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The Big Sleep (1946)

June 27th, 2006 · No Comments

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Humphrey Bogart stars as Philip Marlowe, the iconic dirty shamus in L.A. created by Raymond Chandler. As the film’s famous baffling plot unfolds, Marlowe pays a visit to the home of an ailing millionaire, who hires him to look in to the gambling debts of his wild daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers).

As he’s leaving, Marlowe is summoned to the bedroom of Carmen’s sister, Vivian, played by the smoldering Lauren Bacall. Vivian believes her father wants Marlowe to find a family employee who disappeared suddenly, and tries to shake information out of the private dick. Much wicked banter ensues:

Vivian: “I don’t like your manners.” Marlowe: “And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me, drinking your lunch out of a bottle, but don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

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Marlowe’s investigation leads him to an antique bookstore operating as a front, a dead body, a doped out Carmen being blackmailed with missing photographs, a Packard driven off the Lido pier, a gambling den, blackmailers, women from all walks of life coming on to the P.I., and of course, Vivian, who Marlowe is attracted to, despite suspicion that she is keeping secrets from him.

You may need a scorecard to figure out who shot who, and why, but it doesn’t matter. Directed with snap, crackle and pop by Howard Hawks and adapted by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, The Big Sleep is a highly entertaining dose of Hollywood’s Golden Age packed with lurid violence, sex posing as double entendre, sleazy low lifes and drop dead gorgeous dames.

Unlike a lot of pulp fiction, which actually cares about solving some whodunit, Raymond Chandler is more interested in creating a world for Philip Marlowe to navigate, commenting on the moral corruption of society along the way. This is a world where wealth can buy innocence, where glamorous exteriors typically mask dark secrets, and everyone has an angle to play.

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As in Chandler’s best novels, the dialogue in the movie cuts glass. There’s Bogart commenting to the millionaire’s butler that he just met Carmen, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” The sexual chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, who were married by the time the picture was released and are perfectly cast, is low down dirty. The movie is worth a rental for their verbal sparring matches alone.

While Bogart may not have been the most handsome leading man of the period, women in Chandler’s L.A. find something appealing in rain dog Philip Marlowe, throwing themselves at him at every opportunity. There’s a cabbie (Joy Barlow) who comes on to him:

Taxi Driver: If you can use me again sometime, call this number.
Marlowe: Day and night?
Taxi Driver: Uh, night’s better. I work during the day.

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In addition, to cab drivers and socialites, cigarette girls find Marlowe irresistible, and so does a bookstore clerk played memorably by Dorothy Malone, who gives Marlowe some help on antique books, and turns the CLOSED sign on the shop around to share a sip of bourbon with him.

There is a memorable gallery of riff-raff in the movie, from a suave gambler played by John Ridgely, to the deranged-looking hood Lash Camino, played by Bob Steele. Bogart gets his ass whipped twice, but presses on with the case nonetheless, solidifying Philip Marlowe as a character who refuses to let go of the truth, no matter how bad it jacks him up.

Howard Hawks, the director of legendary versatility, plies his famous dictum of what makes a movie good – “Three good scenes, no bad ones” – at least two or three times over here. The vivid orchestral score was composed by Max Steiner, the anointed “father of film music” who was nominated for 26 Academy Awards in his career, including Gone With The Wind and Casablanca.

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Tags: Drunk scene · Golden Age of Hollywood

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