Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

Humphrey Bogart successfully steps into the gumshoes of detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks' adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946), but in 1945 the top brass at Warner Brothers were far more concerned about Lauren Bacall, as the extensive revisions that preceded the film's release prove. It's not that the original 1945 cut of the picture and the final version are all that different; it's just that the tinkering labors to put Bacall in the best possible light, both literally and figuratively. The studio's effort paid off; Bacall, by then Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, got her career back on track after bad reviews in Confidential Agent (1945), and noir fans got a picture for the ages, with the perfectly paired leads trading zippy quips and stepping around corpses as coolly as they pour themselves drinks. As obvious as The Big Sleep is when it comes to top noir picks, the movie deserves its elevated spot in the genre pantheon, not only because of Bogart and Bacall but because of writers like Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Leigh Brackett, as well as a seriously deranged Martha Vickers as one of the worst kid sisters in cinematic history.

The story opens when Bogart's Marlowe is hired by the elderly General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to shake off a blackmailer targeting his wild younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe immediately suspects that some other funny business is afoot when the older daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), pumps him for information but acts coy about her own interest in the blackmailer job, and she clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to say. Marlowe soon finds himself and Carmen tangled up in a murder scene, and more corpses follow, but the mystery keeps coming back to a missing man named Regan and casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).

The revisions play up the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall by giving them more lines and scenes together, although some of the changes are purely cosmetic in terms of making Bacall look as alluring as possible. More of the pair is certainly a plus, even if the cuts obscure important elements of the murder mystery plot. Bogart and Bacall fit with noir - and with each other - the way a bullet fits into the chamber of a gun. His Marlowe is smart and unsentimental, a guy who has been around the block enough to know when he's being had. Her Vivian is no debutante, either, with her gambling debts and her husky, come-on voice. Nobody ever declared her affection with such sullen resignation as Bacall's Vivian when she tells Marlowe, "I guess I'm in love with you." Marlowe falls for her even as he realizes that he can't trust her, but he correctly guesses that she's no femme fatale. If they never reach quite the level of smart-mouthed irresistible attraction that they share in To Have and Have Not (1944), they do smolder very enjoyably, especially during their conversational cat-and-mouse games.

It takes tremendous screen presence to distract our attention from such a couple, but the supporting cast is full of actors who give it their best shot. Martha Vickers plays Carmen as a crazy Lolita, so hopped up on drugs and booze she can't even walk, but dangerous nonetheless. An infantile femme fatale with her thumb in her mouth, Carmen puts the moves on every man she meets, including Marlowe. "You're cute," she tells him, but the way she says it makes the listener's blood run cold. Charles Waldron has one really wonderful scene up front that makes us wish we could see more of his character; his General Sternwood has no pity for himself and only wants a real man to sit with him a while and drink his liquor for him. Even the bit players go for broke; Elisha Cook, Jr. makes the most of his brief appearance as Harry Jones, and Sonia Darrin provides a marvelously nasty foil to Bacall as the heartless, calculating Agnes. Dorothy Malone is so good as the book shop girl that we wonder how Marlowe can resist, especially after she takes off her glasses, but Marlowe's wartime Los Angeles seems to be full of self-possessed, available girls, from Vivian Rutledge all the way down to the eager cab driver who trades innuendos with the amused detective. It's as if Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks both long to raid a jar stuffed with tough cookies, with Marlowe as the unlikely embodiment of their shared masculine fantasy. At least it gives the young actresses plenty of material, and each of them contributes to the overall appeal of the film.

For more screen versions of Raymond Chandler's detective, see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Lady in the Lake (1947), and The Long Goodbye (1973). Bogart and Bacall went on to star together in Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948), while Howard Hawks moved into Western territory with Red River (1948). Martha Vickers, sadly, did not become a great star, although she did become Mickey Rooney's third wife from 1949 to 1951. You can see more of her in The Man I Love (1947), Ruthless (1948), and Alimony (1949). Dorothy Malone, on the other hand, ended up winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Written on the Wind (1956), and she later appeared in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Warlock (1959), and even Basic Instinct (1992).