Thursday, December 9, 2010

THE BIG SLEEP (1946): Bogie and Howard Hawks

I neither encourage nor discourage anyone to watch an old movie.  Our memories distort everything, and there was no golden age of movies.  A movie might be disarming and quaint and bring back fond memories of our youth, but that doesn’t make it a good movie.  Most actors in the good old days put more effort into being a type than a real person.  We remember Cary Grant or Mae West or John Wayne because they played the same character in almost every movie.  On the other hand, older movies contained much less cynicism than today’s blockbusters.  If the special effects looked amateurish or if the storyline seemed hokey, at least we understood that the production costs didn’t exceed one hundred million dollars.  Money has made the producers crass and less motivated to put out a quality product.  Sensationalism rather than characters we care for is what now draws people into the theatres.
The movies that Bogart starred in were better quality than most others for reasons other than his acting ability.  Bogart was actually at his best when playing more atypical parts such as Angels with Dirty Faces where Bogart plays the sniveling villain, or in Treasure of Sierra Madre where Bogart plays the paranoid and pathetic loser.  Otherwise, Bogart almost always plays the tough and crusty leading man whose integrity is irreproachable and whose attraction to women is irresistible.  And so this too is the role that he plays in Howard Hawks 1946 production of The Big Sleep.
Bogart plays Philip Marlowe (of Raymond Chandler fame) and he is almost perfect for the part.  As glorified as Raymond Chandler may be among those who like novels about detectives, he did not write any storylines in his books that did not come off better on the movie screen.  He could just as well have had Bogart in mind when he first created the character of Philip Marlowe in one of his novels.  In any case, Marlowe is hired on by the Sternwood family to locate a missing person.  General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a millionaire who was at one time heroic in his youth, is now an old, lonely and sickly man, and he hires Marlowe as a private detective.  Marlowe likes him.  The General also has two daughters: Vivian (Lauren Bacall) is beautiful, protective of her father and younger sister, tough, and attracted to someone like Marlowe; Carmen (Martha Vickers) is also beautiful and attracted to someone like Marlowe, but she is at the same time irresponsible and psychotic.  While Marlowe attempts to track down the missing man, he also stumbles across a number of unsolved murders.  All of the murders, however, seem to center around a casino owner and mobster by the name of Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).  Marlowe immediately assumes that Eddie was responsible for the death of the missing man because the missing man was rumored to have at one time been in love with Eddie Mars’ wife.  Not so.  As it turns out, the missing man was shot a half dozen times or so by Carmen after the missing man had spurned her advances.  And so, Marlowe after being beat up a couple of times, having his way with every woman that he wished, and finally finding himself attracted in return to Vivian, discovers what actually happened to the missing man.  At the same time, he ruthlessly disposes of Eddie Mars by setting him up to be shot by Eddie’s own henchmen.
Hawks had for many years wanted to make this movie, but it took a very long time to get the material in this movie by the censors.  Hawks had hired on the great William Faulkner and an unknown 29-year old female writer by the name of Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay.  As legend has it, Brackett actually was the one responsible for the juicier portions of the script.  Hawks supposedly rushed the job of making this movie to such a degree that it really must have seemed like he was making it up while he went along.  Frankly, the screenplay is really not so different from the novel.  Again, Chandler must have already been thinking about what The Big Sleep would have looked like on film when he wrote the novel.  As legendary of a director as Hawks was, he only directed one film before this that must have shocked the movie audiences, and that was Scarface, which was released in 1932.  Not even The Big Sleep, with its depictions of blackmail, pornography, homosexuality and violence, could compare in adult content to the earlier movie with its incestuous references and portrayal of a truly sick killer.  Still, The Big Sleep was probably the only other movie that Hawks made that approached modernity.
Unlike Scarface, this movie does seem somewhat dated.  If you’ve seen Bogart in Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, you’ve also seen him in The Big Sleep.  If you’ve seen Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not or Key Largo, you’ve also seen her in this movie.  Unknown actors or actresses played most of the best characters in The Big Sleep.  Martha Vickers as Carmen was a model turned actor and played perfectly the eighteen-year old maniac who had no control over her passions.  Charles D. Brown played the loyal and sophisticated butler who looked after the Sternwood family.  Louis Jean Jeydt played the inept gangster Joe Brody, who ends up getting himself shot.  Elisha Cook, Jr. plays the tiny but tough Harry Jones, who died because of his loyalty to a gal who didn’t give a damn about him.  And Bob Steele plays the sinister Canino, whose very voice makes the flesh crawl.  It was these actors more so than the talents of Bogart or Bacall that made this movie memorable.
Maybe because it came before all of the imitations, The Big Sleep seems fresh and almost innocent in its depiction of a hard-boiled detective.  Unlike so many modern detective movies that have become introspective, The Big Sleep is a fun movie to watch.  We don’t see any heart break, and we don’t feel like we are watching a bunch of lost souls feeling sorry for their self.  It’s not a great movie, however.  Bogart and Bacall play “larger than life characters,” to use a miserable cliché, yet for people used to seeing the pairing, there are really no surprises here.  The Big Sleep is an early formulaic movie.  It’s just better than most formulas. 
October 19, 2007
 © Robert S. Miller 2007

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