rating: 4Three men more than any others are responsible for influencing the way modern movies present private detective stories. The names that matter are Dashiell Hammett, for writing The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler, for The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart for his performances as the leads in both film adaptations. Such is their legacy that it is possible to trace almost every characteristic of the detective genre back to one or all of those names. Though The Maltese Falcon has the better story, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep is arguably both the greatest pulp detective movie, and Humphrey Bogart's finest career moment, and it isn't difficult to see how, given the talent attached to the production. Bogart himself was joined by Lauren Bacall, director Howard Hawks.
And now, the BFI has brought The Big Sleep back to the big screen, some 55 years on.
The story of The Big Sleep's success is the story of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's mesmorising on-screen chemistry. While Bogart is incredibly watchable throughout the film (and he's on-screen a lot), he is at his best when opposite his real life love interest. Their exchanges are effervescent, resplendent with dry wit and innuendo (though rather reserved in comparison to other so-called noirs), and they the archetypal, utterly irresistible film couple. This relationship is at the centre of everything for the movie to such a degree that it feels like everything else, even the ornate and at times bewildering plot are mere conceits to allow the pair time to flirt and romance one another on-screen.
And it is that chemistry between Bacall and Bogart that makes even the gravest of The Big Sleep's flaws entirely forgiveable. Chiefly among them is the fact that the film is just too over-written; Raymond Chandler's novel may well have been rather complex in the first place, but any slight lapse of attention during the film's 114 minutes will lead to any viewer with no prior knowledge of the story floundering and completely lost. It is rather fortuitous then that the plot actually fades into the background in favour of focus on the lead pair- a point proven during production when in 1944 the film was temporarily shelved, and then changed to make it not only lighter but to give Bogart and Bacall more time on screen together. The key change was the removal of an explanatory scene that would have made the plot far more penetrable, which was removed and replaced with the innuendo-laden scene in which Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse-riding, with no value to the plot in general.
The plotting problems are also solved by the majesty of Bogart's performance - he is so good, so impressive that the over-complexities of his investigations play out like a compelling procedural, charismatic man versus complicated mystery after complicated mystery. It doesn't so much matter if everything slots into place perfectly, just as long as the hero remains irresistibly smart and cool as he uncovers inter-locking morsels of truth, and advances his own self-interests. We care only that Bogart can manoeuvre himself into enriching situations, and then revel in them when they are realised- hence how well the scenes with Bacall have always been received, despite Bacall's performance in no way matching that of her off-screen husband for finesse or presence. Though she is great in places, and more than adequate in others, there is a general sense of naivety in a lot of her scenes, and she is rather overshadowed by the performance of her on-screen sister, played deliciously by Martha Vickers (so well in fact as Raymond Chandler noted that a lot of Vickers' scenes were cut for fear of over-shadowing Bacall entirely).
But when she is engaged in banter with Bogart everything changes- we can see a couple in love, fighting suspicions of one another but at the same time utterly compelled to be in the other's company.That untouchable hero status of Bogart's Marlowe is also why no-one cares that there are a near endless spate of murders, or that there is generally a very murky sense of morality throughout the film. We are so taken in by Marlowe, and Bogart's performance behind the character, that nothing else matters.
Finally, don't get The Big Sleep wrong: this is no typical film noir. Stylistically it doesn't actually fit with that brooding genre, even if the subject matter suggests otherwise. And while not every noir film can be distinctly identified because they exhibit all elements that are proclaimed typical of the genre, The Big Sleep cannot be considered part of the genre because it steers clear of the single most important defining aesthetic trope of other noirs. Simply put, the cinematography is not unconventional (or anti-conventional), while it is set at night, there is no reliance upon low-key lighting, impenetrable shadows or abundant stylized silhouette work, and nor is there the ubiquitous unbalanced composition of the genre. Again, it can be suggested that the film noir genre is also populated by films that are far more conventionally main-stream in their aesthetics, that a film's noirishness is traced more to a general disposition, but again The Big Sleep's mood doesn't quite fit with other films in the noir style, even if the novel itself would have made an excellent noir proper.
The Big Sleep is after all a far more tonally gentle film: release was infamously delayed while Hawks addressed the start of the film, which early screening audiences had thought too dark, adding in lighter, sexier scenes between Bogart and Bacall and changing it quite markedly (see the restored 1945 version and accompanying documentary for the evidence). The story's pornography and drugs plot-lines are also quite prudishly under-played, albeit apart from the horse-racing discussion scene, which is atypically (aherm) racy, and generally speaking, the entire tone is far more breezy and less dark than anyone familiar with other film noirs might expect of a film proclaimed so crucial to the genesis of the genre.
That it is called a film noir is more an accident of association, and a confusion of similarities. That genre is characterised by angst-ridden, hard-boiled anti-heroes, quick to sardony and sexuality, but Bogart's Marlowe is far more sophisticated and refined. Yes, he is tough and uncompromising, but he isn't particularly dark, and while his dialogue exchanges with Lauren Bacall's Vivian Rutledge fizz with a charged undercurrent of attraction, it is wit and banter that is expressed most overtly, rather than sexuality. And there is nothing of the hard-boiled narration that would usually invite the audience to witness the film noir anti-heroes innermost (usually sexualised) thoughts on his female companion. You know the type- oft-parodied and over-stylized verbal rum like "She had the kind of hips that would make a nun blush"- there is nothing of the sort for Bogie's Marlowe.
The film itself is just as complex and intriguing as the genre it so usually gets included within, but what matters most is that, although labyrinthine in places, and positively impenetrable in places, the film demands and utterly rewards the audience's strict attention, and thoroughly deserves its status as a classic. If you get the opportunity, please do go and see it on the big-screen: you will be rewarded with a cinematic experience unlike most others, one based on compelling chemistry that makes the modern inclination towards showiness and effects rather laughably vulgar by comparison.
BFI have re-released The Big Sleep at the BFI, going nationwide over January. Here's the dates;From Friday 31 DecemberCurzon RenoirCurzon Richmond Phoenix East FinchleyIn cinemas Friday, 31 DecemberBFI SouthbankCurzon Renoir Curzon Richmond Phoenix East Finchley 7 14 JanuaryGreenwich PicturehouseFrom 7 JanuaryGreenwich Picturehouse14 - 21 JanuaryEdinburgh, Filmhouse2 FebruaryAldeburgh Cinema Suffolk3 FebruaryLudlow Assembley Rooms4 - 11 FebruaryQFT Belfast 27 FebruaryRiverside Hammersmith27 & 28 FebruaryChapter Cardiff 4 -11 MarchPlymouth Arts Centre 3 AprilKino Cinema Glenrothes 10 AprilPicturehouse Uckfield 10 MayCentral Theatre Chatham12 MayClwyd Theatre Cymru25 July Wells Entertainment Centre Somerset 19 SeptemberPlayhouse Cinema Louth