Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Big Sleep (1946)
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The Big Sleep (1946) is one of Raymond Chandler's best hard-boiled detective mysteries transformed into a film noir, private detective film classic. This successful adaptation of Chandler's 1939 novel was from his first Philip Marlowe novel. [Chandler took segments of two of his own, previously-published stories that appeared in Black Mask magazine: "Killer in the Rain," and "The Curtain."] It was directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, scripted by Nobel laureate William Faulkner (with additional assistance from Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman), and scored by composer Max Steiner.

The Big Sleep is the best example of a classic Warner Bros. mystery. It is a very complex, confusing, logic-defying whodunit with a quintessential private detective (Marlowe), false leads, unforgettable dialogue and wisecracks, raw-edged characters, sexy women (including the two daughters of a dying millionaire, a bookseller, and others), tough action, gunplay, a series of electrifying scenes, and screen violence. Although a classic film noir, it has no flashbacks, no voice-over narration, and little evidence of expressionistic images. The film was not recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in any of its award categories.

The main protagonists in the convoluted film appear equally as confused about the plot (the who did what to whom, what, when, and why questions) during clue-chasing as audiences on first viewing. [The seven killings are marked below by numbers - one of the seven occurred before the film's action.] What makes things especially perplexing is that important characters involved in the plot never appear alive on screen (e.g. Owen Taylor and Sean Regan), several other characters appear only momentarily or are rapidly dispatched, and important information is deliberately missing.

The Production Code of the time wouldn't have condoned the exposition of explicit details of portions of the depraved plot anyway (the references to drug use, Carmen's nymphomania, the pornography racket, and the homosexual relationship between Lundgren and Geiger). Without a voice-over narrative, the audience is allowed to follow the point-of-view experiences of the detective and conclude what they want about his search for solutions to the confused puzzle. What is much more important than the basic blackmail-murder plot is the stylish method and process of the private detective's quest, that the viewer identifies with and shares, as he makes his way through the murky world of nasty crime from one oppressive setting to the next, or from one wicked character, fallen woman, or femme fatale to another, until eventually discovering love with his female protagonist.

Although the film was released in mid-1946, it was actually filmed mostly in the fall of 1944 (about six months before Bacall and Bogart were married). [Pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on walls, in the Acme Book store, and in the detective's office hint that the film was shot mainly in late 1944, and finished in early 1945. By mid-1946 when the film was released, after awaiting the release of other war-themed films, FDR had been dead for a year.]

In 1997, the original 1945 pre-release version of the film was discovered - it was the film originally intended for release by Warner Bros, but shelved (except for a few showings overseas to US troops in August 1945). The dialogue in the recently-restored first version, with a total of eighteen never-before-seen minutes, rendered the incomprehensible, labryinthine plot more clearly by revealing plot points. But the pre-release version did not include two of Lauren Bacall's re-shot scenes found only in the second version - their second bedroom scene at the Sternwoods and the notorious nightclub scene with racy dialogue about horse-racing and saddles.

The commonly-seen version of this big-budgeted film included some of the toughest, most sexually-electric, innuendo-filled dialogue in film history between its two main leads, Bogart and Bacall (an off-screen romantic couple fulfilling their romance on-screen). Their sexy pairing in Hawks' earlier To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the main reasons why new scenes were shot (e.g., the famous 'horse-race' dialogue) and the film was re-worked - to emphasis the stars' earlier 'chemistry,' romance, and insolent interplay. This follow-up film was the second of five films that brought Bogart and Bacall together:

  • To Have and Have Not (1944), d. Howard Hawks
  • The Big Sleep (1946), d. Howard Hawks
  • Two Guys From Milwaukee (1946), d. David Butler; Bogart and Bacall appear in cameos
  • Dark Passage (1947), d. Delmer Daves
  • Key Largo (1948), d. John Huston

The atmosphere of the film is dark and paranoic - full of suspicion, dread, and intrigue. The film's title, The Big Sleep, refers to death. Blackmailers and murderers commit their ill deeds (gambling, pornography, vice, perversion) while the world continues on its course, almost asleep. Marlowe's single-handed pursuit and investigation of pervasive corruption and treachery is met with deception, threats of extermination, and violence (although most of the killings are discreetly committed off-screen). Robert Mitchum reprised the role of Marlowe in the remade UK classic mystery The Big Sleep (1978), with the setting transferred from a 1940s Los Angeles to an updated 1970s London.

Plot Synopsis

Behind the opening title credits, a silhouetted couple (the film's two main stars) light cigarettes, concluding with both of their cigarettes left burning in an ashtray (symbolizing their passion for each other). Each of the screens is blown or swept away with cigarette smoke.

In the opening sequence, an unidentified hand and finger press in the doorbell buzzer of a mansion doorway. A hard-boiled, laconic, intelligent, and cynical private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) arrives at a lavish mansion. [Bogart played the part of Marlowe only once.] The Los Angeles gumshoe is there to consult with wealthy, aging and dying, dessicated, wheelchair-bound "General" Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a rich widower:

My name's Marlowe. General Sternwood wanted to see me.

On the way in, he meets one of the General's two alluring and sexy daughters, the younger, troubled, errant, thumb-biting, frequently doped-up nymphomaniacal heiress Carmen (Martha Vickers), wearing a white polka-dot miniskirt. He notices her legs after she descends the stairs. Capriciously, she tells him:

Carmen: You're not very tall, are you?
Marlowe: Well, I, uh, I try to be.
Carmen: Not bad looking. Oh you probably know it. (while twirling and biting a lock of her hair)
Marlowe: Thank you.
Carmen: What's your name?
Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.
Carmen: That's a funny kind of name.
Marlowe: You think so.
Carmen: Uh, uh. What are you? A prizefighter?
Marlowe: No, I'm a shamus.
Carmen: What's a shamus?
Marlowe: It's a private detective.
Carmen: You're making fun of me.
Marlowe: Uh, uh.
Carmen (she leans back and falls into his arms, throwing herself at him): You're cute.

Marlowe tells the butler Norris (Charles Brown): "You ought to wean her, she's old enough." In the humid, hot greenhouse filled with orchids, Sternwood is introduced to Marlowe. [Carmen could accurately be described as a 'hothouse orchid' herself.] He permits Marlowe to drink and smoke:

Sternwood: How do you like your brandy, sir?
Marlowe: In a glass.
Sternwood: I used to like mine with champagne. Champagne cold as Valley Forge and with about three ponies of brandy under it...I like to see people drink...You may take off your coat, sir...Too hot in here for any man who has any blood in his veins. You may smoke, too. I can still enjoy the smell of it. Nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy.

The emaciated Sternwood describes the dreariness of his existence. The humid hothouse is necessary for his survival and he is waiting for death - the "big sleep" of the title - in the temperature-controlled greenhouse:

Sternwood: You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life - crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it's hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?
Marlowe: Not particularly.
Sternwood: Nasty things! Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Marlowe, who used to work for the district attorney's office "was fired for insubordination - I seem to rate pretty high on that," knows about Sternwood's two daughters: "Both pretty, and both pretty wild." The detective is told that Sternwood is being blackmailed again. A year previously, he explains how he was pressured to pay gambler and petty blackmailer Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) $5,000 "to let my younger daughter alone." [Note: Later in the film, Brody claimed it was six to seven months earlier, not a year.] Marlowe is called in to break up a troublesome blackmail ring that threatens to apply further pressure, ostensibly forcing Sternwood to pay legally-uncollectible gambling debts.

Sternwood questions his reaction to his words:

Marlowe: Hmm.
Sternwood: What does that mean?
Marlowe: It means - hmm.

A secondary aim is to have Marlowe find his missing friend and confidant, Sean Regan, who suddenly disappeared a month earlier under mysterious circumstances.

[Note: In Chandler's novel, Sean Regan was son-in-law "Rusty" Regan, who was married to Sternwood's oldest daughter Vivian.]

Regan was Sternwood's bodyguard and close companion, an Irish Republican Army adventurer who acted as the General's surrogate son-substitute. Sean Regan had handled the first case of blackmail, but now that he is missing "without a word," Marlowe must be employed [as a substitute for Regan - one surrogate son hired to ascertain the whereabouts of another]:

Sternwood: You knew him too?
Marlowe: Yes, in the old days, when he used to run rum out of Mexico and I was on the other side. We used to swap shots between drinks, or drinks between shots, whichever you like.
Sternwood: My respects to you, sir. Few men ever swapped more than one shot with Sean Regan. He commanded a brigade in the Irish-Republican Army - you knew that.
Marlowe: No I didn't...I know he was a good man at whatever he did. No one was more pleased than I when I heard you had taken him on as your...whatever he was.
Sternwood: My friend, my son almost.

Marlowe is asked to investigate Carmen's current blackmailer - a "rare book" dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) with a store on North Sunset, who is blackmailing Sternwood over "gambling debts" incurred by his youngest daughter. There are numerous $1,000 IOU's signed by Carmen, one being dated September 11th, 1945.

[Note: The exact nature of the blackmail is not clear, though it was presumably much more than "gambling debts"; it may be that Geiger has illicit, nude, incriminating or obscene photographs of Carmen and threatens to circulate them. Or perhaps the IOU's are for drugs. Whatever is going on, Carmen cannot pay the blackmail and signs IOU's that Geiger tries to cash with General Sternwood.]

Sternwood doesn't intend to discuss these things with Carmen: "If I did, she'd just suck her thumb and look coy." Marlowe describes how Carmen had met him in a similar fashion:

I met her in the hall and she did that to me. Then she tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.

The General compares the morality of his two daughters. The older daughter, Vivian, is fiesty and strong. The spoiled, sexually-perverse, younger daughter is named Carmen:

They're alike only in having the same corrupt blood. Vivian is spoilt, exacting, smart and ruthless. Carmen is still a little child who likes to pull the wings off flies. I assume they have all the usual vices, besides those they've invented for themselves. If I seem a bit sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlowe, it's because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy. I need hardly add that any man who has lived as I have and who indulges for the first time in parenthood at my age deserves all he gets.

The well-paying job offer is specifically to end Geiger's blackmail permanently and just get rid of him: "I guess you want me to take this Geiger off your back." Marlowe thanks the General for the drink and promises to be back in touch:

Marlowe: Thanks for the drink, General.
Sternwood: I enjoyed your drink as much as you did, sir.

On his way out, he tells the butler Norris that his normal fees are $25 dollars a day plus expenses. Marlowe is not pleased that Norris has informed Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), the General's other daughter, about his identity:

Norris: Are you attempting to tell me my duties, sir?
Marlowe: No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.

Before he leaves, Marlowe (now sweating profusely with a soaked shirt) is introduced to the ice-cool, elder daughter Vivian who was once married and then divorced to an anonymous man named Rutledge - never seen in the film [In the Chandler novel, Vivian had been married and divorced three times]. There are memorable lines of clever dialogue in his provocative, yet inauspicious, competitive and bickering first encounter with her in her bedroom as she seductively cross-examines him and probes into the reason why he is being hired as a "private detective" by her father:

Vivian (taunting): So you're a private detective. I didn't know they existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you're a mess, aren't you?
Marlowe: I'm not very tall either. Next time, I'll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.
Vivian: I doubt if even that would help. Now this business of Dad's. You think you can handle it for him?
Marlowe: It shouldn't be too tough.
Vivian: Really? I would have thought a case like that took a little effort.
Marlowe: Not too much.
Vivian: What will your first step be?
Marlowe: The usual one.
Vivian: I didn't know there was a usual one.
Marlowe: (with a lisp) Oh sure there is. It comes complete with diagrams on page forty-seven of 'How to Be a Detective in Ten Easy Lessons' correspondence school textbook. And, uh, your father offered me a drink.
Vivian: You must have read another one on how to be a comedian.
Marlowe: Did you hear what I said about the drink?
Vivian: I'm quite serious, Mr. Marlowe, my father...
Marlowe: I said your father...
Vivian: (She doesn't get him a drink.) Help yourself! Now look, Mr. Marlowe. My father's not well, and I want this case handled with the least possible worry to him.
Marlowe: That's just the way I was going to handle it.
Vivian: I see. No professional secrets?
Marlowe: Nope.
Vivian: I thought you wanted a drink.
Marlowe: I've changed my mind.
Vivian: Then what - ? (She turns away and walks toward the window to open it.) How did you like Dad?
Marlowe: I liked him.
Vivian: He liked Sean, Sean Regan. I suppose you know who he is.
Marlowe: Uh, huh.
Vivian: You don't have to play poker with me, Mr. Marlowe. Dad wants to find him, doesn't he?
Marlowe: Do you?
Vivian: Of course I do. It wasn't right for him to go off like that. He broke Dad's heart, although he won't say much about it. Or did he?

She is spoiled, aloof, smart, and playful, and very protective of her younger sister and aging father. [Vivian visually dominates the film's frames in these early scenes.] Mutually attracted to each other, they trade loaded lines with each other. She is suspicious of him and wants to know what her father has asked him to do - she is fearful that he has been hired to find Regan, who has disappeared:

Marlowe: Why don't you ask him?
Vivian: You know, I don't see what there is to be cagey about, Mr. Marlowe. And I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: 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're pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings. And I don't mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle, but don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Vivian: People don't talk to me like that.
Marlowe: Ohhh.
Vivian: Do you always think you can handle people like, uh, trained seals?
Marlowe: Uh, huh. I usually get away with it, too.
Vivian: How nice for you.
Marlowe: Just what is it you're afraid of?
Vivian: Dad didn't want to see about Sean at all, did he?
Marlowe: Didn't he?
Vivian: Would you find him if Dad wanted you to?
Marlowe: Maybe. When did he go?

He learns that a month earlier, Regan just drove off one afternoon without saying a word and has disappeared. Authorities found his car parked in a private garage. Marlowe is amused but perplexed to learn that she assumes he has been hired to find Regan rather than end Geiger's blackmailing threats. He admits that although he knows about Regan, he hasn't been hired to find him:

I'm wasting your time. Goodbye, Mrs. Rutledge.

Marlowe begins his investigation in the Hollywood Public Library, researching titles of collector's edition books. The blonde, bespectacled librarian (Carole Douglas) slyly and appreciatively observes that he doesn't look like the typical collector:

Librarian: You know, you don't look like a man who'd be interested in first editions.
Marlowe: (retorting) I collect blondes and bottles too.

He searches for Geiger - the blackmailer, by going to A. G. Geiger's rare books and deluxe editions Hollywood bookstore. Playfully disguised as an effeminate bookworm (or homosexual) with sunglasses and an upturned hat, he talks to Geiger's salesclerk, Agnes Lozier (Sonia Darrin). Asking for a rare third edition of Ben Hur - a book that doesn't really exist - he realizes she knows little about rare books:

Marlowe: Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860?
Agnes: A what?
Marlowe: I said, 'Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860'?
Agnes: Oh, a first edition?
Marlowe: No, no, no, no, no. The third. The third. The one with the erratum on page one-sixteen.
Agnes: I'm afraid not.
Marlowe: Uh, how about a Chevalier Audubon 1840 - a full set, of course?
Agnes: Not at the moment.
Marlowe: You do sell books? Hmm?
Agnes: What do those look like, grapefruit?
Marlowe: Well, from here, they look like books. Maybe I'd better see Mr. Geiger?

And when a respectable looking businessman, a client, is buzzed into the back room, this confirms Marlowe's feelings about Geiger's disreputable business (a front for a blackmail racket or for a high-class lending library of pornographic, dirty books for subscribers only). Across the street from the bookstore, Marlowe waits for Geiger to materialize, viewing the store from the front window of the Acme Book Store with a spectacled, antiquarian bookseller clerk (Dorothy Malone) who is quickly charmed:

Clerk: Is there something I can do for you?
Marlowe: Would you do me a very small favor?
Clerk: I don't know. It depends on the favor.
Marlowe: Do you know Geiger's bookstore across the street?
Clerk: I think I may have passed it.
Marlowe: Do you know Geiger by sight?
Clerk: Well, I ...
Marlowe: What does he look like?
Clerk: Wouldn't it be easy enough to go across the street and ask to see him?
Marlowe: I've already done that...Do you know anything about rare books?
Clerk: You could try me.
Marlowe: Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur 1860, Third Edition with a duplicated line on page one-sixteen? Or a Chevalier Audubon 1840? (She searches her listings and bibliographies)
Clerk: Nobody would. There isn't one.
Marlowe: The girl in Geiger's bookstore didn't know that.
Clerk: Oh, I see. You begin to interest me - vaguely.
Marlowe: I'm a private dick on a case. Perhaps I'm asking too much, although it doesn't seem too much to me somehow.
Clerk: Well, Geiger's in his early forties, medium height, fattish, soft all over, Charlie Chan mustache, well-dressed, wears a black hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn't any, and, oh yes, I think his left eye is glass. [While describing Geiger, the Clerk openly ogles Marlowe as if to compare his body (favorably) with Geiger's.]
Marlowe: You'd make a good cop.

As a heavy rain begins to fall, he proposes that they have a drink of rye (from a bottle in his pocket) while he waits for Geiger to come out - with a suggestive line: "I'd rather get wet in here." The independent bookseller pulls the shade and closes an hour early, removes her eyeglasses and lets her hair down coyly: "It looks like we're closed for the rest of the afternoon." She also offers two cups for their drinking. Marlowe can't believe the quick transformation, and greets her with an exaggerated "Hello," before they enjoy an afternoon dalliance together - suggested by the film's fadeout. Later, (after the rain has stopped), as Marlowe leaves the bookstore, he non-chalantly says goodbye to the character who has given him an observant, professional description of Geiger:

Marlowe: Well, thanks.
Clerk: If you ever want to buy a book...?
Marlowe: Ben-Hur, 1860?
Clerk: With duplications? So long.
Marlowe: So long, pal.

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