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Howard Hawks, USA, 1946, 118 minutes
1940s Hollywood produced a plethora of stylish, film noir thrillers but, in your humble narrator’s opinion at least, none beat 'The Big Sleep' for overall coolness and entertainment value. The film is based on Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and features his hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), who becomes caught up in the affairs of aging millionaire General Sternwood and his two beautiful daughters. Hired to investigate who is blackmailing Sternwood’s younger daughter Carmen over unresolved gambling debts, Marlowe swiftly realises (as do we) that the whole situation is much more complex than he initially thought.
In terms of plot, this film definitely could make a claim for being one of the most convoluted and bewildering ever written. However we soon realise that the actual storyline is of supreme unimportance. There are lots of deaths, an exciting shoot-out and something about drug addiction and (less overtly!) a pornography racket. But what the film really focuses on is the smouldering chemistry between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood (a wonderful Lauren Bacall) who is Carmen’s older sister. The innuendo-ridden, wise-cracking dialogue between them works a treat. As the central character, Bogart plays his world weary private eye persona to wryly sardonic, whiskey-drenched perfection. Add a brooding soundtrack by Hollywood legend Max Steiner and unexpected bursts of humour (the number of women throwing themselves at Bogie throughout the film eventually becomes a bit much!) and you have a fabulously escapist, seductively sleazy tale. Go see.
Review by Flippanta Kulakiewicz
Written for EUFS Programme Autumn 2007
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by the ageing General Sternwood to sort out some "problems" his daughters have been experiencing. From then on things get complicated as Marlowe unravels the web of intrigue surrounding them, all the while drawn towards the elder daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall).
The plot is famously incomprehensible, but in the glorious manner of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - the progression from scene to scene is plausible enough, but when you try to put it all together it doesn't seem nearly so logical. This was a radical departure from previous Hollywood and noir practice, and is at the heart of the film's greatness. Without a plot we need something else to keep us interested and what we are given is Marlowe and Vivian.
Marlowe is the ultimate hard-boiled detective - honourable, down at heel with a jaundiced view of the world and a ready wit. Famously, he appears unable to go anywhere without some attractive young lady engaging him in innuendo-ladened banter (incidentally, we might note that many of these scenes were added by Hawks, a notorious womaniser). Contrasted with the rest of the characters, most of whom are the classic flawed noir people, he appears superhuman. He only meets his match in Vivian, who (unlike in the original novel) seems the only other character not compromised by the double-crossing and is more than able to match his presence and wit. Of course, there is chemistry between Bacall and Bogart - they had been a real life couple since co-starring in Hawks' To Have and Have Not - and Hawks makes the most of this. It is their romance which holds the movie together through all the twists and turns of the plot. We're never really worried about who shot who and who betrayed who, it's what happens between Marlowe and Vivian that concerns us.
The movie was not intended to be quite like this. The jettisoning of plot was only done when test audiences found a scene which explained what was going on dull. It was abandoned in favour of additional dialogue between Bogart and Bacall, including the iconic "horses" scene. The result is something that isn't quite a great noir (it's far too romantic for that) but a hugely enjoyable piece of escapism, the noir trappings of which are there simply as emphasis and perhaps to help us believe in the dream. One of cinema's classics.
Review by Mark Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme Autumn 1999
It is impossible to think of a contemporary equivalent of Howard Hawks. There is no-one today who has tried their hand at so many different genres with such uniformity of success. Hawks' versatility knew no bounds. He made some of the best Westerns of all time (El Dorado, Rio Bravo), he made period dramas (Land of the Pharaohs), he made war movies (Air Force) he invented screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business), he even did Hollywood movies (Twentieth Century) and of course, he did noir.
The Big Sleep is widely recognised as the seminal example of film noir. It is an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, so that's about as good a start as you could hope for. Its central character is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-talking private dick played by Humphrey Bogart, so no complaints there, either. He gets involved, courtesy of a smouldering dame (Lauren Bacall), with an extremely complex, at times incomprehensible (as Hawks freely admits), plot which leads to six deaths, several brutal beatings, a potentially fatal quantity of cigarette smoke, and all the other elements of a good thriller we now take for granted. Specifically, sex.
It is frankly unfeasible, the number of times the weary, cynical Bogart is propositioned by a member of the opposite sex. The poor fellow can't even ride in a taxi or (famously) buy himself a book without some sensuous nymphomaniac looking deep into his eyes (or at one point literally falling into his arms) and indulging in some innuendo-laden banter that would not look out of place on the pages of Viz.
While parts of the film seem laughably un-P.C. by today's standards (and what fun would a politically correct private eye be, by the way?), it is blessed with the most delightfully quotable script of all time. Whenever anyone impersonates a drawling, gin-soaked private eye, it is this film they are doing. They saw it here first. A steamy, sleazy tale told by a master. They don't come any better than this.
"Why reissue Hawks' 1946 Chandler adaptation in a new print when it has been shown so often on the box? Quite simply, because it's great." - Time Out
Review by Ben Stephens
Taken from EUFS Programme 1996-97