Saturday, January 26, 2008

Target #180: The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)

TSPDT placing: #258
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Who killed Owen Taylor, the replacement chauffeur? I don't know; Philip Marlowe doesn't know; screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman certainly don't know. Indeed, even Raymond Chandler, the author of the original novel, was once asked to explain his story's many murders, double-crossings, twists and turns, and replied that he had absolutely no idea. In any other situation, I might consider this a solid detraction from the quality of the film, but, strangely enough, here it almost acts as a positive. The Big Sleep (1946) is so doggedly obsessed with showing us the dark, seedy underbelly of human existence that any scenario, however shocking, is quite conceivable; the murderer could have been any one of the characters, and this would have been wholly consistent with the general tone of the film. The Hollywood township setting is occupied by a collection of the most morally-depraved creatures imaginable, and the murder mystery plot is so incredibly convoluted that anybody who claims to follow it all on first viewing is either a genius or a liar.

Humphrey Bogart is, of course, the definitive version of the film-noir hero, exhibiting handsomeness, toughness and always remaining in full control of the situation. Though his character is basically the same as his Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941), this was the only occasion on which Bogart portrayed Chandler's popular character Philip Marlowe {who, notably, has also been played by Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum}. Though Marlowe is allowed to entertain a variety of seductive women, via some surprisingly-scandalous double entendre dialogue, it is with future-wife Lauren Bacall that the chemistry really sizzles {the couple would be married by the time of the film's release, and would co-star in numerous subsequent pictures}. Considering I had been rather disappointed with the pair's chemistry in Key Largo (1948), it was a real pleasure to witness the sparks really flying this time, most memorably in a sexually-suggestive horse-racing dialogue sequence, which was re-shot later to capitalise on the pair's popularity following To Have and Have Not (1944).

The Big Sleep is one of the most rawly-entertaining hard-boiled detective thrillers I've seen, an indecipherable jumble of murders and low-lifes that both acknowledges its incomprehensibility and accepts it {indeed, the characters each seem as baffled as we are}. Various important characters never appear on screen, while others turn up already dead, and more still only survive long enough to divulge a vital clue. Considering the dominance of the Productive/Hays Code during the 1940s, it's surprising that much of the content of the film was allowed to remain intact. Aside from the sexual innuendo, the plot also contains veiled references to pornography, drug use and homosexuality. Perhaps the film's ultra-complicated plot also served as the picture's saving grace, with censors apparently too bewildered with the mystery to notice what was actually being implied by Bogart and his various female companions. However, the one most important question has yet to be asked: where on Earth did Howard Hawks manage to find so many good-lookin' dames?!

Currently my #2 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
3) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)

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