I recently watched this 1946 film directed by Howard Hawks. It had long been on my list of must-see films because it is considered a classic of the film noir genre and I finally found a DVD of it at my library. Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, it features Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the former as a private detective Philip Marlowe hired by an elderly millionaire with two willful and beautiful daughters, the elder of whom is played by Bacall, who has a wild, drug using, promiscuous younger sister who is being blackmailed with photographs taken of her in compromising positions.
As Marlowe’s investigation proceeds, people start getting killed left and right. But unlike most detective stories, where everything is neatly tied up at the end and there is a single killer (or maybe two killers), this one defies any such clean denouement. I counted seven killings, with six each committed by a different person and the seventh unaccounted for. The Bacall character also keeps popping up everywhere, even in places where should not be, without any explanation as to why she is there and what she is doing.
It is the kind of film that is so fast moving with such snappy dialogue that it keeps you absorbed and seems to make sense while you are watching it, especially as the Marlowe character keeps explaining at various times to various people what is going on and that he knows what they are up to. It is only after the film is over that you realize that much of it makes no damn sense. As this funny review says, this film is proof that plot doesn’t matter.
Look, I could bother unpacking this serpentine nonsense or point out that while none of it really matters, the film it stiches together very much does. Admittedly, I suspect the convoluted nature was in large part due to squeezing an unseemly story past the censors at the Hays Office through any means necessary.
But in the end, whatever needless turns The Big Sleep adds to the maze, you never were going to find your way out. But why should you bother? In the thick of this film, Hawks has crafted the wittiest and fastest-moving detective noir of the genre’s ‘40s glory days.
Once again, The Big Sleep is about a tough detective, yet it is not marketed or built upon a lonely cynic like Bogart’s Sam Spade, but around a two-hour flirtation between Bogart and Bacall. Bullets, booze, and bloody corpses amount to foreplay.
And the unaccounted for murder I mentioned above? At one point, Bogart asked the filmmakers who killed him. Nobody knew and it appears that even author Chandler could not help out.
Famously Hawks even gathered his screenwriters, who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, together to unpack the dense narrative web of Chandler’s novel before finally just wiring the author to ask what does it even mean?! The way Chandler tells it in his papers, the filmmakers asked him who exactly killed Owen Taylor, a chauffer whom audiences never met until he pops up as the second inexplicable murder victim in 10 minutes.
“They sent me a wire,” Chandler wrote. “Asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either!”
Note that one of the writers of the screenplay was William Faulkner, himself the creator of famously convoluted novels where the plot is secondary and makes little sense and you have to work hard to figure out what the hell is going on. He would likely be unfazed by having to write a script around a plot that was largely incoherent.
I am someone who gets irritated when the plot makes little sense, unless the film is surreal or one that is deliberately and overtly about something else other than the story, so you would think that I would have hated this film. Yet I found the film to be enjoyable. Maybe plot is overrated after all.
After I finished writing the above review and when I looked online for the trailer to end it with, I discovered that there had been a remake in 1978. It is available in full on YouTube for free without commercials, though how it avoided copyright infringement I don’t know. So a week after watching the 1946 film I watched the 1978 one that you can see here.
They had shifted the location to England, even though the noir genre is closely identified with the US, especially Los Angeles, and Chandler’s books are set there. The new film had a star-studded cast of American and English actors (Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Sarah Miles, Oliver Reed, Joan Collins, Richard Boone, Harry Andrews, John Mills, Edward Fox). Mitchum is a wonderful actor and is perfect for the part of the hard-boiled detective, and has played that role in other films. The romance between him and Sarah Miles (who plays Lauren Bacall’s part) is reduced to a mild flirtation. In the 1946 film, they went to great lengths to have Bogart and Bacall on the screen together, which meant her appearing in situations where it was implausible. Also, since this film was made after the end of the Hays code that had strict censorship, it could be much more sexually explicit with nudity, and also include a gay relationship.
This version made a lot more sense, with many of the plot holes of the 1946 version filled in and some implausibilities removed. Marlowe is given a voice over narration that explains what is going on. The chauffeur’s death is still a bit vague though, probably due to the fact that Chandler’s book left it ambiguous.
Given my preference for a coherent plot, I think I prefer the 1978 version.
Here are the two trailers.