Talking Pictures

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The Big Sleep, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on December 30, 2014

Marlowe with Vivian.

Marlowe with Vivian.

A reel treat at the end of the year was the screening of this classic film at the Hyde Park Picture House in an excellent 35mm print.

The film is classic in a number of ways. It is a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose silhouettes grace the background as the credits unroll. Apparently after the success of To Have and Have Not (Warner Bros. 1945) commissioned Howard Hawks to develop a follow-up, (this film also includes Bacall singing). It certainly seems that the box office success was very much down to audience’s delight in this new onscreen romantic couple. Some of the best moments in the film are the scenes between the couple. One, added late in the production to increase the star attraction, is a delightful conversation involving the risqué use of horse racing metaphors. And there is a two-handed telephone conversation between Marlowe (Bogart), Vivian (Bacall) and at the other end of the telephone a bemused police officer. If the lead couple are good, so are the supporting cast. Elisha Cook Jr. has one of his greatest and glummest screen characters in Harry Brown. And Sonia Darrin is the suitably hard-bitten Agnes. Even more memorable is Dorothy Malone as a Bookshop girl: there is superb moment as she takes off her spectacles and shakes out her hair.

Then this is a Howard Hawks’s movie; [Michael Walker has an interesting discussion of this aspect in The Movie Book of Film Noir, Studio Vista 1992). The professionalism central to Hawk’s films is here, even if the male camaraderie is downplayed. And Bacall beautifully projects the androgynous quality that often hangs about his heroines. The film’s production is well served in the cinematography by Sidney Hickcox, editing by Christian Nyby and Production Design by Robert B. Lee. The music by Max Steiner, as with the male lead, also recalls Casablanca (1942).

The complications of the novel by Raymond Chandler and this film version (scripted by William Faulkner, Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman) are legendary. However, I reckon that one can follow it with attention and despite possibly apocryphal stories, all the murderers are identified. This is Chandler at his best – the book is a gripping read and a BBC radio 4 adaptation last year was also excellent.

The big question mark is whether to place the film in the private eye or the film noir genres. Certainly Bogart is a seeker hero and he encounters a world of chaos and criminality. The film also has light and shadow but not with the intensity of, say, another Chandler Adaptation Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (1944). And Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) lacks the malevolence of the really great noir villains. This was one of the films I discussed with students on ‘the World of Noir Course’ The consensus was that the film lacked a sharply defined femme fatale. The contenders would seem to be the two Sternwood sisters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian. No serious femme fatale would suck her thumb in the manner that Carmen does. And Vivian ends up saving the seeker hero.

But then many great films defy easy categorization. What the film does offer is an absorbing and entertaining 114 minutes. The audience at this screening certainly enjoyed the film.


One Response to “The Big Sleep, USA 1946.”

  1. Entertaining indeed. Agree with the chemistry between Bogie and Malone in the bookstore.

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