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The Big Sleep (1946)

What's a pre-release version? In a brief forward and a longer afterward to the DVD, Robert Gitt, preservationist with the UCLA Film & Television Archive (and the owner of the worst moustache since Harpo Marx gave a sea captain "a snoop-a too much" in Monkey Business), explains.

Written by:
William Faulkner
Leigh Brackett
Jules Furthman

Directed by:
Howard Hawks

Starring:
Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall
John Ridgely
Martha Vickers
Elisha Cook Jr.

Quote:
“My, my my. Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”

The Big Sleep was shot from October 1944 to January 1945 then sat on the Warner Bros. shelf as the studio rushed to release all their war pictures before WWII ended. In the meantime Bacall made a smash debut in To Have and Have Not but was scourged by the critics for her next picture. Her agent, good friends with Jack Warner, worried that The Big Sleep might make or break her career and wanted her in a saucier, more prominent role. So in January 1946 new scenes were shot. Did it improve the picture? Gitt compares and contrasts what was lost with what was gained. In my mind, the plot in the pre-release version makes more sense. You also get a deeper sense of Philip Marlowe's life outside the plot of the film. True, you lose the hideous veil Bacall wore in one scene, but overall...

These hard-boiled detective stories are known for their intricate plots, and for dames throwing themselves at every "private dick on a case" — to use the lingo — and The Big Sleep is no exception. Bogie as Philip Marlowe simply walks into the Sternwood residence and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), wearing some short-shorts that must have raised more than eyebrows in 1946, makes an infantile pass. While staking out a joint, Marlowe enjoys what we assume is a quickie with a pretty bookclerk during a thunderstorm. He hails a cab and the female cabbie intimates a good time. He walks into Eddie Mars' gambling establishment and the cigarette girls are all over him. Then there's Vivian Sternwood (Bacall). After he kisses her, she tells him, in her throaty purr, "I like that. I'd like more." It's Bacall he falls for, of course, but I'd almost prefer Dorothy Malone as the bookclerk. She seems sharp and fun; and then there's the way she lowers the windowshade.

The plot: General Sternwood is being blackmailed, and the more Marlowe looks into the case, the more intricate it becomes.

Plot schmot. What makes the movie crackle is the dialogue. Marlowe is asked how he likes his brandy. "In a glass," he replies. General Sternwood, old, crippled, "a very dull survival of a very gaudy life," apologizes for meeting Marlowe in his hothouse but explains its necessity. "I seem to exist largely on heat," he says, "like a newborn spider." He adds, gesturing to the flowers...

Sternwood: The orchids are an exuse for the heat. You like orchids?
Bogie: Not particularly.
Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Lord, that's good.

Then there's Bogie. He always plays a little more complex than he's given credit for. I like his ear-tugging habit when he's thinking. When the bookclerk describes Geiger as "fattish" and looks down at Marlowe's stomach, he, tongue-in-cheek, sucks in his gut. There are nice touches like these throughout the film.

This was the last movie, by the way, for Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), an actor who cut his teeth in the silents. He's so good here that it's a shame he appears in only one scene. Yet what a way for an actor to go. He left us wanting more.—August 28, 1999

© 1999 Erik Lundegaard