"The Big Sleep"

Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hawks get Raymond Chandler so right, who cares if the plot doesn't square?

Published August 9, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Big Sleep"
Directed by Howard Hawks
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Warner Home Video; original format (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Contains both the 1946 release version and the 1945 pre-release version, as well as a 16-minute documentary comparing the two

There is no funnier crack in tough-guy movies than the way Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe explains that reckless young Martha Vickers was trying to sit on his lap while he was standing up.

The experience amuses Bogart's Marlowe in Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" more than it did the Marlowe of Raymond Chandler's book. One way to gauge the subtle difference: The sit-in-the-lap part is straight out of Chandler; the standing-up part is new to the script (which is credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman). It's the sort of unexpected topper that makes "The Big Sleep" not merely a sensational midnight cocktail of blackmail and murder but also an oddball classic -- a masterly union of nonstop viciousness and off-the-cuff wit.

I saw the Bay Area premiere of the 1945 pre-release version with a group of alternative-journalist friends who were appalled at the sight of one young lovely after another -- including, of course, Lauren Bacall -- succumbing to Bogart's gleefully saturnine sleuth. But to my mind, there's a big difference between Bogart's romancing Bacall -- or Dorothy Malone, as a bespectacled bookstore clerk -- and the way any number of latter-day stars from Michael Douglas to Harrison Ford bed down the likes of Anne Heche or Gwyneth Paltrow. Bogart wasn't trying to be any younger than his age, and he wasn't trying to be ageless. In "The Big Sleep," his aura of hard-won experience is precisely what makes women flock to him. He had been places and done things decades before "been there, done that" became a late-night comedy contraction. The seriocomic conviction he brings to his worldly attitude makes this movie exhilarating. If John Huston drew the deepest acting out of Bogart, Hawks elicited the purest charisma. In a never-collected Time review of "The Big Sleep," the always-acute James Agee commented that this icon "can get into a minor twitch of the mouth the force of a slug from an automatic."

In the same review, Agee compared Bacall to "an adolescent cougar." The DVD contains both the 1946 version of the film, which was rejiggered to take full advantage of Bacall's budding star power, and the version that had been completed a year before and shown only to G.I.s stationed overseas. This earlier version lacks the steady humor and romantic glow of the later one without significantly compensating in narrative clarity or flow. (Historically, one of the chief complaints about "The Big Sleep" has been that its convoluted plot makes no sense.)

In his compelling biography, "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood," Todd McCarthy makes the case that the '45 version marked the peak of Hawks' storytelling power and the '46 edition signaled a new strategy of exploiting character scene by scene. But I think McCarthy errs in saying that the scene showing a dull explanatory talkathon in the D.A.'s office, cut for the '46 release, makes total sense of Chandler's plot. McCarthy quotes a section of the original script in which Marlowe conjectures, "So Taylor killed Geiger because he was in love with the Sternwood girl. And Brody followed Taylor, sapped him and took the photographs and pushed Taylor into the ocean." Unfortunately, that speech didn't show up in either version. (On the DVD, UCLA restoration expert Robert Gitt, in a documentary called "The Big Sleep Comparisons," makes more measured claims than McCarthy for the G.I. edition and pithily illustrates the upgrade in spunk of the theatrical release print.)

At any rate, "The Big Sleep" hasn't survived for more than half a century because of its narrative. The movie exerts a seductive pull because of the way Bogart and Hawks filtered what Agee called their "fellow feeling" for the Chandler milieu through their own barbed, droll personalities. As Agee summed it up, "Even on the chaste screen Hawks manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism, and fornication."

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By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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