A lot goes unspoken in The Big Sleep. It’s very much set in a wartime Los Angeles, but there’s never much said about wartime conditions or Los Angeles. When private detective Humphrey Bogart goes around the city, investigating, he’s only ever encountering women (beautiful women at that, because director Hawks’s Los Angeles is solely populated with beautiful women who find Bogart enchanting). Sure, book shop purveying is a reasonable career for Sonia Darrin and Dorothy Malone, but then there’s Joy Barlow as Bogart’s cabbie confidant. Barlow’s definitely taking a traditional male job (cab driver) and role (cab driver confidant to detective). She just happens to find Bogart irresistible.
There’s also a lot of texture in Bogart’s banter with copper Regis Toomey; particular phrases and observations referencing wartime conditions. There’s no mention of the war, there’s no mention of the home front, but it’s there.
Of course, Big Sleep doesn’t just not talk about its texture, it also doesn’t talk about… you know, the solution to the mystery. Or even what mystery is what. Rich, sick old man Charles Waldron (in a wonderful performance) hires Bogart to pay off some guy blackmailing one of his daughters. Martha Vickers and Lauren Bacall are the daughters. Vickers is the one getting blackmailed; she’s younger, Bacall’s protective. So Bacall intercedes with Bogart.
The reason Big Sleep doesn’t worry about its exposition is because it’s got Bogart and Bacall. Their first scene together, while energetic, is nothing compared to where the film’s going to get them. The first scene has them talking over one another, constantly interrupting thoughts and dialogue, frustrating each other. It’s a competition without a clear goal–Bacall wants to know what Waldron gave Bogart to do, but Bogart isn’t going to say and maybe Bacall thinks he’s going to crack, maybe she doesn’t. They irritate each other. It’s marvelous.
In their third scene, Bacall’s got to scratch an itch in her nylons and–it just occurred to me–maybe it’s a metaphor for their relationship at that point.
But more on them in a bit. First, Bogart’s got to investigate–leading him to fetching booksellers Darrin and Malone, then on to blackmailer Louis Jean Heydt (who’s not on screen yet, he’s just been mentioned in dialogue and Bogart tracks someone to his residence–Big Sleep doesn’t slow down at all, you’ve got to keep up–when Bogart sits and thinks things through, he doesn’t share what he’s thinking). Eventually there’s a murder and a coverup and Bogart trying to protect Vickers.
There’s a lot of movement in the first act. It also establishes what will become some of the film’s familiar settings. There’s some exterior shooting, but a lot of the outdoor shots are on sound stages and they’re gloriously done. Beautiful photography from Sidney Hickox, great direction from Hawks (throughout, but also moving around those settings). The physical personality of The Big Sleep is deliberate and thoughtful, even if it’s not the draw of the film. Big Sleep is a bunch of expertly done background to its stars’ romance.
Because, pretty soon, Bacall’s pushed her way back into Bogart’s investigation. Even though he doesn’t know why and she isn’t really explaining why, at least not honestly. They’re adversarial but dispassionately. They’re far more passionate about the rapport they’ve discovered. Turns out Bacall’s got a gambling problem too, just with a different gambling establishment than Vickers. John Ridgely runs Bacall’s favorite spot and Bogart finds himself contending not just with Ridgely, but with his thugs too. They want him off the case he’s not investigating.
Although Bogart’s not officially investigating this case no one wants him on (because Waldron didn’t hire him for it), Bogart’s still actually doing it. And is aware he’s doing it. He’s interested and concerned. He’s sympathetic without ever being a sap, which eventually leads to some great quiet moments in Bogart’s performance. His run in with junior league tough guy Elisha Cook Jr. is affecting, for instance, and his constant attempts at fending off Vickers are nice. There’s a lot going on concurrently in Big Sleep, so much with the mysteries–there are the two murders in the first night of the present action, plus two suspected murders before the film begins–but also with the various players (not just murder suspects, but blackmailers and gamblers and then the sisters). Toomey’s police presence is omnipresent when established but always a little out of focus. He doesn’t bother Bogart too much, just enough to remind everyone he exists.
But none of that background–the story–is as important as Bogart and Bacall. Bacall’s character arc has her melting but she never loses the demeanor as she becomes more fragile. And Bogart doesn’t become more protective as she softens either. They’re enthralling throughout–not so much separately because Bacall’s never alone–but as the film progresses, their rapport and relationship take the spotlight off the action and never give it back. Not even during shootouts.
Everything’s good in Big Sleep. Vickers is exceptional, Ridgely’s good, Waldron, Malone’s fun, Charles D. Brown is a hoot as the butler (spoiler: he didn’t do it). Great script from William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman; the dialogue’s better, but only because of Bacall and Bogart, otherwise the plotting would be the winner. Hawks’s direction is spectacular. It starts strong and just keeps getting better, never losing any of the deliberate texture (implied or active).
Good score from Max Steiner (very familiar, incidentally, if you know his King Kong one) with some very nice moves once it gets romantic. Christian Nyby’s editing is excellent as well.
The Big Sleep is phenomenal; Hawks, Bogart, and Bacall make something singular here.
Directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, based on a story story by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Christian Nyby; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Regis Toomey (Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls), Sonia Darrin (Agnes Lozelle), Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody), Dorothy Malone (Acme Book Shop Proprietress), Bob Steele (Lash Canino), Elisha Cook Jr. (Harry Jones), Charles D. Brown (Norris – the Butler).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND LAUREN BACALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.