Monday, January 8, 2018

Big Sleep, The (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks


“Bogie and Bacall,” an acting partnership that would be one of 1940s Hollywood’s more famous romantic duos. The on-screen chemistry reunited in the film noir The Big Sleep would lead to the two stars’ marriage to one another, the rescue of Bacall’s career, and the continued success of an icon of the genre. Suffering from a convoluted story and the film having been held from release for a year and a half, the picture would become a classic of the genre and of a real-life Hollywood couple working together on screen.

The Big Sleep is a film noir of a private detective following a case of a wealthy family’s debts, sending him on a trail of blackmail and murder, discovering love along the way. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by the wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldon) to investigate debts in the name of his youngest daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). His eldest daughter, the sharp-tongued Vivian (Lauren Bacall), believes her father has alternate intentions with the hiring Marlowe, sharing information and her disdain for of the private investigator, but their relationship turns into to a form of flirtatious fascination as the case begins to spiral out of control.

The man Carmen is indebted to is murdered and as she is being blackmailed with scandalous pictures of her, leading down a road of further outrageous blackmail and slayings. Vivian is mixed up in the matters used as a pawn to throw off Marlowe by real man blackmailing the Sternwood’s, a gangster named Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Ultimately Marlowe with help from Vivian stop Mars, exonerating Vivian of her connections to the criminals, as the two’s sharp witted relationship begins to flourish into a romance.

The film’s plot is a bit confusing, maneuvering around from plot point to plot point loosely held together, from offshoot to offshoot, and is solved by unimaginable trains of thought and a serious of fortunate events. It is a mash up of mysteries and clich├ęs mixed together to keep the audience guessing at what exactly is going on, for when we think we have the plot pegged it just gets deeper to a convoluted unimaginable depth that ends ups being rather simple and somewhat unfuflfilling. So what makes this movie so well liked in cinema history is the acting? The answer lies in the chemistry of Bacall and Bogart, as well as the layers of film noir goodness that noir aficionados love about the genre rolled in a tight package with marvelous black and white production.

Yes, the plot is confusing, so much so that when the cast and crew were shooting all were questioning plot points for certain parts of the story. When producers approached Raymond Chandler, the author of the original novel, with questions concerning certain plot points, including if one character was murdered or committed suicide, even Chandler didn’t have an answer. With this being it was of only a minor character, the Sternwood’s driver, it is shrugged off and never answered,  being a McGuffin of sorts. The questions of who killed who and why with a slew of supporting characters played by the likes of John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, and Elisha Cook Jr, is what makes the story appealing for audiences. However, what makes it all work are the stars.

Scenes were added for Bacall with fear that Vickers (left) was outplaying her.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were coming off successful adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not where their chemistry on screen radiated so much that they were immediately teamed up once again under the direction of Howard Hawks. Production for The Big Sleep concluded in the first half of 1945 as World War II was coming to an end and Warner Bros. decided they had too many WWII pictures in the pipeline and need to concentrate their efforts to maximize their return by focusing all the studio’s efforts wrapping up these pictures and releasing them as soon as possible, temporarily shelving pictures like The Big Sleep despite being practically finished.

Evidence of The Big Sleep’s production timing is evident in the feature with war time rationing markers on vehicles, and even a female taxi driver, something that was more prominent during the war years in America as men were fighting overseas. The lag in release time would both hinder and help the eventual premiere of the picture. Despite the success of To Have and Have Not and Warner Bros. marketing strategy for then 20 year-old Lauren Bacall, with The Big Sleep put on the back burner, her next picture to release was Confidential Agent starring opposite Charles Boyer which was met with negativity for the actress. Bacall was seen as too stiff and unlikable, lacking all the audiences loved about her from be role opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Warner Bros. was beginning to panic that their investment in Bacall was turning and needed to be saved before she was deemed box office poison. To quickly correct Bacall’ image Warner Bros. could reshape The Big Sleep to help them return on the invest on their young actress.

A major appeal for Lauren Bacall was her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart, whom she was sharing an off-screen romance with despite being 25 years his junior. Early cuts of the picture were shown to audiences of soldiers during the later stages of the war, allowing producers to see where they could improve the film before wide release. Fearing that Bacall was being out overshadowed by the acting of Martha Vickers, who portrays the flirtatious little sister Carmen, Vickers role was trimmed back and new scenes written and shot to accentuate the sharp witted and provocative relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Vivian. The result is a steamy double entendre filled conversations that spice up the chemistry further for the two stars who by the time of the summer 1946 release were already married and one of the industry’s most popular couples.

Much of the book’s original innuendo was edited for purposes of Hollywood’s Production Code. This cut out the gangster connection to a pornography ring which the character of Carmen is being manipulated into throughout the tale. Carmen provocative nature is pared down a bit to be suitable for censors as well, from being a sexual interest in the novel to simply flirtatious troublemaker in the movie. Hints of homosexuality from the novel, which was a major taboo, were left completely out as well as such subject matter was being held out of motion pictures at the time.

The Big Sleep opened in August 1946, a year after the conclusion of World War II to mixed reviews. For the many that found the plot confusing and jumbled there were those that were delighted by the chemistry of Bacall and Bogart with their unique relationship on screen. The film did well enough to make plenty of profit for any picture of its day, but time would make the picture a classic, praised by many, and in some cases considered one best American films of all time. That is open to debate, but there is not debate about the appeal of the couple that would be known as “Bogie-n-Bacall.”

Decades later in the 1990s a copy of the original Howard Hawks cut of the feature, the one screen for US GI’s during World War II, was discovered within film archive of UCLA and with support of wealthy fans of the feature, most notably Playboy editor Hugh Hefner, had the original cut of the cut restored and once again presented to audiences. Reactions to the version are generally mixed when compared to the released version that we know. Many reviewers claim to like the 1946 version for its characters rather than the 1945 more plot-centric version.  The debate between versions make for good conversation among film fans, but in the end the 1946 version remains as the film noir many have come to enjoy so much for all these years.

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