03 June 2005

The Big Sleep


Well, if you're going to blog a film, you may as well start with the best.

The Big Sleep (dir, Howard Hawks, 1946) is probably the most famous film noir yet made. The dialogue, direction and performances are all faultless, it's fast and witty, intriguing and disturbing, playful but deadly serious.

The plot is almost incidental to the films magnificence, and is tempting to skip over not least because of it's length and confusion. Hawks shot a scene that explained all the action for the viewer, but cut it as he thought it slowed the film down, and because it doesn't matter who exactly did what to whom, when or why anyway. Legend has it that at one point he dispatched someone to ask (author of the original novel) Raymond Chandler who had killed the chauffeur - and Chandler himself replied 'I have no idea.'

But let's give it a go anyway. General Sternwood, surrounded by his hothouse orchids, hires Private Investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to keep an eye on his youngest daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) who is the victim of some kind of blackmail plot. It soon transpires (when the blackmailer is murdered) that this is only the tip of the iceberg - an iceberg made up of pornographers, nymphomaniacs, drug dealers, double-crossers, murderers, and femme fatales. In the midst of all this Marlowe meets Carmens older sister, Vivien (Lauren Bacall), rapidly falling for her. Does she for he? In this world of lies and
deception it's hard to know for sure - but if not, she's the only one who doesn't. Checks girls fall over themselves trying to speak to him, taxi drivers offer personal services, even a book store worker (who definitely looks sexier before she removes her glasses and lets down her hair in my view) shuts up store for him.

Everything seems tied up with the chauffeur who disappeared with a mobsters wife. Murder upon murder follows, it's impossible to keep track of who's killing who, but it doesn't matter.

What matters is the sparkling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Re-united two years on from 'To Have and Have Not' ('you know how to whistle, don't you Steve?') and six months before they married the desire and sexual tension they display is thrilling. The two scenes Hawks added, simply to give them more time together on-screen, positively tingle. The dialogue stretches the restrictive Hays Producton Code of the time to the limit - when Vivien talks of being 'in the saddle' we know exactly what she means, and when Marlowe gives her permission to 'scratch her itch' she goes at it with masturbatory zeal!
Perhaps the most famous scene is where Vivien calls the police - sort of. Swapping the phone back and forth, convincing the poor plod that it was they that called her (or was it her father, or his mother?), clearly she does love this man after all.

Despite being the most famous of the noirs, The Big Sleep omits many of its most notable features. There's no chiaroscuro lighting, flashbacks, voiceover, or urban jungles. But death (or, 'the big sleep')and deception, the decay of the city, and of the american dream, are everywhere - not to mention the femme fatales. The whole story is a no holds barred indictment of the hypocrisy at the heart of power. Long before David Lynch and other purveyors of what goes on behind those picket fences, Chandler and Hawks decry the depravity and the cruelty that drive America - and find the perfect foil in Bogart's world-weary, hardened, but utterly decent, honest even, Marlowe.

It's that depth that makes the film so enthralling, and rich, but it's in the playfullness between Bogart and Bacall that it truly reaches beyond the superb to the sublime.


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