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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Howard Hawks' 'The Big Sleep'

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 15, 2014 at 12:51PM

In memory of Lauren Bacall, here's a look at a film that cemented her stardom.
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Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Big Sleep'
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Big Sleep'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

"The Big Sleep"
Dir: Howard Hawks
Criticwire Average: A-

Lauren Bacall, the Hollywood legend who passed away Tuesday at the age of 89, made her debut in Howard Hawks's 1944 film "To Have and Have Not." At the age of only 20, she showed uncommon confidence and intelligence on the screen, next to one of Hollywood's greatest tough guys, her soon-to-be husband Humphrey Bogart. She and Bogie made three more movies together - the best of them was 1946's "The Big Sleep," a noir that reunited the two with Hawks and gave the world one of the most entertaining (and confusing) noirs of all time.

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, "The Big Sleep" stars Bogart as Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe, a wisecracking private eye who's nonetheless a deeply principled and intelligent man. He soon finds himself caught in a web of murder, blackmail and lies after he's hired to settle the gambling debts of a wealthy man's daughter. He meets that young woman (Martha Vickers), as well as her more world-wise sister Vivian (Bacall) who might have some secrets of her own.

The plot of "The Big Sleep" is famously convoluted, so much so that Chandler himself forgot who killed the wealthy family's chauffeur. But that's appropriate for a story about distrust, corruption and violence, and Hawks and his trio of screenwriters (William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman) keep things so consistently entertaining that it doesn't really matter whether or not one can follow what's going on. The true draw of the film (at least the 1946 version, rather than the re-released 1945 cut), is to see the verbal and mental sparring of Bogart and Bacall, at once falling in and love and trying to pull one over on each other. Bacall in particular is a marvel, at once elegant and dangerous, someone who seems just as likely to kill the hero as kiss him, and probably the only person smart enough to pull off the former as well as the latter.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight

Intricately connected to Marlowe’s importance in the story is the love angle between he and Vivian, played by the wondrous and inimitably charming Lauren Bacall. Swimming amidst the mystery is a romance the two would be lovers have difficulty getting off the ground under the strenuous circumstances. To begin with, their personalities do not exactly match well, Marlowe being the wise cracking blue collar fellow unafraid of rustling anyone’s feathers, whereas Vivian is very much the upper class, slightly pompous figure, at least at the start of the film. The more they meet (and argue), the more they take a liking to one another in a classic case of opposites attracting. That said, despite that each professes that they fancy the other, their respective steadfastness prevents them from embracing feelings until the moments. Marlowe persists in believing, correctly, that Vivian is in over her head with the criminal minds behind the entire ordeal, unsure as to whether or not she is in cahoots with them or a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Vivian, ready to give in to her passions, is irked by Marlowe’s questions, and as such they each, on multiple occasions, bring to a screeching halt whatever romance had been blossoming. It provides a nice distraction all the while actually the two developing into multidimensional characters. Read more.


Jonathan Rosenbaum, JonathanRosenbaum.net

In "The Big Sleep", one has to weigh Bogart’s sexual gallantry and attractiveness to Lauren Bacall’s character and the various flirty ingenues he encounters on his rounds — most notably Dorothy Malone’s bookseller and Joy Barlowe’s taxi driver — against the contempt he and the movie express toward Vivian’s sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) and a schemer named Agnes (Sonia Darrin), both dismissed as irredeemable, inhuman rodents packed with sex appeal. The cozy clubhouse atmosphere Hawks conjures up with such allure and panache is always predicated on such nonnegotiable exclusions. Read more.


And from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Bogart himself made personal style into an art form. What else did he have? He wasn't particularly handsome, he wore a rug, he wasn't tall ("I try to be," he tells Vickers), and he always seemed to act within a certain range. Yet no other movie actor is more likely to be remembered a century from now. And the fascinating subtext in "The Big Sleep" is that in Bacall he found his match.

You can see it in his eyes: Sure, he's in love, but there's something else, too. He was going through a messy breakup with his wife, Mayo, when they shot the picture. He was drinking so heavily he didn't turn up some days, and Hawks had to shoot around him. He saw this coltish 20-year-old not only as his love but perhaps as his salvation. That's the undercurrent. It may not have been fun to live through, but it creates a kind of joyous, desperate tension on the screen. And since the whole idea of film noir was to live through unspeakable experiences and keep your cool, this was the right screenplay for this time in his life.

Read more.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out London

But the real strength of "The Big Sleep" is its dialogue. From Marlowe’s first exchange with Carmen (‘You’re not very tall, are you?’, ‘Well, I try to be’) through the still shocking innuendo of the racing-related flirtation between the leads (‘a lot depends on who’s in the saddle’) to scene after scene of crackling, hard-boiled trash-talk (‘Get up, angel, you look like a Pekinese’), this is arguably the high-water mark of Hollywood’s love affair with the infinitely slippery possibilities of the English language. Read more.


Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

"The Big Sleep" has the distinction of being without doubt one of the greatest crime films of the Forties, yet also one of the least structurally satisfying. Showcasing Bogart and Bacall at the height of their talents, it sizzles with energy, and a witty script holds the viewer's attention throughout - it's just that, by the end, you may be left quite unsure what has actually happened, or why you should care. Fortunately, this does nothing to diminish the thrill. Read more.


This article is related to: Lauren Bacall, Criticwire Classics, Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hawks


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