Humphrey Bogart - Philip Marlowe
Lauren Bacall - Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
John Ridgely - Eddie Mars
Martha Vickers - Carmen Sternwood
Dorothy Malone - bookstore proprietress
Elisha Cook Jr. - Harry Jones
Howard Hawks - Director
Howard Hawks - Producer
William Faulkner - Screenwriter
Sidney Hickox - Cinematographer
Max Steiner - Film Score
Raymond Chandler - Original Novel
Within the noir series Gilda (1946) was a film apart, an almost unclassifiable movie in which eroticism triumphed over violence and strangeness. Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep is, on the other hand, a veritable classic of the genre, the essential laws of which it encapsulates. Up to that point Hawks had done good things and bad things. Good in Scarface (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), bad in Sergeant York (1941). But then The Big Sleep doubtless owes a lot to the original novel by Raymond Chandler and less to the adaptation by William Faulkner.
The plot involves an investigation by Chandler's favorite hero, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), hired by General Sherwood (Charles Waldron) to get his two daughters out of a tight spot. One of these, Carmen (Martha Vickers), an ether addict and nymphomaniac, is prone to outbreaks of destructive rage toward her lovers, outbreaks that can stretch as far as murder. The other woman, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), divorced and blase, assiduously frequents the roulette tables and loves the big thrill. There again, it's impossible to describe in detail the jungle these women frequent: anxious curiosity is aroused by this world of torturers and victims, each bound to the other by unavowable ties.
The sordid settings and their bizarre details, the brief but merciless fistfights, the furtive murders, the sudden reversal fo roles, the "objects," in the Surrealist sense of the word (such as the Khmer statue hiding a camera which takes pictures of the orgy scenes), the eriticism of blood and pain (Vivian kissing Marlowe's bruised lips), the killer who lets himself be poisoned in order to go on concealing his accomplice's name, the armed prowlers who watch over the nocturnal rendezvous and the environs of secret gambling joints, and lastly the wild dancing of the women: all this makes The Big Sleep a major event in the history of American cinema. Never will film noir go further in the description of a cynical, sensual, and ferocious world.
Howard Hawks, a great specialist in violence, had lost none of his touch. He obtained a peerless performance from all his actors, from Humphrey Bogart, who takes over from Dick Powell in the role of Marlowe, as well as from Lauren Bacall, a cat woman with an attractive, jutting jaw, with moist, full lips. These celebrated lovers fire off remarks of a suprising eroticism, remarks the censors let pass because they used metaphors from horse racing. And the mise-en-scene possesses all the necessary brilliance and toughness.
--RAYMOND BORDE, from A Panorama of
American Film Noir.
Preparation on The Big Sleep followed much the same pattern as with To Have and Have Not. Howard Hawks sold the rights to Raymond Chandler's detective novel to Warners for $20,000 in October 1944, several weeks after starting Faulkner and newcomer Leigh Brackett on the adaptation. Brackett and Faulkner each worked alone on different parts of the story and simply passed their work along to Hawks without even seeing one another's efforts, and without any input from Hawks while they were writing.
Actually, Hawks knew he would be rewriting the script during production--in this case with the aid of Jules Furthman, who came on after the shooting script was approved. It was Hawks' practice to shoot as close as possible to continuity and to revise the screenplay in the process, often with input from his leading actors. As it turned out, he and Furthman spent an inordinate amount of time rewriting during the first weeks on The Big Sleep--and without any input from Bogart, whose absence necessitated the rewrites.
Bogart's already unstable marriage to Mayo Methot had begun to collapse once Bacall sauntered onto the scene, and the final crash came just as production opened on The Big Sleep in December. This apparently was the only time in Bogart's career that drinking or lateness affected his work, but Hawks managed to write and shoot around him. And once he was back on the set and his relationship with Bacall in the open, the shoot proceeded smoothly and Bogart did some of the best work of his career as hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe.
Hawks closed production on The Big Sleep in the spring of 1945, just before To Have and Have Not was released. Not until that picture hit did anyone really realize the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Jack Warner send the picture back into production for additional Bogart-Bacall sequences, which added enormously to the appeal of the picture. Finally, the composer Max Steiner added the finishing touch with his score for The Big Sleep. When the film opened early in 1946, critics roundly criticized its brutality and confused plotting--which was as much the result of Chandler's original story as the post-production overhaul--but audiences were captivated by the romantic antagonism between Bogart and Bacall.
Once again Hawks had fashioned a fast-paced thriller cloaked in darkness, cynicism, and despair, but one with light and heart at its center. There was a moment in Casablanca when Claude Rains told Bogart that despite his tough exterior, at heart Bogart was a sentimenalist. This was the key to Bogie's persona, and Lauren Bacall--whom he married while The Big Sleep was in production--brought home the point both on screen and off.
--STEVEN BACH, from The Genius of the System
Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.
A selection of The Big Sleep related films.
Find The Big Sleep on eBay.com
A selection of The Big Sleep in books.
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