[Deep Focus]

I can't think of a crime drama with a story that can match that can match the headlong intricacy of The Big Sleep. Adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel by a screenwriting team that included William Faulkner, the story sprouts from its roots in a deceptively straightforward case of blackmail into a multiplicity of crimes and potential suspects that twist round one another to form a morass of human duplicity. That intricacy, though, is secondary to the true pleasures of the film.

Rather, what matters in The Big Sleep is atmosphere and character. For atmosphere, this one is suffused with a wartime gloom and fatalism that it shares with the early films of the noir cycle. The world of Raymond Chandler is ably reproduced in tones of light and shadow, bloodsoaked carpets and waterlogged cars. And it's cut through by director Howard Hawks' strong sense for relationships. If so many names are thrown at us so quickly in the course of all of The Big Sleep's plot twists that it's difficult to keep the players straight, it's nonetheless fascinating to consider just one of the mysteries at hand -- the ultimate nature of Philip Marlowe's relationship with Vivian Sternwood.

Marlowe is probably the best role Humphrey Bogart ever had, building on his established strengths as a disillusioned romantic and a wary private eye (in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, respectively). His dialogue is sharp and highly entertaining, and his way with women anticipates James Bond. When he stops in at an antiquarian book dealer with a bottle of rye in tow, it takes him mere moments to charm the bookseller (Dorothy Malone) into closing up shop for the day, folding up her glasses and letting her hair down. After a salacious welcome from Vivian's younger sister -- a cheap flirt who thinks he's "cute" -- Marlowe observes drily, "She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up."

Even so, his worldliness hasn't prepared him for Lauren Bacall's Vivian. Interestingly enough, Bogart and Bacall were married by the time The Big Sleep was released. It's perhaps a curious fact of the movie's history that a significant portion of the film was re-shot and re-edited just before release, emphasizing the romance between Bogart and Bacall's characters at the expense of the film's brooding atmosphere. It's an original, pre-release version of the film that has made its way into release, complete with an attached documentary detailing what was changed where and hashing through all of the altered footage from both versions after the movie ends.

Originally, Vivian was meant to be an incalculable presence. Marlowe was unquestionably attracted to her, but it was never clear until the film's final reels whether or not he could trust her -- or whether she could trust him. (In a by-the-numbers film noir, Bacall might have been the femme fatale who led our hero to his downfall.) But since Bacall's previous film had taken a beating at the hands of critics, and because studio honcho Jack Warner felt he had to take an interest in protecting her career, the filmmakers were brought back together a year after principal photography had wrapped to reshoot certain scenes (one character's haircut changes in mid-conversation) to make her character a little more saucy, and more appealing. In this version, Marlowe is a more trusting character who begins sharing information -- and meaningful glances -- with her early on. The redone material includes the famous "racehorse" dialogue between Bogart and Bacall -- culminating in some rather blatant double entendre. It's among the film's most memorable scenes, but actually diminishes the impact of the movie as a whole.

Bogart is at his best when he seems to be acting on instinct -- when his instincts tell him to put Ingrid Bergman on that plane at the end of Casablanca, or to send Mary Astor up the river in The Maltese Falcon. In the version of The Big Sleep that audiences have known and loved for 50 years, it becomes obvious that he and Bacall are made for each other. When he finds out just how close she lives to the heart of the darkness he's investigating, it's obvious that he's lucked out -- he's got a friend in a low place. But in the rediscovered pre-release version, it takes a leap of faith for the two of them to finally work together toward a common goal. In a way, that's really the answer that Marlowe's searching for (somehow I doubt that Chandler's novel is as romantic as Hawks' vision). This version of the film is an edgy love story with more darkness and fewer winks than its better-known doppelganger. Fans and purists may be dismayed by this reconfiguring of a classic, but I'd imagine it's a great way to experience the movie for the first time.

Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman
Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
USA, 1945

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