Dir. by Howard Hawks - 1 hr. 54 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Part of what makes the best Humphrey Bogart movies the best Humphrey Bogart movies is a distinct sense of setting; San Francisco in "The Maltese Falcon," the collection of displaced expatriates biding time in Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca," the hard-scrabble Mexican mining camp in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The best of his movies couldn't have taken place anywhere other than exactly where they did, and Los Angeles is very much a relevant backdrop for "The Big Sleep." Although there isn't much scenery shown, it's always looming just outside a window, and exerting it's influence on the characters living there. The other thing that the best films have in common is a sense of inevitability; once you see how things are set up, there's really only one place Bogart and whomever is unfortunate enough to get tangled up with him can possibly end up. It's kind of fun to watch the characters kick and scream and claw against their fate, but even they have an awareness of the road they're on. In "The Big Sleep," once Bogey and Bacall size each other up for the first time on-screen, you know that the mystery isn't going to be the important part of the story.
Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired for a case by a reclusive, sickly man named General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Marlowe's been hired to clean up a mess caused by one of his daughters, the wild and flirty Carmen (Martha Vickers), but the other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) thinks there's an ulterior motive. Upon his investigation, Marlowe stumbles upon the body of a blackmailer, and a drugged Carmen as his only company. Marlowe attempts to get Carmen clear, thinking that she couldn't have been responsible for Geiger's death, but every step he takes entangles matters further and further, and more bodies pile up.
Seeing as how I consider this a flawless victory of a film, there's not much to criticize. Sure, you could bemoan the fact that the mystery aspect of "The Big Sleep" doesn't end up making much sense, but you'd also probably be the kind of person who complains about not knowing how the bowling tournament ends up in "The Big Lebowski." The film isn't really about solving the initial crime, other than it compels the characters to movement. For me, it was enough to know that things were very tangled, and that pretty much no one is clean, and that I should probably just not worry about that and instead focus on the ambiance and the budding romance between Marlowe and Vivian. All of the crime stuff really just exists to either force them apart or push them together at various intervals, and that's just fine by me.
I wouldn't advance the notion that Lauren Bacall wasn't particularly good in this film, either. The truth of the matter is that she was good enough in her scenes with Bogart (their off-screen chemistry surely helped) that I had no problem with her. I'm not sure that another actress could have simmered and bantered back and forth with Bogart as convincingly (I love the scene where Vivian calls the police, and then she and Marlowe start playing dumb with the police back and forth - it's like capturing and condensing the best first date ever into a few minutes of screen time), and since that's what really sells "The Big Sleep" as an all-time great film, any criticism is unimportant. Having seen a number of Bogart's films, Bacall is the one great romantic foil for him (and I mean successful one, there are plenty of tragic ones, but that's not "The Big Sleep"), and that should count for something. And it's not as if there's just one great scene between the two of them, there are a handful, and there's also the single greatest line reading of telling someone you're in love with them ever, with Vivian slumped down in her car seat, resigning herself to the fact that she's spent some effort trying to deny.
So with the Bacall stuff out of the way, it's also probably good to point out that Bogart is fantastic in this movie. This was a Hays Code-era film, so the fact that he rolls around town like a panty-dropper supreme is mostly implied (although the look that bookstore clerk gives him should have been accompanied by an audible "sploosh" and the sound of Marlowe's pants being ripped off telepathically), but his trademark rakishness isn't dulled much. Bogart's stock character is usually pretty prickly, even moreso when he likes someone, and Marlowe supplies no shortage of great lines to that service. He's reminded repeatedly that he "takes chances," which must be the 1940's way of telling him to fornicate himself, and it must be said that he usually has earned such a rejoinder. But beyond Bogart's acting, pretty much everyone is good here, particularly Martha Vickers, who's frequently intoxicated and always playing the coquette, and who's character has boiled the world down to being either cute or not cute.
"The Big Sleep" is one of those movies that's elements might seem fairly standard, but they come together in a way that feels very authentic and fun. Not everyone get involved in a complicated murder plot (that's the fantasy element), but most people know what it's like to fall in love with someone. The fact that it happens in an unlikely setting somehow makes it seem more real than in many romance movies, where the romance is the full focus of the plot. The fact that it's Bogey and Bacall elevates it, partly because it was real, partly because Bogey's so antagonistic that you can feel the pull when he starts including Bacall in his games instead of aiming them at her. The result is one of the top tier of films that Bogart appeared in, maybe not the absolute finest, but in the top handful for certain, and always an absolute delight to watch.
5 / 5 - TV (HD)