For some critics (not for me), “The Big Sleep” is the bests collaboration between stars and husband and wife team, Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall. The film was directed, as was their first teaming, “To Have and Have Not,” by the legendary Howard Hawks, who had discovered Bacall when she was a 19 year old model.
In “The Big Sleep,” Bogart plays one of Raymond Chandler’s most iconic characters, the cynical private eye Philip Marlowe; many Hollywood movies have centered on Marlowe’s adventures .
At the time of release, many viewers complained that the narrative was confusing and even incoherent, but it did not matter. As the royal couple of Hollywood, Bogey and Baby (Bacall, also nicknamed “The Look”) were at the height of their popularity. Bogart had just been nominated for the Best Actor award in “Casablanca,” which won the 1943 Best Picture Oscar.
And the plot? Marlowe is hired by wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) handle a blackmailer shaking down the General’s sensual daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers).
This encounter introduces Marlowe to Carmen’s seemingly straight-laced older sister Vivian (Bacall), who is protective of Carmen. In his pursuit, Marlowe gets mixed up in the murder of Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), a dealer in pornography. He also meets the gambler Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), who seems to be strangely connected to Vivian.
The narrative was so convoluted that even the various screenwriters, including author William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthmann, had to consult Raymond Chandler for advice, though this proved to be unhelpful.
Initially, “The Big Sleep” was to include a scene with police detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) explaining the more obscure plot details, but this expository scene was deleted. Cashing in on the glamorous marriage and strong chemistry between Bogey and Bacall, the latter’s part was expanded. Thus, several scenes were reshot to please the fans and demonstrate to sexual electricity between the two.
End result is a cult film noir that French critics have all along admired, whereas American audiences remain intrigued but baffled. Which goes to say that a movie can become legendary due to star power and iconic imagery without being totally satisfying dramatically.
Beware: There are different versions of the film, as well as an unacceptable computer-color version.
Detective Philip Marlowe is summoned to the mansion of a new client, General Sternwood (Waldron). The wealthy retiree wants to resolve gambling debts his daughter, Carmen Sternwood (Vickers), owes to bookseller Arthur Gwynn Geiger. Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian suspects that her father’s motive for calling him is to find his friend Sean Regan, who had mysteriously disappeared.
Marlowe goes to Geiger’s rare book shop. Agnes Louzier (Darrin), Geiger’s assistant, minds the shop, which is the front for an illegal operation. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house, where he hears a gunshot and a woman scream. Breaking in, he finds Geiger’s body and a drugged Carmen, as well as a hidden camera empty cartridge. Marlowe later goes back to the house, but the body is no longer there. He then learns that Sternwood’s driver (Owen Taylor) is dead; his car driven off a pier.
Vivian comes to Marlowe’s office with scandalous pictures of Carmen she received with a blackmail demand for the negatives. Marlowe follows a car to the apartment of Joe Brody (Heydt), a gambler who blackmailed General Sternwood. Carmen initially claims ignorance about the murder, then insists Brody killed Geiger. They are interrupted by small-time gangster Eddie Mars (Ridgely).
Marlowe follows Vivian to Joe Brody’s, where he finds Brody armed, and Agnes and Vivian hiding. They are interrupted by Carmen, who wants her photos. Marlowe keeps the pictures and sends Vivian and Carmen home. Brody admits he was blackmailing both Sternwood and Vivian, but he is suddenly killed; the assailant flees. Marlowe chases Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s former driver, who has killed Brody in revenge for Geiger’s death.
Marlowe visits Mars’ casino to investigate Regan’s running away with Mars’ wife. Mars tells Marlowe that Vivian is running up gambling debts. Vivian wins a big wager and a stooge of Mars’ attempts to rob her, but Marlowe intervenes.
Marlowe presses Vivian on her connection with Mars, but she refuses to admit. Marlowe returns home to find a flirtatious Carmen waiting for him. She admits she didn’t like Regan and mentions that Mars calls Vivian frequently.
The next morning, Vivian informs that Regan is in Mexico, and that she is going to see him. Harry Jones (Cook), an associate of Brody’s who is now Agnes’ lover, conveys an offer from Agnes to reveal the location of Mars’ wife for $200. When Marlowe goes to meet Jones, Canino, a killer hired by Mars, attempts to find Agnes himself. Jones is poisoned by Canino after disclosing Agnes’ location, which turns out to be false.
Agnes reveals that she’s seen Mona Mars near Realito by an auto repair shop. When he gets there, Marlowe is attacked by Canino, who ties him up while Mona is watching over him. Mona angrily leaves after Marlowe tells her that Mars is a killing gangster. Fearing for Marlowe’s life, Vivian frees him, and then distracts Canino, who is shot by Marlowe. During the drive back to Geiger’s bungalow, Vivian claims she killed Sean Regan.
Marlowe arranges to meet at Geiger’s house, and Mars arrives with four men. He is surprised by Marlowe, who holds him at gunpoint. Marlowe reveals that Mars has been blackmailing Vivian, claiming that her sister Carmen had killed Regan. When Mars threatens Marlowe, the latter retaliates by firing shots. Mars runs outside, where he is mistakenly shot by his own men.
Marlowe tells the police that it’s Mars who killed Regan, and that Vivian helped him and therefore should be exempted from criminal prosecution, urging psychiatric help for her sister Carmen.
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
John Ridgely as Eddie Mars
Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood
Peggy Knudsen as Mona Mars
Regis Toomey as Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls
Charles Waldron as General Sternwood
Charles D. Brown as Norris
Bob Steele as Lash Canino
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Harry Jones
Louis Jean Heydt as Joe Brody
Dorothy Malone as Acme Bookstore proprietress
Sonia Darrin as Agnes Lowzier, the salesgirl at A.J. Geiger bookstore
Ben Welden as Pete, Mars’ flunky
Tom Fadden as Sidney, Mars’ flunky
Trevor Bardette as Art Huck
Theodore von Eltz as Arthur Gwynn Geiger
Joy Barlow as the cab driver (uncredited)
Running time: 116 Minutes.
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written By: Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett