' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Big Sleep

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Great Movies: The Big Sleep

"It's a funny thing. You're trying to find out what your father hired me to find out and I'm trying to find out why you're trying to find out."
"You could go on forever, couldn't you?"


Has there ever been a film more confusing than Howard Hawks' 1946 noir "The Big Sleep"? It is so confusing that the story goes, as the esteemed Roger Ebert has noted, that the film's star, Humphrey Bogart, showed up on set one day and demanded Hawks to advise whether a particular character's death in the film was a murder or a suicide. Hawks didn't know. So he asked the author of the novel, Raymond Chandler, on which the movie was based. Chandler didn't know either. If an author can't follow his own plot, well, isn't that the definition of confusion?

But the confusion is okay because even though "The Big Sleep" is a film oozing plot it is less about that plot than it is about its many characters talking about the plot. I mean, really, has there ever been a film where talking was more important than Howard Hawks' 1946 noir "The Big Sleep"? I thought about that fact after seeing Robert Downey Jr. not be allowed to talk as much as he should have been in "Sherlock Holmes".

"The Big Sleep" is so stocked with exposition I am surprised screenwriting professors have not banished all copies of this script to some gigantic shredder kept on a secret backlot. This is a movie that tells us everything and refrains from showing just about anything. Thank frickin' God.

Bogart is Phillip Marlowe, a hard boiled private eye who likes his brandy "in a glass" and smokes as if cigarettes are as bountiful as bullets in John Woo movies. At the film's start he is summoned to the home of wheelchair-bound General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Ah, but before he can meet the old General he first encounters the youngest of his two daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers), a most flirtacious young debutante who literally hurls herself into Marlowe's unsuspecting arms. "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up." This meeting is key. Not simply because General Sternwood is being blackmailed on account of Carmen but because aside from Marlowe these two daughters are the most important characters in the story.

Who's the other daughter, you ask? Why that would be the older, wiser, sultrier, craftier, classier, comelier, edgier, drier, sultrier (wait, did I already say that one?), flintier Vivian. Perhaps then it goes without saying she was played by one Lauren Bacall.

To each and every one of us there are always various film collaborations of which we never tire, of which we ceaslessly wish there were more. Me? I'm a sucker for Quentin & Uma. And for Bogie & Bacall. There was never anyone else like them, there will never be anyone like them again and this movie, for all its murder & mayhem, is primarily about them.

There is a scene when Vivian, who doubles as a high stakes gambler, is sitting at a craps table and Marlowe strides up beside her and the camera, which was in a wide shot showing everyone in the gaming hall all around them, pushes in, fast, on our heroic couple, nudging everyone else outta the frame, and showing us just how these two not only become the most important thing in any room but how nothing else in the world matters more to each of them.

In real life Bogart had already fallen in love with Bacall prior to this movie but that love was clearly growing as the movie rolls past your eyes. In his review Ebert wondered if Bogart, at the time in the midst of a messy divorce with his then wife, saw her as his salvation? A real possibility, and it's why I like to pretend his constant references to her as "angel" were not in the script but Bogart's own invention. It's the (extremely) hopeless romantic in me. Sigh....

Not that there isn't a fair amount of other sexual tension crackling throughout the picture. Every place in "The Big Sleep" that Marlowe ends up seems possessed with a steady vibe of, shall we say, rapaciousness. He enters a bookstore to wryly ascertain a few pieces of critical info and encounters Dorothy Malone (defintion: Scene Stealer) as the most classic archetype of 'em all - librarian with horn-rimmed glasses and hair pulled up who, upon horn-rimmed glasses being removed and hair being pulled down, transforms into a woman of such breathtaking elegance that when it begins to rain outside Marlowe has no choice but to tell her "I'd rather get wet in here." Wowzer!!! Sure, sure, it seems tame to a modern day audience but when considering the 1946 Production Code this sequence is the equivalent of Kate Winslet on top of the laundry machine in "Little Children". Consider also the young dame behind the counter at the diner who lights Marlowe's smoke and gets nothing more than a one world line. But, like I said, consider her, which is to say look at her. How did she end up working there? It's like if in a noir movie today Mila Kunis was hired to light someone's smoke and say one word.

But wait! I forgot about the plot! What is it again? Oh yes....blackmail. General Sternwood is being blackmailed by a "book dealer" named Geiger over Carmen's apparent gambling debts. But wait! There's more! An ex-member of the IRA, one Sean Regan (mentioned dozens of times but never seen) whom Sternwood, unable to partake in the bottle, had hired Regan to do his drinking for him and with whom, in turn, he became good friends, has gone missing. Where to? And why? Marlowe is hired to find out.

The scene ends and Marlowe thanks him for the drink. "I enjoyed it as much as you did," Sternwood replies, implying the old notion of living vicariously. And that is precisely what we are about to do for the next two hours - live vicariously through the shoes and smokes of Marlowe as he navigates his way through the whole noir catalogue: the district attorneys, the cars with accelerators tied down, sitting low in the dark in cars outside suspicious houses, and, of course, the obligatory, endless chain of names - Eddie Mars and Owen Taylor and Joe Brody. It's all enough to make you want a drink.

Which is precisely what we see Bacall's Vivian pouring the first time we meet her which leads, of course, to her first line which speaks a great many volumes: "So you're a private detective. I didn't know they existed, except in books." Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but the Marlowe of "The Big Sleep" embodies that idealistic notion of the old school gumshoe. He's cunning, of course, but he's also smooth and always in control. The only time you see him sweat is in the beginning when he's stuck with Sternwood in that humid greenhouse. At one point he finds himself in an elongated sequence in an apartment in which three different men at various intervals pull pistols on him but by the time it's all played out guess who's gained possession of all those guns? Marlowe, that's who.

And when the inevitable arises and the case appears closed he has to go on, dig deeper, answer all the questions, even at grave risk of his own life. "Why did you have to go on?" "Too many people told me to stop." In theory that's why he goes on, anyway. But in reality he has to soldier on because it's the only way he can end up with Vivian in his arms. Oh, so a few people have to die for it to happen. Them's the breaks.

So many films these days substitute superfluous substance - twists and reveals and unexplained character motivations and what have you - for any sense of style. "The Big Sleep" was smart enough to know that in spite of its labyrinthine plot its substance stems strictly from its style.

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