Genre: Film Noir and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.
Release Date: August 31st, 1946 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Howard Hawks Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, John Ridgely, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt
rivate investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood manor to see the General (Charles Waldron), a wheelchair-bound old man who spends most of his day in his private greenhouse full of nasty orchids, where he can only indulge his vices by proxy when someone like the summoned shamus sips brandy or smokes a cigarette. A widowed millionaire with two beautiful daughters, Sternwood has called upon the former district attorney’s office employee about a fresh blackmail case. He previously paid a man named Joe Brody $5,000 to leave younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) alone, but the girl is incorrigible and is now mixed up in gambling debts with a certain Arthur Gwynn Geiger. For both Sternwood and Marlowe, the easiest solution is to simply pay off the extorter.
“People don’t talk to me like that!” Now single, the elder Sternwood girl, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), snoops on Marlowe’s conversation and attempts to cross-examine him over his assignment. But the private eye isn’t about to be rattled by some dame. He is, however, more than willing to flirt with a cute bookshop clerk as he waits for an opportunity to tail Geiger (and later, he trades dalliances with a coquettish taxi driver).
As the day turns to night, with a downpour encroaching and suspicious characters heading to Geiger’s secluded residence, Marlowe finds himself getting mixed up in murder and mayhem. Carmen, heavily intoxicated, is in the house, with a camera aimed at her and a corpse on the floor. After the sleuth drives Carmen home, he returns to the scene of the crime to discover the body missing. And later, while working on a cypher he picked up at Geiger’s place, Marlowe gets a visit from Homicide Inspector Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), with information on a dead chauffeur, also under the employ of Sternwood.
“I think you’re telling the truth for a change.” Before any answers can be given, plenty of mysteries must be orchestrated. And, as the screenplay is based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, there’s no shortage of perplexities. And there’s also no leanness in characters – especially as new ones are introduced every minute or so, and even background characters are given names and a line or two of dialogue. As the plot thickens, a bit of romancing picks up, with tongue-twisting repartee, light arguing, and wry phone pranks, allowing Marlowe and Vivian to trade coy smiles (and unsubtle sexual innuendo) as they toy with one another. “I guess I’m in love with you.”
As these kinds of heavy-hitting films noir go, large parties of unwitting witnesses all manage to stumble into the same rooms together, interrogations unfold with bold lies spouted unendingly, and gunshots ring out when least expected. Tough talk is unleashed as revolvers are brandished, punches are exchanged with amusing regularity, femme fatales are never really interested in having a crime solved, and ulterior motives are forever coupled with guarded genuineness. And bodies have a tendency to keep piling up.
“There’s one thing I can’t figure out.” Just when a few solutions are offered up, further conundrums arise, as if fate – and widespread corruption and racketeering – dictates that Marlowe can never really be finished with a case. But, if “The Big Sleep” has any faults in its archetypal assembly of classic film noir constructions, it’s that it’s too convoluted and labyrinthine for its own good. Even so, it manages a final confrontation so full of nerves and anticipation and the certainty of further flying bullets that it more than makes up for the overdone, twisty insolvability of the plot.
– Mike Massie