Thursday, January 22, 2009


Howard Hawks ranks as one of the least pretentious Hollywood filmmakers. In Todd McCarthy’s seminal biography, “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood,” Hawks summed up his philosophy about messages into his movies. “I never made a statement. Our job is to make entertainment. I don’t give a God damn about taking sides.” First and foremost, Hawks considered himself a storyteller, and he let nothing come between the story and him. Second, actors and actress either adhered to Hawks’ dictates or he wrote them out of scenes, sometimes movie entirely, and gave their action to others. Not surprisingly, when Hawks hired William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman to adapt mystery novelist Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” he told them, “Don’t monkey with the book—just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.”

Between 1944 and 1947, Chandler’s shabby but chivalrous private eye Philip Marlowe appeared in four films, including “Murder, My Sweet” (1944) with Dick Powell, “The Big Sleep” (1946), “The Lady in the Lake” (1947) with Robert Montgomery, and “The Brasher Doubloon” (1947) with George Montgomery. During this period, Hollywood filmmakers made what French critics later called ‘film noir’ movies. Essentially, ‘film noir’ movies occurred at night either indoors or outdoors. The gritty black & white photography stressed gutter realism, while the expressionistic lighting forged haunting shadows with a fatalistic flavor. Urban thrillers more than detective mysteries bore the marks of this movement. Unsavory male heroes and the fallen women that trapped them in a web of intrigue populated these films. The atrocities of World War II and Nazi persecution of the Jews destroyed the innocence of American isolationism and created more mature movies where characters suffered from flaws. Although “The Big Sleep” fits into this oeuvre, Hawks shunned such artificial narrative gimmicks.

In “The Big Sleep,” Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) works for $25 a day and expenses. He uses his wits and fists to relieve the wealthy but crippled General Sternwood (Charles Waldron of “The Real Glory”) of an extortionist. Sternwood has two beautiful but pampered daughters: a divorcee, Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall of “To Have and Have Not”), and a drug addict Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers of “Marine Raiders”). An amusing scene occurs early on when Carmen tries to sit in Marlowe’s lap while he is standing up. Later, when Marlowe visited General Sternwood, he has to weather the hot house heat that enables the decrepit General to survive. The General explains that he has to indulge in his vices by proxy. In other words, he sits and watches Marlowe as our hero drinks and smokes.

Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz) demands $5-thousand dollars from the General for a sheaf of gambling debts that bear Carmen’s signature. No sooner has Marlowe gotten onto the case than an assailant shoots and kills Geiger. Marlowe enters Geiger’s house moments after the murder and finds Carmen sitting in a nearby chair drugged out of her mind. He finds a concealed camera but the film has been removed. Marlowe discovers a black book of addresses and hustles Carmen back home. Marlowe’s former boss, Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey of “Spellbound”) with the District Attorney's Office, pays him visits at home while Marlowe is examining the black book. Bernie informs him that a Sternwood limo has just been pulled out of the ocean with Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur, dead behind the wheel. Ohls wants information. Marlowe explains the blackmail angle and later divulges what happened to Geiger, but he leaves Carmen’s part out of the murder. Marlowe runs into a cagey gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely of “Air Force”), who is flanked by a couple of goons, while he investigates the death of Geiger. As it turns out, Vivian and Mars are connected to each other. B-movie cowboy hero Bob Steele makes an impressive cameo as murderous gunsel Lash Canino and has a shoot-out with Bogart at the end of the movie.

“The Big Sleep” qualifies as one of the most convoluted murder mysteries to emerge from Hollywood. Hawks and Bogart argued over the identity of who killed the Sternwood chauffeur. They called up Chandler, since he wrote the novel, but he could not conjure up a plausible answer to their question. “I don’t know,” Chandler told them. Eventually, Hawks and Faulkner contrived a solution. The solution to Taylor’s murder, however, remained hidden until 1995 when the original version of “The Big Sleep” was made available to the public. Initially, Warner Brothers showed the original to American troops overseas, but Jack L. Warner shelved the movie until after the war so the studio could release its other war-themed movies before the Axis surrendered.

Meanwhile, after winning the critics’ approval in “To Have and Have Not,” Bacall had received abrasive reviews for her performance in “Confidential Agent” (1945), and her agent, a worried Charles Feldman, pleaded with Warner reshoot several scenes and invent new ones to showcase the insolence of Bacall’s character. When Warner Brothers released “The Big Sleep” in 1946, Hawks had jettisoned the expository Taylor murder solution scene and added other scenes that would have been more appropriate in one of his screwball comedies. One of the scenes that they added contained the risqué horse racing scene that serves as a veiled commentary about sexual relations. Somehow the censors at the Production Code Administration neither complained nor demanded that Warner Brothers delete this dialogue. Ultimately, Marlowe solves the case, eliminates the villains, and woos Vivian, but the plot makes very little sense, which may account for the film’s following. McCarthy quoted Hawks about the director’s own perplexity: “I can’t follow the story. I saw some of it on television the other night, and I’d listen to some of the things he’d talk about and it had me thoroughly confused because I hadn’t seen it in twenty years.”

“The Big Sleep” is really a classic. The Warners Home Video contains both the 1945 pre-release version and the 1946 theatrical version.

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