The Big Sleep at 70: film noir at its most seductive

On this day in 1946, the classic private eye film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall premiered in New York.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Peering back down the decades 70 years later, you have to wonder at what it must have been like to be a Manhattanite cinemagoer in the August of 1946. Eight days after Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious first went on release in New York on 15 August, Howard Hawks’ immortal adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Big Sleep landed too. What a month to be alive!

But while both are enshrined now as all-time classics of American cinema, these two films had very different receptions from Bosley Crowther, then reigning critic at The New York Times. Crowther deemed Hitchcock’s latest “one of the most absorbing pictures of the year”, but confessed to complete befuddlement over the Hawks:

“If somebody had only told us – the script-writers, preferably – just what it is that happens in the Warners’ and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, we might be able to give you a more explicit and favorable report on this over-age melodrama which came yesterday to the Strand. But with only the foggiest notion of who does what to whom – and we watched it with closest attention – we must be frankly disappointing about it.”

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Fair enough. Indeed, there’s a famous story that gets told every time anybody writes about The Big Sleep that Hawks himself phoned Chandler during filming to confirm who actually killed the chauffeur dredged out of the harbour about a third of the way through. That Hawks didn’t know is proof of his strategy as a filmmaker. He believed that if you simply make one scene after another crackle with energy and fun, the audience will follow and fall (head over heels) for the film regardless of whether they fully comprehend what’s going on.

What’s more, the very haziness of who is blackmailing who, and who is in league with them, makes this film unfinishable in the best sense. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you can watch it almost anew a few years later and wonder again how the various lowlifes and sleazes that Marlowe encounters fit together.

In this, it’s very different from John Huston’s earlier private dick movie The Maltese Falcon (1941), which cast Bogie as Dashiell Hammett’s gumshoe Sam Spade. While that film’s supporting cast presents a colourful and indelible gallery of larger-than-life rogues, none of the gamblers, pornographers and thugs in The Big Sleep stick in the mind. How they all relate to the nefarious business of who’s blackmailing the ageing General Sternwood using indiscreet pictures of his wayward daughter Carmen is a mystery that’s fresh for unpacking every time you watch it.

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Each time you do, like a good detective you make a newly concerted effort to keep a hold on the facts of the case. And each time, Hawks throws seductive distractions at you that make you lose your way. Each scene follows logically from another, but each one is so alive with hilarious, terse, sexy, absurd dialogue by William Faulkner (William Faulkner!) and Hawks regulars Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman that you don’t notice the shagginess of the rug that’s shifting beneath you.

The Big Sleep is such a great novel, but Hawks treats his adaptation of it like a game – an excuse to reteam Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who he’d introduced on 1945’s equally essential To Have and Have Not and who had subsequently married. The result purports to be a mystery thriller (it would later be called a film noir), but it’s also a feature-length excuse to have Bogart and Bacall bat innuendo back and forth at each other with such relish that you’re amazed such talk got past the censors.

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

While its place in the canon of film noir is assured, The Big Sleep is really post-noir in that it’s a film about the joy of watching movies for their own sake (“Haven’t you ever seen a gun before? What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?”). There’s a direct line of southern Californian knowingness that spirals out of this film to Robert Altman’s hippie-era Chandler deconstruction The Long Goodbye (1973), then to the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) and beyond to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014).

It’s archetypal Hawks too, because while it looks and feels like a genre movie, it’s really the product of a director and some like-mindedly tough-talking writers and actors getting together to have as much fun making a film as possible. The results should be an indulgent mess, but the industrial strictures of the Hollywood studio system somehow hold everything firmly in place. The Big Sleep is, after all, an assembly line Warner Bros picture – just one brimming over with personality, eroticism and mischief.

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