The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 54min

Too often when a story is accused of convolution, the core issue usually comes back to some mix of overloaded exposition, useless subplots, or a downright messy structure that quickly gets out of control. To wield convolution as a purposeful device that escapes each of these criticisms proves to be a truly impressive feat though in The Big Sleep, where twists and turns are dedicated to the overwhelming, fatalistic forces seeking to overcome Humphrey Bogart’s private detective, Phillip Marlowe. Credit must of course be given to screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, as well as the author of the source material, Raymond Chandler himself, but it is ultimately Howard Hawks who takes artistic ownership of this densely plotted conspiracy, navigating blackmail and murder with gloriously pulpy intrigue.

For those looking to pick apart this opaque plot with charts and diagrams, it is not an impossible task. The Big Sleep’s tightly-wound storytelling leaves very little unresolved by the end, though to focus too much on the winding path of each thread may prove to be unfulfilling. As Roger Ebert puts so succinctly, “the movie is about the process of the criminal investigation, not its results.” In other words, this is meant to be chewed on, but never really swallowed, as it is only while we are savouring the bewildering turmoil of each individual moment that we can appreciate Hawks’ construction of an alluring but perilous world far beyond our comprehension.

Chiaroscuro lighting typical of classic film noir, outlining the silhouettes of Bogart and Bacall.

It all starts when Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts of his flirtatious daughter, Carmen, though enigmatic layers begin to emerge almost immediately when his other daughter, Vivian, pulls him aside, suspecting that this has to do with her father’s disappeared protégé, Sean Regan. From this point on, these affairs become the main through lines of Marlowe’s inquiries, the first of which is tied up by the film’s midpoint, subsequently leaving the second to take over as the primary source of intrigue. That two key players in this mystery are killed before we even get a chance to attach faces to their names only serves to disorientate us further, but such is the nature of the perspective Hawks forces us to adopt. Marlowe is our avatar in this story, meaning that everything is filtered through his eyes, leaving us just as baffled as him each time his discoveries spawn a dozen more questions.

Deep focus photography well-suited to Hawks’ sprawling ensemble, brilliant staging, and convoluted plotting.

This isn’t to suggest that he is anything less than competent though, nor that he ever lets that weakness show. Marlowe is beaten, tied up, and threatened on multiple occasions, and yet the confidence that Bogart carries throughout would convince even his worst enemies that he’s the one in control. All through The Big Sleep, he meets sudden surprises with cool nonchalance, keeping a stoic expression as he playfully delivers dry one-liners to men pointing revolvers at him.

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.”

Darkness eating away at faces and locations like a pervasive corruption.
Hawks is not always a master of mise-en-scène, but he is showing off some impressive noir visuals here with his rain, lighting, and layering of his shots.

That streak of hardened cynicism doesn’t quite disappear when women are around, but it is somewhat comical how often this treacherous world confronts him with unexpected romantic encounters, as if trying to entice and ensnare him in a trap. The primary love interest here is Vivian, Lauren Bacall’s husky-voiced femme fatale, whose entanglement in her sister’s affairs remains curiously vague up until the final minutes. In the meantime, the steamy banter between her and Marlowe is more than enough to keep us hanging onto their coy provocations, ranging from lively jabs to full-blown sexual innuendos.

“Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.”

“Find out mine?”

One of the great real-life and onscreen romances of Golden Age Hollywood – Bogart and Bacall’s chemistry with their playful innuendos and jabs is magnetic.

This may be a gritty film noir, but Hawks is not directing his actors as a private detective and femme fatale like we see in Double Indemnity. Instead, Bogart and Bacall become a screwball couple engaging in a beguiling battle of wits, sparring like old married spouses trying to get one up over the other, while simultaneously drawing on their real-life passion as lovers. Even outside their interactions though, it seems that instant, sizzling chemistry isn’t uncommon in this world. Carmen’s overt advances towards Marlowe are constant and relentless, while elsewhere a bookseller and taxi driver each express their interest through off-handed quips.

“If you can use me again sometime, call this number.”

“Day or night?”

“Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Romance always seems to be just around the corner for Marlowe, falling into his arms even when uninvited.

In a labyrinthine narrative that just keeps throwing us off its scent, these succulent character dynamics often feel as if they are all we have to orientate ourselves, and fully realising what he’s got in these charming performances, Hawks relishes every second of them. When Marlowe comes across Vivian singing a sultry rendition of ‘And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine’ at a party, she is blocked in the centre of the band accompanying her, dressed in a luminous white gown that seems to shine brighter than anything else in the room. Given how visually dark his world is, it’s no wonder he is so drawn to her, as Hawks often sets her up in stark opposition to his dingy, low-key lighting that almost emanates from his shady characters.

Bacall is luminous in this scene, taking centre-frame in her white dress as Bogart lingers in the background.

It is especially as The Big Sleep hurtles towards its conclusion that Hawks’ mise-en-scène grows progressively dimmer, creeping up to the edges of Marlowe’s face as he hides in gloomy corners and casting shadows of his suspects up on walls as they make quick getaways. In one scene that sees him tail a thug planning to rob Vivian, the camera thrillingly engages in the silent pursuit with tracking shots gliding past cars, and as we cut back to him crouching in the darkness, it is evident that this is where he is most comfortable. Conversely, the presence of light also indicates a clear path forward for him in his investigations, as Hawks cleverly coordinates one shot in a diner that sees the lamp hanging above his head turn on the moment an idea strikes.

Hawks demonstrating his penchant for gripping visual storytelling in his editing, bouncing between Vivian, her stalker, and her stalker’s stalker.
A creatively oppressive frame, obstructing Bogart’s face with the steering wheel.
Shadows of suspects thrown up on windows and walls, keeping us from seeing the whole truth.

By and large though, Hawks is much more a pragmatic filmmaker than he is a stylist, using his expressionistic visuals and suspenseful editing to serve The Big Sleep’s remarkable jigsaw of a narrative. Even as the pieces settle in place, the dizzying spell he has cast over us never quite fades, and it continues to wear away at our desire for rationality right up until the last scene. With Vivian’s motives finally being cleared of suspicion, there is at least some solace to be found in the couple’s final embrace, as it is only when the passionate temptations and perilous exploits of Marlowe’s precarious world are properly untangled that trust between lovers can begin to grow strong, firm roots.

The moment an idea strikes, a light turns on above Bogart’s head. Hawks’ mise-en-scène is playfully interactive with his characters.

The Big Sleep is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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