge.
Despite the fact that this film is overly complicated at times, it still stands out as a classic bit of noir, even if aspects other than the plot are what really makes it as good as it is. The plot starts simply but quickly becomes a much more complex beast that moves beyond the issue of blackmail and into murder and lies. For many viewers, this will be a challenge – so many characters come and go in a short period that it is hard to keep track of how they all relate to each other, and the fact that we’re not always supposed to know the connections just makes it more difficult at times. However, if you manage to make it past the midpoint of the film without having totally lost track of people then it becomes clearer towards the end. It may sound silly, but this time I watched the film with a pen and paper to help me keep track of who’s who – it really helped; but it is worth noting that, even with help, bits of the plot will make little sense at times.
The focus of the film is not the plot – the focus of the film I think is the relationship dynamic between Marlowe and Vivian. In this regard the film really works well. The relationship between is tough but trusting no matter what; at times it is a little hard to see the affection between the two being real or realistic but it is the dialogue between the two that makes it work despite this. The writing is fantastic, the scenes between them do fizzle but the dialogue across the whole film is perfect: it is tough, memorable and basically it is the way I’m sure we all wish we could talk at some point in our lives! The material is also quite daring for the period – murder and tough talk was not unusual but the issues of drugs and nymphomania are hardly common subjects for such a mainstream film at the time.
The performances are fantastic and perfectly fit the material. Although this is not my favourite Bogart performance (I love him in Maltese Falcon) he is still brilliant here, he is cool, tough and intelligent – at times his power over women threatens to be unrealistic but his presence makes it work. His character is not as complex as in Maltese Falcon but Bogart does harried and world-weary better than anyone else. Bacall is great even if I don’t personally find her that attractive; she has a great chemistry with Bogart and delivers the goods. Vickers is also good but in a less subtle role. The support cast includes tough turns from Cook, Heydt and Ridgely all of whom convince as tough guys but not to the point where they threaten to eclipse the shining star of Bogart.
Overall this is a classic film despite the fact that the plot is too difficult at times and doesn’t always hang together. The flaws here are covered by a tough script that delivers the goods in terms of both dialogue and characters. The plot is a complex web but the basic energy and relationship dynamics keep the film moving really well through scenes that continue to show their influence in films today. Not a perfect film but a great bit of noir that is likely to be loved by the vast majority of viewers – just keep that pen and paper to hand though!
“My, my, my, such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
Author: classicsoncall from Florida, New York
28 November 2004
Starting out, I must advise that my review here is for the 1945 pre-release version of “The Big Sleep”, which had quite a few scenes redone prior to it’s release to general audiences in October 1946. With filming already completed by Spring of 1945, there were two main reasons for the year and a half delay; first, with World War II underway, Warner Brothers felt compelled to get it’s war related films into theaters while they were still timely.
Secondly, Producer/Director Howard Hawks was convinced he had to re-shoot some scenes involving Lauren Bacall, who was critically panned in her latest film, “Confidential Agent” with Charles Boyer. In the original print, Bacall is presented in a few scenes wearing a distracting veil, and it’s her more glamorous side that the studio needed to capitalize on.
Much has been made of the complexity of the “The Big Sleep”, and deservedly so. On my latest viewing, I took pen in hand to keep track of the characters and situations. That only helped so much. For example, Humprey Bogart’s character, private detective Philip Marlowe is tailing rare book dealer Arthur Gwynne Geiger for his client General Sternwood; Geiger allegedly holds gambling debts involving a few thousand dollars on Sternwood’s daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Following Geiger’s auto to his residence, Marlowe studies his surroundings, and then hears a woman’s scream and gunshots, followed immediately by two cars careening out of the driveway. Entering the house, he discovers the lifeless body of Geiger, and a spaced out Carmen Sternwood. Out of this scenario are offered two, maybe three possibilities. First, General Sternwood’s chauffeur Owen Taylor is implicated, as he had fallen in love with Carmen and wanted to defend her from blackmail. Secondly, a shady Geiger accomplice Joe Brody may have done it, OR may have chased the guilty Taylor from the crime scene either to retrieve some incriminating blackmail film or to remove him as a potential witness. OR, the spaced out Carmen could have killed Geiger herself, and although this wasn’t offered as a possibility in the film, she WAS present, and may have been entirely coherent when the murder was committed.
And this is how the story proceeds. Even more characters are introduced to spin off the original plot, and Marlowe is off investigating the proprietor of a gambling house named Eddie Mars, Brody’s accomplice Agnes Lozier, the salesgirl at the rare bookstore, and Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), a tail on Marlowe who gets rubbed out after setting up a meeting with Agnes that might provide more information to go on.
All of the intrigue aside, it’s the chemistry once again between Bogey and by now, Mrs. Bogey, Lauren Bacall that propels this movie forward. Whether just sizing each other up at the beginning of the film, or as unwilling accomplices and possible lovers by film’s end, it’s the snappy banter and smoldering tension between the two that put the sizzle into this edgy noir thriller.
As if to prove how great an actor Bogart was, this film offers us a glimpse at his incredible range. Of course I’m referring to the bookstore scene in which Bogey portrays a nerdy client seeking information on a non existent rare book. With a mere upturn of his hat’s brim and a cleverly positioned pair of glasses, Bogart completely transforms into an almost unrecognizable comic character who befuddles and infuriates the store’s proprietress. He follows that up with a walk across the street, and a double entendre filled conversation with a disarmingly seductive Dorothy Malone in a scene that could have lingered into X-rated territory if not for the task at hand.
One could go on and on about “The Big Sleep”, and others have, but to appreciate the film’s mystery, darkness and noir complexity you’ll have to view it. But don’t try to solve the case, you won’t want to hurt yourself.