For the month of
November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir. The American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. Next up this month is a Bogie and Bacall classic, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep is a difficult film to watch, or at least it is for me. This is my third time seeing it, and on the first two watches I was convinced it earned its name because I would also be confused and sleepy by the end of the film. Watching it in this context, perhaps because I already had two viewings under my belt, I got quite a bit more out of it this time.
Private Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to extract his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) from a blackmailing scheme. Marlowe takes the case and also takes a liking to the old man. On his way out, the General’s older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall) tries to find out why her father hired Marlowe, believing that it’s to find Sean Regan, a previous employee of the General’s who has gone missing. Nothing is as it seems as Marlowe gets drawn into the continuing misadventures of the Sternwood family and more and more bodies begin to pile up.
The most famous thing about The Big Sleep, besides the legendary pairing of Bogie and Bacall, is the convoluted plot. While film noir is often known for action, chases and shootings, it’s important to remember that this is often not the case at all. I feel as if noir, especially earlier noir, is actually pretty talky. Despite all the talking in The Big Sleep, the plot is still really hard to keep track of. I feel as if Bogie has just explained it all yet I’ve not understood a word. This doesn’t so much put the viewer in a constant state of confusion as much as exhaustion; it’s hard to care about the answer to the mystery when you don’t even understand the question.
That doesn’t mean the film is a failure, though I suppose if you are talking purely about the plot you’d have an argument. In terms of attitude and style, the film still works wonderfully. This is sort of an interesting film to follow The Big Heat with, because even though The Big Sleep is made earlier it shows a bit more of the typical noir style. LA becomes very foggy during the night scenes at the end of the film, adding a bit of the smoke you’re more likely to see in film noir. Things seem to be more high contrast over all, though that’s more of an impression than something I can actually quantify. On the noir scale of visual style, The Big Sleep is still pretty tame, but I really liked it anyway.
And let us not forget, this is not just a film noir but also a Howard Hawks film. If you can follow the fast-paced dialogue, it is actually pretty humorous in some parts. I loved how the various characters kept having to explain that they were threatening people (which fits right in with how confusing the overall plot is, I guess). Bogie and Bacall have some great flirty dialogue between them, naturally. I mostly think of Hawks’ films being more story and performance-centric than visual extravagances, so it fits in well in that respect.
The film really does have some great supporting players. Strangely, one of the most memorable scenes from the movie for me has always been the one with the Acme Bookstore girl in the beginning (played by Dorothy Malone), in which she closes up shop early to give Bogie some information about the shop across the way. Elisha Cooke Jr., everybody’s favorite sap, also makes a tragic appearance later in the film. Martha Vickers as Carmen is also a very memorable presence in the film, despite not really doing much story-wise.
It seems to me that The Big Sleep is one of those films that needs a lot of reconsideration to appreciate it, at least for me. Each time I seem to be getting closer to calling it masterpiece, though the dense and convoluted plotting still makes it a bit of a struggle to get through. It’s interesting to think about it in comparison to a neonoir with a similarly convoluted plot, Inherent Vice, which for better or worse was more initially involving to me. Maybe it’s just a difference in time periods, but somehow I have to think if there was a little less emphasis on the near incomprehensible plot in The Big Sleep I might have been able to latch onto it a bit more. But maybe that’s my problem and not the film’s.
“So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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