Saturday 3 July 2010

Movie Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

Creating a coherent movie out of a brilliant but almost incomprehensible Raymond Chandler book must have seemed like a daunting task. Howard Hawks wisely decided to focus instead on creating an extraordinary mood, and allow his stars to shine brightly enough so that the plot does not matter; he succeeded perfectly.

The Big Sleep is a classic and genre-defining detective movie, filled with unforgettable characters, stellar performances from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and a simmering tension garnished with sharp dialogue. It's expertly directed by Hawks to capture the spirit of Chandler's universe, where every character except detective Philip Marlow is desperate, dark, evil or all three.

This is a story where everyone is plotting to take advantage of everyone else, and once one murder is committed, the dominoes tumble: scores are settled in a prompt manner, one bad deed deserves another, and criminals from the seedy to the respectable reach for the gun. In the middle of it all is an old man losing control of his daughters, and a private detective who decides that the old man deserves better and at least one daughter deserves to be wooed.

Bogart was born to play Philip Marlow, a private detective cruising through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, side-stepping an ever-growing pile of dead bodies prompted by a most convoluted blackmail, pornography and gambling plot swirling around the family of the elderly and sick General Sternwood. The General's two daughters, the sultry Vivian (Bacall) and child-like Carmen (Martha Vickers) are at the centre of the unfolding chaos, but they seem to be more interested in seducing rather than helping Marlowe. Vivian's role is expanded from the book to give Bacall more scenes with Bogart, and since it's impossible to follow the story anyway, it works.

The scenes between Bogart and Bacall carry an edgy magic, as she tries to protect the family secret and he wisely disbelieves every word coming out of her mouth. Martha Vickers contributes the dynamite sexuality of a spoiled brat craving attention away from her father's millions. The emergence of the Bogart and Bacall chemistry meant that Hawks focussed on Bacall; otherwise, it was Vickers who was supposed to be the rising new star.

Hawks re-creates Chandler's Los Angeles as appropriately overflowing with fog, smoke, seedy characters, tough guys, guns, and beautiful but dangerous women. He does not exclude anything or anyone from the book: the slick gambling king Eddie Mars and his henchman Lash Canino; the small-time blackmailer Joe Brody, the smaller-time hustler Harry Jones and the desperate dame Agnes; the pornographer Geiger, the butler Norris, and a wild assortment of secondary characters including killer chauffeurs; seducing bookstore clerks (Dorothy Malone in a small but unforgettable role); clueless cops; and shady car mechanics.

They are all here for anyone who wishes to try and untangle the plot. But it's much more fun to just sit back, surrender, and enjoy the magic of Bogart, Bacall and the movie's sinister, dark, and magnificently dangerous soul.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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