As I was watching the classic 1946 movie based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, I found myself thinking, “Well this is all really straightforward and easy to explain.” But immediately afterwards, as I was trying to explain it to The Flower, I realized the logic of it had all slipped away from me, like a dream.
But the amazing thing about this film is how little one’s ability to make sense out of it matters. It’s especially amazing because, as you’re watching, everything—every scene seems to follow logically, indeed, inexorably to the next. This is probably a credit to both the source material, awash in style, and screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Bracket and Furthman would go on to write Rio Bravo, just for example, and Bracket wrote the first draft of Empire Strikes Back which George Lucas claims he threw out. And you know this is true because Empire Strikes Back is such a great film, like the prequels and Jedi.
The story, starts with private dick Marlowe (Bogart, duh) being called in to help an old man, General Sternwood (silent movie veteran Charles Waldron, in his last film) who wants to handle a sensitive matter with discretion. Seems he’s being squeezed to pay for his wild daughter Carmen’s (Martha Vickers, who, sort of amusingly, we saw shortly after turn up in a Rifftrax short, showing a Hollywood Christmas where celebrities were swimming in Beverly Hills) gambling debts. But his usual man for handling things, Sean, has gone missing, and his older, less wild daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who also has gambling debts, thinks her father has hired him to find Sean.
Well, in the course of sleuthing, Marlowe encounters a murder, a scam involving rare books, and a hot bookstore girl (future Oscar winner Dorothy Malone), and just when things are heating up, the General pays him off and takes him off the case. But now Marlowe’s got an itch, see? There are too many loose threads and just what the hell did happen to Sean anyway?
Well, damned if I know. Before it’s all over, people who are supposed to be missing aren’t missing at all but some are dead, and some other people end up getting murdered, and there are double-crossed, backstabs and, it all sort of works out the end in a way that makes sense, even if you can’t explain it. More than any specific details—like the old man in the wheelchair, the wild daughter with the more conservative older sister—it is the head fakes that make this seem like the real inspiration for The Big Lebowski. (In fact, I’ve often said that the plot for Lebowski mirrors Murder, My Sweet, the Dick Powell 1944 turn at playing Marlowe.)
Loved it. The kids loved it, too, despite the fact that it was the second feature (after High Sierra). Howard Hawks directs. Max Steiner does the score. Lensed by Sidney Hickox, who also did Bogie & Bacall’s To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage. Edited by Christian Nyby, who would go on to direct The Thing, which most people would go on to believe Hawks directed.
2 thoughts on “The Big Sleep (1946)”
Can’t stand Bacall. At least in the release of the early version her part was toned down a little. Anyway, my son was headed for a career in film studies so one day we were discussing “The Big Sleep”. I commented, tongue-in-cheek, that I’d always wondered what happened during the blackout in the bookstore scene. My son replied that his generation made whole movies about what happened during that blackout.
While I love Bogie & Bacall movies, I’d be hard pressed to have an opinion of her beyond that.
As for the blackout: Ha!