Noirvember: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

The first time I watched “The Big Sleep”, it ended and I realized I had no idea who the murderer was. Every time I rewatch it I get lost as to what exactly is going on at certain points in the story. Attempting to read a plot synopsis of the movie makes my brain want to die a little. It is that convoluted. And, strangely, with this film, that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because the individual scenes are so compelling, it isn’t as important that they don’t make up a coherent whole.

“The Big Sleep”, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel directed by Howard Hawks, was the second film to pair Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall after their popular appearance in “To Have and Have Not” a couple years before, and the first since their real-life marriage. Therefore, changes were made to capitalize on their onscreen chemistry, and as a result, two versions of the film exist: the first one has a bit more of a straightforward plot, while the second one has a lot more to the scenes between Bogie and Bacall, and supposedly more of a noirish feel (this is the version that is most widely seen; a restored version of the other wasn’t released until 1997).

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep”

The plot involves detective Phillip Marlowe (Bogart), who is tasked by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to resolve gambling debts his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers, whose performance was so great much of it was cut to make Bacall look better) owes. His other daughter, Vivian (Bacall) believes he actually wants Marlowe to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Sean Regan. It isn’t too long after that that the overall plot becomes quite difficult to follow, but it is highlighted by some great action sequences and some wonderful scenes between Bogie and Bacall, as well as a memorable moment between Marlowe and a bookseller (Dorothy Malone). These scenes help make “The Big Sleep” one of the greatest films noir of all time.

One more point as to just how complex both the film and the book it was based on are: screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett couldn’t determine who murdered one character, so they wired Chandler asking them. Chandler responded that the answer was in the book, but soon after phoned them to say that he looked in the book but couldn’t figure it out either, so he left it up to them to decide (their decision can be seen in the first version of the movie, but it is left a mystery in the 1946 version). Chandler later told a friend, “They sent me a wire…asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.”

“The Big Sleep” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Runtime: 114 minutes.

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