Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Big Confusion

This is my entry in the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood.

The Big Sleep, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, is an important entry in the canon of film noir, not the least of which is it enhanced the mystique of the relationship on screen between its two stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  It is in the top 5 of most lists of the greatest film noir movies.

It also has one of the most convoluted plots in movie history.  You almost need a copy of Cliff Notes on the film on hand to keep up with who is killing who and who is doing other dastardly things.

And reading the novel on which it was based is not much help.  Even Chandler himself didn't know certain intricate mysteries in the novel.  When asked who killed the chauffeur, or if he had committed  suicide, Chandler responded with a basic "damned if I know."

But most people can ignore the twists and turns and just watch the dynamic chemistry of Bacall and Bogart.  And if you really want to know what happens, I guess you could just read the wikipedia article on the film.  Maybe it will clear up your questions.  And maybe not.

That's not to say that The Big Sleep isn't a fantastic movie.  It is.

There were some things that had to be removed (or at least subdued) when the film was made.  For one thing, the novel has Carmen Sternwood involved in a pornography scandal.  In fact, when Marlowe first discovers her in Geiger's house, she was completely nude.  Can't get away with that in the Hays Code era... so she is in a Chinese dress.  Also there is a hinted homosexual relationship that was completely omitted.  (You have to understand that writers could get away with being more prurient, but the Hays Code held an iron fist over what could be translated to the screen.)

One thing of important note.  The film was made in 1945, but with the impending end of WWII, the studio withheld the movie until 1946 so it could release war related movies already made to cash in on the war oriented crowd.  AS a result, even though the movie is supposedly taking place in 1946, there are still some war related "anachronisms", like the B sticker on Marlowe's car, signifying that he was significant enough to the war effort to be allowed to buy more gasoline than the average Joe.  And the fact that a woman is driving the cab, a job that would have been reclaimed by a man when soldiers returned.

The Big Sleep (1946):

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) appears on the doorstep of the Sternwood house to an appointment with General Sternwood (Charles Waldron).  The general wants to hire Marlowe to clear up an attempt at blackmail.  It seems young Carmen (Martha Vickers), his daughter, has run up some gambling debts, but the General is suspicious.

Marlowe w/ Carmen
Marlowe w/ The General

The General's other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) attempts to extract from Marlowe what his duties are in the case but Marlowe refuses to divulge.  Which annoys Vivian.

Marlowe w/ Vivian

When Marlowe appears at the door of A. G. Geiger's bookstore (the holder of the supposed gambling debts), he has an encounter with Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and pretty much exposes the bookstore as a front for something else, by asking for two "rare" books which in reality don't exist.

Marlowe w/ Agnes

Following Geiger as he leaves the store, he finds himself at a rundown house where Carmen appears.  Some minutes after Carmen goes in to Geiger's house there is a shot and Marlowe rushes in to find Geiger dead and Carmen stoned out of her skull.  He takes Carmen home, but when he returns to Geiger's house the body is gone.

Thus begins the convoluted plot.  Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), a contact and friend of Marlowe's on the police force, appears on Marlowe's doorstep to inform him that they found the Sternwood chauffeur's body in the Sternwood car in the water off a pier.  

Marlowe continues his investigation finding out that small time gangster Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) has a connection.  Carmen has insisted that it was Brody who shot Geiger.  But Joe insists he is innocent.  He just has a plan to blackmail the Sternwood's with some inappropriate photos he found in the Geiger house.  (The only hint that there is a pornography connection).

Marlowe w/ Brody

After Brody is shot by Carol Lundgren, Geiger's bodyguard, who thinks it was Brody who killed his boss, Vivian tries to pay off Marlowe, insisting that his job for the Sternwood's is finished.  But there are too many details that aren't clear and Marlowe suspects that Vivian is being pressured by big-time gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) to lay off the case.

Marlow w/ Mars

If that isn't a twisted enough plot for you, let me tell you, you ain't seen nuthin' yet folks.

What with Mars putting even more pressure on Marlowe to lay off, and with the obviously nymphomaniac Carmen trying to put the moves on him, there's more to this film than meets the eye.  We even get the generally good guy Western actor Bob Steele as a very sinister gunman who is trying to get Marlowe off the case permanently.  You may just need an aspirin by the end to stop your head from spinning.

Well, time to fire up the old Plymouth.  Drive home safely, folks.



  1. You are right, Quiggy, this movie has one of the most convoluted plots in film history. But it is a lot of fun, Bogart is the perfect Marlowe and has great chemistry with the beautiful and sultry Bacall. She was barely 20 when this was made, but already has such a mature authority and power on the screen.

    1. I think the fact that Bogart made Marlowe significantly different from his portrayal as Spade says a lot about his acting ability. And although I like Bacall better in Key Largo, she was great here. Thanks for reading, Chris.

  2. I love this movie :-) I love how twisty it is, how it sometimes surprises me even though I've seen it probably a dozen times by now, and I've read the book at least five...

    But mostly I love Chandler's snappy dialog coming out of Bogart & Bacall's mouths. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

    1. Great dialogue, whether its actually Chandler's or William Faulkner's or Leigh Brackett's. But it does have appeal. Thanks for reading.


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