Looking Back Friday – The Big Sleep
Jack Deth is back with another in-depth dissection of a Bogart classic, the second in the debate Bogart vs Bogart, this time it is the turn of The Big Sleep
Greetings, all and sundry! I would like to thank Scott for the opportunity to follow up on the question posited in my previous guest review: Bogart vs. Bogart: The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep? Though both films are Classics in their own rights and merits.
It’s the likenesses and differences that are at the heart of the controversy. To that end, I present:
The Big Sleep. Directed stylishly with wisps of tongue in cheek by Howard Hawks in 1946. With a screenplay by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett taken from Raymond Chandler’s novel seven years earlier. Filmed in often flattering, luxurious B&W by Sidney Hickox. And enriched with a soundtrack by Max Steiner that doesn’t hit an errant note when tickling humor, suspense or fear.
The film begins with Los Angeles private investigator Phillip Marlowe. Ruggedly played with an occasional sly grin by Humphrey Bogart. Arriving at the mansion of elderly, infirm, General Sternwood. Retired from the Army. A widower married late in life. Who spends his days in a green house and lives vicariously through others, Enjoying their vices whilebeing regaled with tales of daring do and adventure. Marlowe and the General discuss business and discovers that the General has two daughters. And that his youngest, Carmen is spoiled rotten. With a wild streak and is the victim of extortion.
This does not surprise Marlowe. Who had met Carmen. Played with smoldering sex kittenish aplomb by Martha Vickers moments earlier when catching her from a feigned faint. Marlowe mentioning this gets a laugh from the General and a name. Arthur Gwynn
Geiger. Who runs a rare book boutique and has presented several gambling markers signed by Carmen amongst veiled threats of worse to come. On his way out, Marlowe happens upon Sternwood’s elder, wiser daughter, Vivian. Lauren Bacall. Fresh from her
playing opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Vivian is unsure that she likes or can trust Marlowe.Thinking he’s been hired to find her third and current husband, Sean Reagan. Who disappeared a month earlier.
The two trade quips in a brief, verbal war of the classes in Vivian’s boudoir before Marlowe goes to visit Geiger’s book shop. Very high end. Very expensive looking. Marlowe decides to use a feint to quiz the proprietress, Agnes. Well played by Sonia Darrin, trying
to put on high class airs and failing badly. With the addition of dark framed sun geek glasses and an upward bend to the brim of his Fedora, Marlowe takes on a smug, effeminate hipster lisp and asks about a rare Ben Hur with a duplicate line that takes the proprietress aback as Geiger enters. Only to have the would-be hipster complains that he is late for lecture on a deliberately mispronounced “ceramics”. And “To try the shop across the street.”
Marlowe’s luck fares much better there. With Dorothy Malone’s staid, prim and proper prototype of every librarian in film since. Pince Nez glasses, tied up coiffure and all. Who knows a heck of a lot more about rare books than her competition. And also has a fine eye
for details pertaining to Mr. Geiger. That and the the pint of pretty good rye in Marlowe’s pocket makes for an enjoyable way to wait out an afternoon thunder storm. Marlowe leaves and sees that Geiger and company are pulling up stakes. Manages to follow Geiger’s caravan to Geiger’s home for a stake out. That is interrupted by a gunshot and a scream that sends Marlowe running inside to discover a dead Geiger. Carmen zonked out on a sofa and a small statue opened in the back with a camera inside and a missing roll of film. Marlowe takes Carmen home to Vivian’s waiting arms and a cautionary tale that she and Carmen were home all night. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s home to finds Geiger’s body missing. And that Sternwood’s chauffeur has been found dead. The limo driven off a pier.
The next day, Vivian arrives at Marlowe’s office with scandalous photos of Carmen and a note demanding money in exchange for the photos’ negatives. Setting the stage for the brief appearance of former Sternwood blackmailer and gambler, Joe Brody. Played by stock character actor, Louis Jean Heydt. Who has his hooks into everyone for a game of ‘The Gang’s All Here’ after a roundabout game of
follow the leader back to Brody’s apartment. Brody admits to blackmailing Sternwood and Vivian and then is suddenly shot. Marlowe gives chase and has the police arrest Carl Lundrgen. Geiger’s former driver, who shot Brody in revenge for the death of Geiger.
Things settle down for the evening as Marlowe visits Eddie Mars at his casino. Mars is just too smooth and good looking to be anything other than The Man. With his finger on the pulse of everyone. From Geiger and his high end porn shop. To Brody and his mid
range extortion ring. To hangers on, Agnes and her lover, down and out Harry Jones. Played by stoic, reliable Elisha Cook Jr. Eddie has his hooks into Vivian and a fistful of gambling markers as he feigns ignorance about Sean Reagan. Who may or may not have run off with Eddie’s wife, Mona. Just in time for Marlowe to escort Vivian out and take down one of Eddie’s thugs trying to rob Vivian. Marlowe knows it’s a roust as Vivian keeps quiet about her connection to Eddie Mars.Marlowe returns home to find Carmen. Who mentions that she did not like Reagan and that there have been many phone calls between Vivian and Mars as she tries to seduce Marlowe. Before being tossed out very ungraciously.
It’s all coming together and Marlowe is playing catch up as Vivian tells him that Sean Reagan is in Mexico and she’s off to see him. Marlowe does some back tracking and happens upon Harry Jones. Who’s more than willing to sell the mysterious Mona Mars’ location for $200. A red herring that Marlowe buys with a promise to pay off back at Jones’ office. Marlowe arrives after a failed attempt to kill Agnes. Just in time to hear a very intimidating hired gun, Lash Canino. Bad Guy personified by a hulking, Bob Steele; poison Harry. Marlowe contacts and pays off Agnes for the real location. A gas and service station outside Realito.
Marlowe drives there and asks some questions after seeing that Mona is nowhere to be found, but Canino is. Marlowe gets a decent thumping for his efforts and finds himself tied up and watched over by Mona (Remember her? Peggy Knudsen in no more than
a cameo). With Vivian silently in attendance. Mona leaves when Marlowe starts talking about Eddie Mars and his more than sordid past. Then has Vivian release him before Canino returns. Marlowe gets to his car and a pistol while Vivian plays a reluctant hostage
who follows Canino out to the house’s porch and tricks him into shooting where Marlowe isn’t. Marlowe returns fire. Kills Canino and calls Eddie Mars to meet at Geiger’s home. A short drive for Marlowe and Vivian. Who do much to prepare. Longer for Eddie and his
crew of four gunmen who set up a perimeter, unseen around Geiger’s house.
Marlowe runs through it all once Eddie arrives. The murder of Reagan, who got too close. Geiger, who got too sloppy. Brody, who got too greedy. Sternwood’s chauffeur, who was too clumsy. Eddie’s handsome face absolutely melts as Marlowe coaxes Eddie through the
front door with close, but missing pistol shots. Only to be riddled by bullets from his trigger happy gunmen.
What Makes This Film Good?
Howard hawks having his dream team from To Have and Have Not back in the saddle again having fun playing different characters infused with Chandler’s wry eye for detail regarding those who have and those who have to work for it. Does Marlowe bear a grudge? Almost certainly. Though, he does not let that get in the way of his investigation. Even finding time to tweak Agnes at their first meeting and find some answers while having fun. Then finding verification with Dorothy Malone moments later.
Let us not forget the bad guys, either. Geiger, for the brief time he’s on screen is about what a smut peddler of the day would look like. Joe Brody is lower level middle management and is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, but he does hold the camera’s attention. While Eddie Mars is so above it all. He has the smarts to have a very strong right hand man who enjoys his work close by. Lash Canino. Second only to legendary Rondo Hatton for overall creepy scariness, but so much smarter!
The ladies in attendance need some loving too. Lauren Bacall is superb as a caring older sister who is used to having her own way until she meets Marlowe. Who doesn’t immediately bend to her will. Sonia Darrin’s Agnes revels in a very thin veil of class, but is all too eager to let her greedy cheapness slip through in scene after scene. Pulling it off with surprising dignity. Dorothy Malone’s prim proprietress of the Acme (Insert Warner Brothers Reference here!) book shop is a true diamond in the rough and makes more than the most of a brief, plum role. While Martha Vickers absolutely smolders throughout.
The Chandler inspired dialogue positively sings. Especially when supervised by Howard Hawks. A master of quick interwoven words. The interludes between the actors, both large and small make this Classic work so well. Kudos to William Faulkner and Sidney
Hickox for rearranging the novel’s original plot and create such great moments in a film full of them!
What Makes This Film Great?
Bogart and Bacall delivering a tale with perhaps one or two dead bodies too many and making it all click. The spark of flame that was ignited in To Have and Have Not is in full bloom here. Regardless of how many time Vivian’s little sister, Carmen tries to hijack it. The two move with an intriguing confidence to Max Steiner’s moody background music as threats are made and more is revealed.
Though the film does not fit Chandler’s novel as snugly as a glove. Especially the novel’s ending. It’s still a superb ride on a flawlessly directed, Lushly rendered. Warner A-List delivered plunge into the deep end of Private Eye pool!
The Maltese Falcon has mood and atmosphere to burn under John Huston’s direction. Also incredibly believable dialogue taken directly from Hammett’s novel. Huston never lets you forget that Hammett owns San Francisco at night and never strays from it. Aided by a cast of heavy hitters, both old and new. In a plot that is sometimes too straight forward, but can be forgiven through the inner workings of those involved to a more than satisfying payoff.
The Big Sleep also has mood and intrigue. Though those only dance around the edges as characters are introduced through following leads or twists in the plot. Some are memorable. Like Dorothy Malone in the Battle of the Book Stores. And Elisha Cook Jr’s.
Harry Jones. It’s the team of Bogart and Bacall. Backed up by Martha Vicker’s Carmen and John Ridgely’s Eddie Mars who carry this film through to its too neat conclusion.
Bogart vs. Bogart?: The Maltese Falcon.
Do you agree with Jack? Or is The Big Sleep greater than The Maltese Falcon? Comment below…