Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Big Sleep (1945)

Director: Howard Hawks                                  Writers: William Faulkner & Leigh Brackett
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgley and Martha Vickers

You might think the date is wrong on this, but I’m actually reviewing the pre-release version of The Big Sleep that was cut and printed in 1945 rather than the theatrical version that was released in 1946. There were two reasons for this. The first is that, with World War Two coming to a close, Warner Brothers wanted to get all of their pictures with a war theme released and moved all of them to the front of the line. A detective film like this could wait. The second was the poor reception Lauren Bacall received in her second film, Confidential Agent. Her agent wrote a letter to Jack Warner telling him that if he reshot sections of The Big Sleep in order to replicate the onscreen relationship the two stars shared in her first film, To Have and Have Not, in which critics loved her, it would save her career and make Warners’ investment in her pay off. Warner agreed.

Ultimately, from our point of view nearly seventy years later, the differences are insignificant. Bacall is still a star and in some ways her more subtle performance in the earlier version is quite nice. But it’s a convoluted story and the reshoot did help to streamline the plot and make it a bit more comprehensible. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, Bogart plays Philip Marlowe called in by a rich client to make some blackmail charges against his younger daughter, Martha Vickers, go away. At the same time he meets the younger daughter, Lauren Bacall, and sparks fly. When he tails the blackmailer, a rare bookshop owner, to his house Vickers shows up and the blackmailer winds up dead. In the meantime the family’s chauffeur winds up dead after the car went off the pier. The police know that Bogart is investigating for them and leans on him for information. And that’s just in the first half hour.

The other players are a blackmailer named Joe Brody, a gambler by the name of Eddie Mars, and a missing bootlegger named Sean Regan who apparently ran off with Mars’ wife. How Bacall is mixed up in the whole things is fairly complicated, and even Chandler himself didn’t know who killed the chauffeur. Howard Hawks had filmed the two leads in To Have and Have Not, which had earned tremendous reviews for Bacall, and when Warner wanted to do the retakes the following year she insisted that he be the director or she wouldn’t do them. In the interim she had also become Mrs. Bogart. The script is the real star of the show however, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett with later additions by Jules Furthman had taken Chandler’s story and made the dialogue quick and witty with some great lines for Bogart and his women in the film, Bacall, Joy Barlow and the wonderful Dorothy Malone.

Hawks’ direction doesn’t seem especially memorable, but that invisible style works well here. Many of the scenes take place at night, or in a dark house, and as such there’s a certain claustrophobia to the proceedings that adds to the atmosphere. Another tremendous aspect of the film is the lush film score by the great Max Steiner. His love theme for Bogart and Bacall is instantly memorable. The revised version of the film features Bacall in a few more scenes and retakes scenes to heighten the relationship between her and Bogart. The final end title with the two smoldering cigarettes is the kind of symbolism that is long gone from film, but one misses its absence. Though the revamped version of The Big Sleep is the most well known, the 1945 version is still worth watching and one of the classic noir films of the forties.

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