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The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

The two Humphrey Bogart movies that are quintessentially Bogart—in which that line between a star actor’s screen persona and a specific character he’s playing is most thoroughly and effectively erased so that these become indistinguishably one—were directed and produced back-to-back by Howard Hawks. Both co-star Lauren Bacall at her freshest and most defining (her first and third films) and both have screenplays worked on by William Faulkner, one based (rather vaguely) on Ernest Hemingway, the other (rather strongly) on Raymond Chandler.  The first was 1944’s dramatic World War II espionage romance, To Have and Have Not, and the second starred Bogie as the definitive Chandler private eye, Philip Marlowe, in 1946’s mesmerizingly entertaining The Big Sleep (available on DVD).

This is the crime film with a virtually indecipherable plot, though it doesn’t really matter because the scenes, one after the other, are so utterly compelling and enjoyable that after a while you shrug and think, Who cares what’s going on, it’s all too much fun to worry about details like that.  A famous anecdote:  During shooting, neither Hawks nor Faulkner nor the other screenwriters (the reliables, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) could figure out who had killed a certain character, so they wired Chandler this question and he wired back that he couldn’t figure it out, either.

There’s a teasingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole affair, a dry, witty approach that is typically Hawksian, as one woman after another (Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, etc.) makes passes at Bogart’s implacably insolent Marlowe, who has dialogue like, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” or “You oughta wean her, she’s old enough,” or even “Hmm…” to which the response is, “What’s that supposed to mean?” and he answers, “Means ‘hmm.’”

Chandler once said, “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it,” and Hawks takes full advantage of this axiom by essentially shaping each and every sequence in the entire movie from Bogie’s viewpoint; he is the beginning and end of every scene, and nothing happens without being filtered through his responses.  Of course, the book is constructed that way, but Hawks could easily have altered this, and he could’ve screwed up the lines, but as he wisely used to say, “You couldn’t get better dialogue than Raymond Chandler’s,” so he leaves it alone.  Tense and fast-paced, the picture has a pervasive intelligence and honesty that simply doesn’t date.  One of my personal favorites for years, The Big Sleep holds up well under repeated viewing because the black humor and generally evil atmosphere feel continually contemporary.

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I was lucky enough to see this paired with Key Largo at the The Castro Theatre last fall. nothing like these two smoldering lovers to light up the big screen. Noir City this year opened with Dark Passage (possibly my favorite Bogie/Bacall film) and I was equally blown away with how great they are on the big screen (because, even if you've seen it on DVD, it's not the same thing as on the big screen). I got to interview their son earlier this week and he had so many warm things to say about his parents. True legends.

Doug Krentzlin

Two things:
1. I've always said it's a sign of Hawks' genius that, when he discovered that Chandler failed to provide the solution to one of the murders, he left the murder unsolved in the movie as well, whereas a hack would've "corrected" Chandler's mistake.
2. The "Hmmm…" line is directed at and responded to by General Sternwood, not Vivian, the character Bacall played.


Doug is right. It will be corrected. Thanks, Doug.

Laurence Zavriew

Dear Sir,

I read your appreciation of Ben Gazzara on another blog on Indiewire, and I was wondering whether you'd be willing to talk about him on the BBC World Service's Newshour radio show this evening London time (which would make it around 3pm if you're on the East coast, or 12 noon on the West). Apologies for stalking you in this fashion, but we'd be honoured to talk to you about the passing of a great actor. I'd be grateful if you emailed me to let me know whether this would be at all possible. Thank you in advance and best regards – Laurence Zavriew, Senior Broadcast Journalist, Newshour, BBC World Service News Programmes.

Laurence Zavriew

In case you didn't get this as I posted it as a reply to my original comment, I am reposting it as an original comment…

Dear Mr Bogdanovich Apologies for the oversight; as I had to enter my email for the comment to register, I thought you had access to it…. It's uk; tel (+44) 207 557 2141. I have also emailed you via the blog administrator… Thank you very much for your prompt and positive response – just to fine tune it, the interview, if live, would take place at 3.45 est (20.45 gmt); but we could easily record something beforehand if it were more practical. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you very much and best regards Laurence Zavriew

Laurence Zavriew

Your patience is to be admired. There was a missing dot
apologies in spades

Jesse L

One of my favorites of Bogie's. His antics in the two bookstores are worth the price of admission. And, anyone who didn't fall instantly in love with Bacall was either crazy or dead. As you say, who cares about the plot when the leads are having so much fun?


My favorite of the two will always remain To Have And Have Not: The Big Sleep feels like an understated version of the latter, which, partly because of the intricate plot, isn't as much fun. But as almost no film is as much fun as To Have this isn't saying much: The Big Sleep is still pretty awesome. Falls just slightly short of the Only Angels Have Wings-To have And Have Not-Rio Bravo, Hawksian adventure big league.

Roger Zotti

As great as Bogart and Bacall were in The Big Sleep, I really believe Martha Vickers stole the show. Why Warner Brothers (and other studios) didn't capitalize on her talents–well, I guess it shows how stupid they were, right? The great character actor Elisha Cook–what a great bit of casting that was.

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