The Big Sleep (1946) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Of all the movies considered to be all-time classics, the Bogart version of The Big Sleep is possibly the most downright awful.

Don't get me wrong. I love the film because of its great strengths.

  • Bogart is one of the most, maybe the single most charismatic character actor in the history of films, and detective Philip Marlowe is the role he was born to play. Bogart was Marlowe, albeit in a different profession. Many a Hollywood insider has a story about a party in which an underage ingénue threw herself at the screen idol, and left with Bogie, only to find herself driven to her parent's house and turned over to her mother. That was Bogie. The last idealist. Whenever Bogie saw innocents being exploited or in situations out of their depth, he was there, a white knight with a code of morality from another century, another culture. The stories told about Bogie could just as easily have been told about Marlowe himself.
  • Bogart and Bacall, married by the time The Big Sleep was filmed, were a dream pairing, and the screenwriters created some daring, quotable dialogue. The two of them had that snappy 40's patter, the tough wise guy and the sassy dame, down to a science, and they knew it.

Bogart (evaluating Bacall as horse-flesh): "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go."
Bacall: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

  • The atmosphere is the essence of noir. There are immoral thugs, tough-talkin' dames, slick mobsters, weaselly informers, big art deco buildings, and gigantic sedans. Nearly every single character in the film, even Bacall, is lying at all times. This film set the standards by which noir would be measured.

All of those things are delightful, and if the film made even the slightest bit of sense, I would agree with the astronomically high rating at IMDb. But it doesn't.  Let's face it. They blew it. It really would be as good as people say, if only the filmmakers had simply pared the story down to some kind of comprehensible mystery. They could have had all of those plusses and a logical plot as well, but no-o-o-o-o.  As it is, I have read Chandler's novel, I have seen the 1945 Bogart version once, the 1946 Bogart version many times, and the Robert Mitchum version twice, and I still have no fucking idea what is going on in this film. There are so many characters that Tolstoy couldn't keep track of them. Many of them are only discussed, never seen, which makes it even harder to remember their place in the story. You need a flow pad, like a high school debate judge, to keep track of who is who. Frankly, you won't be able to figure it out even with a flow pad. The director, Howard Hawks, was trying to puzzle out the whole thing for himself and even he could not figure out who killed the family chauffeur. He placed a telegram to Raymond Chandler, who wrote the story. Chandler could not immediately answer the question, so he went back and thought about it for a while, consulted his notes, re-read some passages, and finally admitted that even he had no idea.

That should give you some idea just how incomprehensible it is. It would be impossible to follow even if the investigation turned up legitimate progress, but the fact that all the other characters (even the Bacall character) lie to Bogart during his investigation makes the plot an impenetrable labyrinth. Ol' William Faulkner was a helluva novelist, but he could be clueless as a screenwriter (as he well knew).

There is an interesting story behind the film. It was actually filmed in 1944, and was ready to go 18 months before it ever hit the theaters (Fall, 1946), but Warner had a big backlog of war-themed dramas in the pipeline, and the studio management could see at the beginning of 1945 that the war was nearly over. They calculated that The Big Sleep, which existed in a timeless world separate from the war, could sit for a while until the other products were finished, released, and marketed.



During this hiatus, there was an unexpected development. Another Lauren Bacall film, Confidential Agent, was released and bombed badly. Bacall's performance was reviewed as "immature", "shrill", "woefully miscast", and "shallow". (In modern terms, it would be similar to Julia Stiles playing the head of the CIA's Paris operation in The Bourne Identity. Bacall was barely out of her teens and was cast as a sophisticate, with laughable results.) Bacall's agent knew that her career was in trouble, and knew that some scenes in the unreleased version of The Big Sleep would heighten her problems, particularly a scene in which she wore a preposterous veil. He suggested to Warner that they refilm some scenes to take advantage of Bacall's emerging confidence, that they make Bacall more prominent in other scenes by using more close-ups of her, and that they replace the veil scene entirely. The studio agreed, and made substantial changes, including calling the actors back to film some completely new scenes a year after the original shooting.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Full-screen format

  • two complete versions of the movie

  • a documentary on the changes made to the original pre-release version

Bacall's agent had been correct. The new scenes were far superior for his client's reputation and for the film in general. The silly veil scene was replaced by the restaurant scene which I quoted above and which is now considered a classic.

The film's strengths became even stronger.

But one of the consequences of the re-cutting was that the plot became even more incomprehensible.  In the first version, there was a scene about halfway through the movie in which Marlowe/Bogart gave a truthful statement to the D.A., thus explaining everything which had happened up until that point. For reasons not completely clear to me, that scene was cut, and two unfortunate actors were cut completely out of one of the most famous films in history! 

The film's weakness became even weaker.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: a classic.  The Washington Post called it "an unqualified masterpiece". The BBC, on the other hand, actually watched the film, and scored it 3/5. Ebert and Berardinelli both include it in their all-time best, although fully aware of the film's weaknesses, arguing that the strong points are far more important.


The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.2/10, just out of the all-time Top 100. It is good, but not that good. For the ultimate Bogie private eye film, check out The Maltese Falcon.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. A classic of atmosphere, sexy banter, and characterization. It is also completely incomprehensible gibberish, which most people will find confusing and frustrating. Mainstream viewers: watch the great scenes on the highlight reels and skip the movie itself. Film buffs: ignore that advice. You have to own this DVD. It contains the complete 1945 version, the complete 1946 version, and a detailed documentary explaining the history behind and the consequences of the various changes.

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