Our Double Bogie continues with The Big Sleep, adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel in which private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) gets mixed up in the affairs of the wealthy Sternwood family.
Howard Hawks’ 1946 noir is notoriously nonsensical, not helped by reshoots that bumped up the romance and bumped off the plot coherence. This was to capitalise on the real-life relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who got married between principal photography and the movie’s release, which was delayed until after the war (Warner Bros. needed to release all its war pictures first). At one point Hawks had to ask Chandler to reveal the killer’s identity, to which the writer replied: “How should I know? You figure it out.”
Fortunately those story details are less important than the romance and ambience of The Big Sleep, a film to relish rather than follow. It scores big on atmosphere alone, a steamy, sultry and sometimes soaking scenario shot in black shadow to reflect the shady narrative, echoed in Max Steiner’s swooning, suspenseful score. Where 1941’s The Maltese Falcon only gets more flippant as it unfolds, Hawks’ movie grows in darkness and intrigue, giving Bogart more shades in which to play. Marlowe brings out his best, revealing elusive layers beneath the actor’s hardboiled, chain-smoking surface.
Bacall’s smoky, vampy femme fatale is the only woman who doesn’t turn to putty beneath Marlowe’s gumshoes, making them perfect verbal sparring partners, sparks flying in every suggestive cigarette-à-tête. Their off-the-charts chemistry is underpinned by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman’s innuendo-laden dialogue (a necessity of Hays Code censorship) that sees the characters dance skilfully around their true intentions, never saying exactly what they mean.
The Big Sleep shows that you don’t need Bond-level stakes or watertight storylines to weave cinematic magic. Each revelation gives way to 10 more mysteries, and it is that hazy quality which makes this the ultimate film noir (and would attract Robert Altman to the character in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, also penned by Brackett). Raunchy, romantic and enthralling, this is one Bogart joint worth savouring.