Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Howard Hawks. These names are all synonymous with classic Hollywood, particularly the best of its era. Add a screenplay written by William Faulkner and this humble blogger has found himself something that he is certain to enjoy. To call The Big Sleep enjoyable is to severely undersell it, as I have noted prior on this blog, The Big Sleep is by far a perfect film, from beginning to end. Even considering that the film suffered from its share of censorship, it is flawless. Bogart and Bacall's chemistry is explosive, the dialogue is witty and the cinematography is everything that a person loves about film noir. I am becoming quite aware that Howard Hawks as a filmmaker is one of the best to ever come along. He is not as prolific as a Kubrick or Welles, by any means, but his films are solid, enjoyable and timeless, a feat that is in my book near damn impossible. Furthermore, I cannot help but to admire the diversity of Hawks as a filmmaker, whether it is a straight forward drama like The Big Sleep, or a loony comedy like Bringing Up Baby, it is assured that it will be a step above its competitors and well worth your time to engage with. Also, it should be noted that Hawks name shows up on many a top one hundred list a lot, and deservedly so.
The Big Sleep is a definitive noir film and as such it has many of the signifiers of the genre. The detective who traipses around ethics, a seductive woman with ulterior motives and a whole lot of shadows. The detective in this film, is one Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) who has recently undertaken a a case of blackmail from the well-respected General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), relating to a gambling debt accrued by his daughter Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). Marlowe knowing full and well the implications of such a case, demands a considerable amount of money before agreeing to take the case. However, as Marlowe becomes entrenched within the case it becomes clear quite quickly that he is not dealing with a simple case of blackmail. Between the awkward advances of the young Sternwood, illicit dealings at bookshops and an eventual homicide, Marlowe's case becomes an incredibly convoluted mess. This trouble is only exacerbated by his evolving feelings for the general's other daughter Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). It becomes clear to Marlowe that the only individual he can trust within the entire case is himself, often relying on his wits, masculinity and fluidity between the world of law and crime to gain advantages over his enemies. After killing a fair share of people, getting mugged and sleeping with a handful of women, Marlowe eventually implicates all people involved within the crime, which by the end of the film is a considerable amount of individuals. Fortunately, for Marlowe, his relationship with Vivian proves successful and the two are shown sharing a romantic gaze and the promise of partnership well after the closing of the case. It is certainly unconventional in its film noir nature, but nonetheless indicative of its tradition.
The Big Sleep, is great. It is a classic piece of cinema that deserves all the praise it has gained over the decades. However, as a film scholar, I cannot help but to acknowledge the many problems that emerge within the film as a social text. When considering that it was made in 1946, it is easy to explain many of the issues that emerge, but I plan to point them out for those who may overlook many of the issues. Perhaps the most blatant issue within the film is the inherent issue of patriarchal dominance within the text. Marlowe's every action is deemed acceptable or praiseworthy, given his power as a white male. Such a position allows him to act in a violent manner to those around him, going so far as to slap women when they are caught in a lie. He also is privileged with the ability to sleep with any women he desires, a thing he does on multiple occasions within the film, even demanding that one girl remove her glasses before they engage in the act. Furthermore, the film as a whole is entrenched within notions of white wealth. Excluding Marlowe and the mobsters he encounters, the remainder of the film's characters are well-to-do. When it is apparent that their worst problems involve gambling, one has trouble empathizing with them considering that many people struggle to simply get by financially. Perhaps it is this disconnect from the gritty underworld of traditional poverty and crime that makes the film seem so unlike other noir films. The characters are privileged, their actions seem less justified and almost pathetic in nature. To be fair, the illogical nature of the Sternwood family's existence helps to make Marlowe much more relateable, but even considering this he is a lecherous individual who only looks out for his personal interests. With those critiques in mind, it would be easy to hate the movie, however, I promise you will still find it incredibly enthralling.
The Big Sleep is a backbone for any legitimate film collection, do yourself a favor and by a copy, it is rather cheap and has high rewatchability.