The Big Sleep

Year: 1946
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: William Faulkner/Leigh Brackett/Jules Furthman
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

It's interesting to talk about movie from an era where everything wasn't about themes but simply about a rollicking story. As I write these words Leigh Whannell's remake of The Invisible Man is just hitting cinemas and critics are falling all over themselves to praise the contemporary relevance of a female domestic abuse victim in the #Metoo era.

But I don't know if Howard Hawks (or Raymond Chandler, for that matter) was ever concerned or interested in subtexts or parables. There might be one about the moral corruption at the heart of the movie industry simply because so many of these noir classics were set in LA, but I'll bet that's been ascribed to the movie in the years since.

For all the conversation and comment these days about how Rear Window is the perfect allegory for everything from reality TV to cinema itself, I wonder if anyone at the time was writing about that stuff, or even if Hitchcock was thinking about it.

All of which is a long way of saying there's absolutely nothing in The Big Sleep except plot – the characters are real enough but in the style of the day they're archetypes appropriate to the distinctions of the genre, and that's what audiences wanted.

The extent of artistry in the cinematography was to turn the studio lighting down a bit to depict night, and it was the era where everything possible was done indoors on sound stages. Not only are images of Bogey and Bacall driving done with that old technique of shaking a picture car around while projecting a streetscape behind it, a pivotal Hollywood Hills residential intersection appears to be a studio set as well.

Humphrey Bogart is classic Chandler character Phillip Marlowe, the kind of gumshoe we're familiar with because of everything from Double Indemnity and Chinatown to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He finds himself roiled up in the prototypical noir mystery complete with a beautiful but possibly deadly dame, a mysterious benefactor and a case that reveals far more than he could have guessed.

It's even got one of the motifs I recognise from my childhood (because of TV shows like Stacy Keach's Mike Hammer) where every supporting character Marlowe has to call on for help is a svelte bookstore clerk or waitress who all but hollers her sexual willingness at him.

He's called to the mansion of a wealthy former army general who says he wants Marlowe to arrange the settlement of his wayward daughter Carmen's (Martha Vickers) gambling debts to a bookstore owner who runs an underground gambling hall in the Hollywood Hills.

But after Marlowe takes the job and makes to leave, he's stopped by the man's other daughter, the older, more worldly Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who tells him she believes what her father really wants is to find the young man who disappeared a few weeks before after years as his faithful right hand man.

Why the General didn't just say that, who the guy is, why he disappeared, the ulterior motives of almost everyone involved, the shady characters Marlowe crosses paths with throughout and his not counting on falling in love are classic – in both senses hallmarks of this film movement. You couldn't start with a better example to introduce you to the noir genre.

There's no real point relating any more of the plot here because to do so would take as long as the movie itself. Like Chandler's short story (presumably – I've never read it) every beat, word, scene and character is there to simply drive the plot, not showcase any particular artist's abilities or make you think about the meaning of life or love. Everyone from Hawks on down knew what they were there for and fulfilled their roles to the letter.

It also made me realise that even though I consider myself a cinephile, I think it's the first time I'd ever seen Lauren Bacall in action. My God, those heavily slitted eyes are like a dark pool you're aching to dive into but which you know is full of venomous snakes.

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