Film review: The Big Sleep (1946, 1978)

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.

But ….

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.

1946 version:

1978 version:


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I haven’t seen the Mitchum version. With such an amazing cast, maybe I should, but I think it would always be shadowed by Bogie and Bacall’s version. I would watch those two read from a phone book. They had lightning in a bottle!
    BTW, since Richard Boone is in the cast of the ’78 film, I’d just like to recommend the TV show Have Gun, Will Travel. For years I’d avoided watching it because its opening fanfare (or whatever you’d call it) makes it look like an ad for the NRA. It does glorify guns too much, but many of the episodes have very thoughtful themes and philosophy. It also has a great amount of humor. Gene Roddenberry wrote many of my favorite episodes, which surprised me because the episodes of Star Trek he was majorly involved in writing are some of my least favorite.

  2. Mano Singham says

    I watched Have Gun Will Travel when we were living in England when I was a boy. I can still remember the words to the theme song!

    Although Boone played the hero Paladin in the series, in later films he often played a villain, like in this one.

  3. mnb0 says

    A movie doesn’t necessarily need a plot (or at least an elaborate one) to be great; my favourite examples are probably Twelve Angry Men and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. However it will need something else to attract me.
    The plot of GBU is just three sharpshooters, who gets the money? It’s the cynical treatment of this plot and the dystopian decisions the three main characters have to make that make the money.
    Twelve Angry Man is an unrealistic pseudodocumentary about one simple member of a jury who begans expressing some doubt about the accusation and ends up proving the innocence of the accused.
    In both cases it’s the storytelling that matters while excellent cinematography and diaogues are important too.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    “I watched Have Gun Will Travel when we were living in England when I was a boy. I can still remember the words to the theme song!”
    In the film Stand By Me, early on there is a scene where the boys sing the theme of Have Gun, Will Travel. One of those boys is Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, thus proving that Star Trek is the apotheosis of all human art.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Given my preference for a coherent plot, I think I prefer the 1978 version.

    I didn’t see anything incoherent about the 1946 film. So we aren’t sure about who killed Owen Taylor. So what? My guess is Canino. “not neatly tied up” isn’t “incoherent”.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    moarscienceplz @4:

    proving that Star Trek is the apotheosis of all human art.

    Well, TNG did carry the Prime Directive to its inevitable sociopathic zenith, so there is that.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    I think I actively prefer films with incoherent or odd “plots”. I think most people seem to prefer walking out of a cinema with the idea that everything they’ve watched is tied up in a neat bow with everything explained, “they all lived happily ever after”. I like walking out and thinking “but…”. Douglas Adams was of this ilk -- he explained in Neil Gaiman’s excellent book “Don’t Panic” that the TV version of Hitchhikers deliberately included way more detail in the visual guide entries that it was possible for a viewer to process on first watch. In an era before VCRs, this left the viewer with the impression that a lot had gone on that they’d missed. I *liked* that.

    Of course, nowadays you can simply freeze and step through frame by frame, appreciating every little detail, but the initial impression remains.

  8. enkidu says

    Mano, are you going to share the secret of time travel to the distant future? 19946 to be precise.

    [Corrected. Thanks -- Mano]

  9. Silentbob says

    @ 9 sonofrojblake

    In my day Kubrick’s 2001 was notorious as being utterly unexplained -- and people basically fell into two camps:
    “This is a complete disaster and a terrible movie”
    “This is a masterpiece”

    (I was and am of the latter camp, btw, one of the greatest cinematic artworks I’ve had the privilege to experience.)

  10. Silentbob says

    I know that this is peripheral to the post, but I can’t not comment:

    Bogart was 25 years older than Bacall -- yes, old enough to be her dad. At time of filming she was 22, he was 47. Like, yikes.

    (Mitchum was 24 years older than Sarah Miles.)

    I understand Bogart and Bacall were a married couple but today it’s almost impossible not to cringe.

  11. Holms says

    #11 SB
    For me, 80% or so of the movie is a masterpiece, with the other 20% -- the ending -- being a worthless inclusion. Which is a shame. If the drivel had instead been at the start, the movie would have ended on a high note and the movie would have felt better overall.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    If you liked “The Big Sleep” at all, or come to that if you like films at all, can I recommend “Casablanca” if you haven’t already seen it? It’s amazing, real lightning in a bottle stuff, all the more amazing for having been made in 1942, when the outcome of the war it depicts was by no means certain.

    Probably best to steer clear of the 1998 remake, though.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    The Big Sleep (1946) is one of my favourite noir films. Others; Laura (1944), The Third Man (1949), D.O.A. (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951). I’m also very fond of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a fond parody of noir, which includes a lot of footage from older films.

  14. William Ubbes says

    I love Raymond Chandler’s writing. His short stories, originally published in pulp fiction magazines, are masterpieces of the English language. “Red Wind” and “Trouble is My Business” come to mind as two of his finest. That being said, Chandler’s novels, and the movies made therefrom, do tend to be incoherent because he stitched them together from his short stories, with loose or sometimes non-existent connecting dialogue. So short stories that originally had nothing to do with one another were slapped together into a novel, with only the characters’ names changed for consistency. (In some editions Chandler and the editors sometimes missed changing a name and the name appears as in the original story.) I don’t think any of his novels contain original writing from start to finish. Back in the day I made a chart of which short stories mapped into which novels, some he used more than once, but I’ve lost it.

  15. Norman Alfred Campbell says

    I went on a Raymond Chandler binge not long ago. Read four books online--and “The Big Sleep” was the fourth. I liked it less than the others--that endlessly smart dialogue between Mr. Marlowe and whoever’s holding him at gunpoint got a bit tiresome. But still--it’s Raymond Chandler! An addiction I will never shake. And who on earth would prefer that leaden remake of 1978 to the 1946 classic? Whose bright idea was it to switch the scene from grimy, world-weary LA to London? Whose bright idea was it to cast Mr. Mitchum (pushing sixty) as Philip Marlowe (a man in his early thirties)? Who. . . . .why. . . .why? Never mind! We like what we like. Bogart and Bacall are perfect together--and then, of course, the scintillating dialogue! The marvelous musical soundtrack. The novel itself was virtually rewritten--but who cares? Not me. No no--if you want genuine cinema noir from the ’70’s, try “Chinatown.” Another classic! Everything the ’78 “Big Sleep” should have been--but wasn’t.

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