The Big Sleep: Howard Hawks’ steamy Noir classic is an eternal cinematic monument to the love between Bogart and Bacall

Humphrey Bogart co-starred with his beloved wife Lauren Bacall as the iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

“Bogart can be tough without a gun,Also he has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article”

Raymond Chandler on Bogart’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe

The Big Sleep , Howard Hawks’ film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s book, confirms the adage that Great art stems from Chaos. The film starring Humphrey Bogart (as private detective Philip Marlowe) and his beloved wife Lauren Bacall(they married just before the release of this film)  was one of the most chaotic and tumultuous productions in movie history. Bogart and Bacall met and fell in love while starring in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944).  The two stars and director came together again for this ostensibly darker film. Panned at that time of its release for being immoral and confusing, it is today considered one of the greatest Crime\Noir classics ever made; even though die hard fans (including yours truly) would agree that they cannot make heads or tails of the film’s plot. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was the epitome of the existential hero of the late 30’s and early 40’s, and over the years, several actors have played the role , but we don’t think of Robert Montgomery ,Dick Powell or James Garner when Marlowe’s name is mentioned: it’s Bogart’s sad, laconic face that springs immediately to mind – moving briskly through the sunny, cityscape of Los Angeles. and spitting out punchlines faster than bullets- he alone was the Hollywood icon of that 40’s existential hero : Tough, cynical, hard-boiled and sardonic; the perfect hero for a new cinematic movement called ‘Film Noir‘ that invaded the movie screens during, and post, WWII. Along with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (brought to screen by Bogart’s good friend John Huston), The Big Sleep ranks as one of the seminal films in Bogart’s career. Of course, Bogart’s Marlowe is nothing like Chandler’s Marlowe; as was the case with the legendary stars of Hollywood’s golden age, Bogart never played characters, the characters played him. The characters are molded and polished to suit his personality and style , and there is no greater star than Bogart , who made his style his ultimate artistic expression. He had a limited range as an actor, but within that range , he was omnipotent. Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Murder, my Sweet epitomizes Chandler’s Marlowe much better, but ironically, it was Bogart’s super cool, super confident Marlowe that became Chandler’s personal favorite.

Howard Hawks was the perfect director to bring the story to the screen. Hawks has the distinction of making one great movie in every American film genre ; whether it’s Adventure, gangster, screwball comedy, western; think of Scarface, Only Angels have Wings, His Girl Friday, Red River etc. . The Big Sleep  mixes the  wit and tone of his screwball comedies and the harsh, existential mood of his gangster\adventure films to become the definitive detective\Noir thriller of the 1940s. The great Orson Welles, once remarking about the difference between his two favorite directors, John Ford and Howard Hawks, commented that Ford was great poetry and Hawks was great prose. Ford made pure cinema , while Hawks made ‘Talkies‘ in it’s purest form. We remember the great visuals from Ford’s films; In Hawks’ films, it’s the actors\characters and their conversations that we remember the most. Even in the classic westerns that Hawks made – Rio Bravo, El Dorado – , it’s the dialogue and the character interactions that we remember the most, as opposed to Ford, where a landscape – (say)Monument Valley-  was as  memorable as his lead actor John Wayne. Hawks films are always dialogue driven,  chamber-pieces, and surprisingly for that kind of cinema, his films used to go wildly over-budget and over-schedule, simply because of the time and effort he used to take  in refining and polishing  the dialogues with the actors. The Big Sleep shows itself to be the quintessential Hawks film by the color, precision and richness of its dialogue, as well as an insolent, insouciance that marks the interactions between the characters. The rapid fire delivery that had been the basis of humor in the screwball comedies; think of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading barbs in His Girlf Friday,  is mirrored here with greater subtlety of effect in the interactions between Bogart and Bacall. Hawks, in collaboration with his  screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, and his principal actors, built on  Chandler’s trademark witty exchanges, by adding completely new scenes and excising several plot points, to arrive at the dazzling movie we have in front of us.  Like many of Hawks’ films, The Big Sleep is almost better to listen to than to watch. The film marked a major turning point for Hawks as a storyteller; starting with this film, he would abstain from having a fully rounded story or narrative arc, instead, concentrating on having a procession of great scenes that, on it’s own, is absolutely dazzling in the way they are staged and performed, but doesn’t necessarily build to an organic whole. Though nobody ever called Hawks a post-modern filmmaker, his films share that elaborate, ritualistic quality in scene building that’s most evident in the works of post-modern auteurs like Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino, where extreme emphasis is placed on a stylized form of character behavior and dialogue that  rejects conventional storytelling logic, and concentrates on pure sensation and pleasure. For Hawks,  the scene is the basic unit of filmmaking: do the scene well and audiences won’t care about the rest. His idea of a great film was a film with four great scenes and no bad scenes. Talking about The Big Sleep he once said, “We made a picture that worked pretty well… and I never figured out what was going on, but I thought the basic thing had great scenes in it and it was good entertainment”.

As for the process of making the film, well it deserves a movie on it’s own. There was so much going on during the  production and Post-production, that it’s a miracle that the film arrived in the shape that we have now.

Consider this :

  • The plot of The Big Sleep was so ludicrously convoluted that at one point, the director, actors and the writers were unable to figure out if a minor character who Marlowe finds dead had been killed or committed suicide. They contacted Chandler, who had to admit that he didn’t know either.
  • Bogart and Bacall fell in love much to the chagrin of Howard Hawks , who was obsessed with playing Bacall’s Svengali. and he did his best to break up the relationship. So there was considerable tension between Bogart & Bacall and Hawks during the making of the film, to the point that after Bogart and Bacall married, Hawks refused to come back to re-shoot some scenes with them for the film (Though he eventually did)
  • Bogart himself was in turmoil, as he was a married man carrying on an extramarital affair with Bacall. He started drinking heavily to the point that the production had to be shut down due to his inability to work; Unprecedented for Bogart, who was a thorough professional and the studio’s workhorse. 
  • Bogart was constantly dithering as to whether or not to leave his wife. He split up and then went  back to his wife at least three time during the course of The Big Sleep shoot. Bogart’s indecision over whether or not to leave his wife triggered a bout of nerves for Lauren Bacall, whose hands shook whenever she had to light a cigarette or pour a drink during the filming.
  • Martha Vickers, who played Lauren’s nymphomaniac sister, turned out to
    be  so good that she shattered Miss Bacall completely. So the producers cut the picture in such a way that all her best scenes were left out except one
  • The ending of the film was a big problem, because the censors objected to every ending proposed by Hawks. Finally, Hawks asked the Production Code committee how they would end the film, and they came up with the idea of Marlowe forcing the gangster chief out of the house, where the criminal was shot by his own gang. Hawks was so impressed he offered to hire them as writers.
  • After the shooting was finished, the film remained on the Warner’s shelf for almost a year, because there was a backlog of WWII movies to be released. One of them was Confidential Agent starring Bacall. The film and Bacall’s performance was excoriated by the critics and Bacall’s agent begged Jack Warner to re-shoot some of Bacall’s scenes in The Big Sleep, inserting more insolent scenes like the ones she had with Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Warner agreed, and thus new scenes were added almost a year after  the principal photography had finished on the film. 

Now, any film with that kind of production history would have turned out to be a mess, so it’s a testament to the talents of Bogart, Bacall and Hawks, and the merits of the golden age studio system, that it turned out the way it did; not a mess , but a classic. For a film that’s basically a dark thriller, it’s dominant mood is that of romance and an easy, comfortable sexuality, where the women are just as insolent, competent and sublimely amoral as any of the men in the film. To increase the film’s sexual tension, Hawks decided that every woman in the film would find Marlowe irresistible and try to seduce him. The film boasts a gallery of (what we now refer to as) ‘Hawksian‘ woman: A breed of tough yet flirtations woman, who  prefer to be in the company of men; who are not necessarily classically beautiful, but oozes a magnetic sexuality that the men finds irresistible; who are up-front in speaking her mind and keeping up with her male counterparts in witty banter as well as in taking the initiative to get what she wants personally as well as sexually.  Two of these women are introduced in the beginning of the film itself. They are the Sternwood sisters: Vivian (Bacall) and Carmen(Martha Vickers). Along with them, we also get a hint of the two mysteries that will form the basis of the film’s narrative. A good detective thriller will have a strong mystery at his heart that the detective will investigate and solve by the end of the film. A great detective thriller will have two mysteries- one on the surface, which is what the Detective will be hired to solve , and one underneath, which will be the real mystery of the movie. Usually, these mysteries run in parallel and converge at some point in the film.  In the case of The Big Sleep, Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to find out why his young, nymphomaniac daughter Carmen is being blackmailed, and to take care of the blackmailer once he is found –  The film begins with Marlowe arriving at the Sternwood mansion and being immediately accosted by the wild Carmen, “who tries to sit on him while he is standing” –  Secondarily, we discover that the General is disturbed by having been seemingly betrayed by Sean Regan (who never appears in the film), who was once Sternwood’s trusted aide and who has disappeared. This is just a bit of information thrown out by the General, which Marlowe (or we the audience)  doesn’t take very seriously, but as we will find out, will form the pivotal mystery of the film.  And we get an inkling of this in the very next scene, where  the General’s elder daughter, Vivian , is introduced and she assumes that Marlowe has been hired to search for Regan. Her treatment of Marlowe is rather hostile(or hostile flirtation) as she tries her best to extract information out of Marlowe about his visit, but Marlowe refuses to budge an inch, and their first meeting ends in acrimony, though the romantic\sexual tension between them is palpable.

Marlowe discovers that the putative blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, has been running a rather shoddy extortion racket and has been using his connections with Eddie Mars, a gambler, to mask the real nature of his business. He has lured Carmen into his web, and has taken some compromising photographs of her. But Geiger is murdered, just as Marlowe is about to confront him, and Carmen is found at the crime scene. Marlowe takes Carmen home, making sure that nobody knows about her presence. The next one to die is Owen Taylor, the Sternwoods’ chauffeur,  drowned in the pacific in his car (This is the most famous loose end in the story which even Chandler couldn’t solve). Now within the course of these events, two more Hawksian women are introduced (three actually, if one takes into account the flirtatious female cabby who helps Marlowe in following Geiger) . First is Agnes(Sonia Darrin), Geiger’s employee, who, with her accomplice, Joe Brody, hope to take over her late employer’s shady enterprises, which is run under the cover of a bookstore. Marlowe’s first meeting with her is rather amusing. He affects the persona of a fussy, nervous customer, as he barges into the bookstore  inquiring about an 1860 edition of Ben-Hur. Of course, no such edition exits, but Agnes doesn’t know this, which increases Marlowe’s suspicions. Realizing that he isn’t going to get much out of an agitated Agnes, he beats a quick retreat.  Next: we get one of the most entertaining (and my favorite) scene in the film, which doesn’t really serve much purpose in the larger scheme of things, but today, the film is unimaginable without it. After his meeting with Agnes, Marlowe  walks into a neighboring book store, right across the street, where we are introduced to Dorothy Malone playing the proprietress of the store. Marlowe tries the same ‘Ben-Hur’ trick with her , but she’s up to the challenge, which impresses him immensely. An extended session of, what I’d call,  ‘Verbal’ lovemaking takes place between them, in the course of which Marlowe extracts relevant information from her about Geiger. As the scene progresses, the detective and the proprietress starts getting more and more intimate. Though it’s never explicitly stated, it’s implied that Marlowe and the proprietress made love inside the bookstore:  It starts raining as Marlowe begins to leave the store, so she suggests he stay back. She then closes the store down for the afternoon, takes off her glasses ,lets her hair down and they both get ‘wet’  on a bottle of Rye that Marlowe carries around in his coat-pocket. The scene slowly fades-out, and when it fades-in, the rain has stopped and both of them are still in the bookstore, and appears quite well acquainted with each other. They see Geiger coming out of his place, and as Marlowe bids farewell, she reminds him to come back again if he ever need a book (meaning a book ‘that doesn’t exist’), slyly hinting at what transpired  between them. These two ‘Bookstore scenes’ not only defines the nature of this film, but also the future course of Hawks’ career, as he would go on to do more and more of this: concentrating on individual scene building and character development at the expense of narrative coherence and dramatic complexity. Sometimes it worked spectacularly, as in the case of Rio Bravo, sometimes, as in the case of Man’s Favorite Sport, it failed miserably.

Marlowe later confronts Agnes and Brody in their hotel room, and is not surprised to see Vivian with them, as Marlowe has clearly deduced that the Agnes-Brody duo is behind the blackmail scheme. She is there to pay them off for Carmen’s pictures. But in the middle of their conversation, Carol Lundgren, another of Geiger’s former employees (and his ‘room-mate’) rushes in and shoots Brody in revenge for the death of Geiger. Marlowe has also discovered that Eddie Mars is taking an unusual interest in the case. Vivian says this is because Sean Regan ran off with Eddie Mars’ wife, but Marlowe is not convinced. Nevertheless, the first mystery – regarding Carmen’s blackmail –  seems to have been solved. But the real mystery is only beginning, as Marlowe is intrigued about Eddie Mars’ influence over Vivian. Vivian, on the other hand, is determined to put an end to Marlowe’s investigation and she arranges to meet with him at a restaurant to pay him off for his services. The ‘Restaurant scene’ was the scene that was re-shot after a year, as the original scene that  took place in Marlowe’s office was considered ‘not hot enough’ . Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was specially brought in to write the scene. The scene begins with some steamy flirtation between Marlowe and Vivian, with horse-racing being used as a metaphor for sex.

Vivian:“…speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come from behind… I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free….”

Vivian:“You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”

Vivian:“A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

But soon enough the mood changes, as Marlowe starts questioning her about Eddie Mars and ‘what he has  got on her’. This sets-off the second mystery in the story , which involves the disappearance of Sean Regan, and in the course of his investigation, Marlowe realizes that Eddie Mars killed Reagan, and he has deftly transferred the blame of the crime on to Carmen, and now he is blackmailing Vivian with it. By this time, Marlowe and Vivian have fallen in love, and Vivian helps Marlowe in his final confrontation with Mars.  In the film’s climax, Eddie Mars is killed by his own henchmen , and Marlowe and Vivian looks destined for a happily ever after.

Obviously, the steamy nature of Chandler’s novel made it impossible for it to be adapted to screen as it is. So, apart from Hawks’ newly acquired penchant for sacrificing plot in favor of ‘great scenes’ , the disjointed nature of the film owes a lot to the fact that  plot points from the novel had to be excised for satisfying the censors. Chandler’s novel is more specific about the facts of the morally decadent world in which Marlowe somehow survives. In the novel, it was Carmen who murdered Regan, not Mars. She is more evidently a nymphomaniac and a drug addict , and it is also clear that Geiger is running a pornographic bookshop and dealing in sex and drugs on the side; that Carol Lundgren is Geiger’s lover; that Regan was Vivian’s ex­ husband(in the movie she is just refereed to as Mrs. Rutledge) The most prominent excision is with regards to the political aspect of the novel. Like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown – a neo-noir tribute to Chandler’s books – , The Big Sleep also had a political dimension regarding police corruption in L.A., but obviously ,the production code would never allow such a portrayal of the law enforcement.

But what it loses in scope, it gains in intimacy and style. The cornerstone of the film’s success, both artistically and commercially, is  the electrifying chemistry between Bogart and Bacall . In To Have and Have Not, we saw them falling in love. Here we see the ultimate consummation of that love. More than two great movie stars working their magic , what we  see here is a man and a woman who are so much in love, so into each other, and so much in touch with each other’s emotions that they are hardly two people, they are one. Indeed, the film stands as an eternal monument to their endearing love story. And Hawks, though incensed by their burgeoning relationship, just couldn’t turn a blind eye to their electrifying chemistry, and used it to the betterment of the film. So after the shooting was finished, and Bogart and Bacall had married, new scenes, particularly more love scenes between Bogart and Bacall, was shot and inserted into the film. The main reason why The Big Sleep is in such an ambiguous condition is thanks to these extensive re-shoots carried out after the film was finished, in which about 20 minutes of footage was edited out to makes space for about 18 minutes of newly shot footage featuring Bogart and Bacall. In the original version, there was a scene in which Marlowe explains the mystery in detail to the cops; about Owen Taylor,  Sean Regan and Carmen, that clears up a lot of confusion existing in the narrative. But with that scene gone, and the newly inserted footage remaining just ‘great scenes’ that doesn’t add much to the narrative , the film transforms from a well-plotted, classical detective story to a loosely plotted, character driven, sexually-charged ‘meta’ movie, where the puzzling nature of the film reflects the puzzling nature of the story it’s telling. The former gives us the pleasure and thrills of discovering a mystery, as we go along with Marlowe from scene to scene, but I’ll take the latter(the current) version over anything. It dazzles us with a kind of thrill-a-minute, sensual energy that i have hardly experienced in movies, even if it doesn’t lead to any logical conclusion.

The Big Sleep, when it released in 1946, was a big hit at the box office.The success of the film cemented both Bogart’s and Hawks’ reputation as preeminent practitioners of their respective crafts, and Bacall as a bona fide movie star. Post the success of the film, Bogart would become the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and he would subsequently launch his own production company. Ditto for Hawks, for whom The Big Sleep was his seventh box office hit in a row, making him one of the most powerful people in the industry. But on a personal level, the results from the film was bittersweet for the participants; bitter for Hawks, who lost his protégé to Bogart, for whom things wouldn’t have been sweeter.. After three unsuccessful marriages,  Bogart finally found happiness with Bacall, and their marriage would last till Bogart’s death in 1957.  Hawks never worked with Bogart or Bacall again, nor did he ever make such a sophisticated, sexually charged urbane crime-drama like The Big Sleep. It’s a real pity, because Bogart’s heavily stylized acting style and dialogue delivery were a perfect match for the kind of stylized character behavior and dialogue that Hawks preferred. Every Bogart scene bristles with Hawksian One-liners that he delivers to perfection. Sample this:

“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail”.

Or, Take his first encounter with Eddie Mars

Eddie Mars: Is that any of your business?

Philip Marlowe: I could make it my business.

Eddie Mars: I could make your business mine.

Philip Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

And his final farewell to the irascible Agnes

Agnes Lowzier: Well, so long, copper. Wish me luck. I got a raw deal.

Philip Marlowe: Hey, your kind always does.

And Bacall was the ultimate Hawksian woman. Hawks had practically invented Lauren Bacall out of Betty Joan Perske; putting her under exclusive contract and grooming her every step of the way, which could explain his bitterness towards her. Every scene between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Vivian is pure magic to say the least, with Hawks and his writers providing them the ammunition

Vivian: What will your first step be?

Philip Marlowe: The usual one.

Vivian: I didn’t know there was a usual one.

Philip Marlowe: Well, sure there is. It comes complete with diagrams, on page 47 of ‘How to be a Detective in 10 Easy Lessons,’ correspondence school text-book and, uh, your father offered me a drink.

Vivian: You must’ve read another one on how to be a comedian.

Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe.

Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.

After she married Bogart, Hawks washed his hands off Bacall , selling her contract to Warner Bros. He would try to create several versions of Bacall in his subsequent films, but with the exception of Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, nobody came close.  But The Big Sleep endures as the ultimate testament to Hawksian filmmaking. It leaves you with the kind of high that one rarely experiences in films nowadays, simply because we don’t have that quality of filmmaking, writing, and above all movie stars, who can work that kind of magic. If nothing else, The film is an ultimate showcase to good old fashioned star power, and how it can triumph even the most convoluted and illogical of plots.  Just take the very final scene of the film that brings Bogart and Bacall together: The scene is set in Geiger’s house. Eddie Mars is dead and Marlowe, who is alone with Vivian, telephones the Police. And as they wait for the police to arrive, Marlowe delivers a breathless monologue: where he mentions all the players in the puzzle (what each one’s role was in the mystery surrounding the Sternwood family and what happened\is going to happen to each of them)  except Vivian.

Vivian: You’ve forgotten one thing – me.

Philip Marlowe: What’s wrong with you?

Vivian: Nothing you can’t fix.

we hear the sounds of the police siren in the background; Max Steiner’s score rises to a crescendo; Bogart lovingly grabs Bacall’s hand, and as as they look longingly into each others eyes, the screen fades to black.

Phew! absolutely exhilarating. When a film about corruption, perversion, pornography, blackmail and death leaves you thinking about love, you know you have seen a great film. To quote a line from the film itself,  “they just don’t make them like that any more.”