The two Humphrey Bogart movies that are quintessentially Bogart—in which that line between a star actor’s screen persona and a specific character he’s playing is most thoroughly and effectively erased so that these become indistinguishably one—were directed and produced back-to-back by Howard Hawks. Both co-star Lauren Bacall at her freshest and most defining (her first and third films) and both have screenplays worked on by William Faulkner, one based (rather vaguely) on Ernest Hemingway, the other (rather strongly) on Raymond Chandler. The first was 1944’s dramatic World War II espionage romance, To Have and Have Not, and the second starred Bogie as the definitive Chandler private eye, Philip Marlowe, in 1946’s mesmerizingly entertaining The Big Sleep (available on DVD).
This is the crime film with a virtually indecipherable plot, though it doesn’t really matter because the scenes, one after the other, are so utterly compelling and enjoyable that after a while you shrug and think, Who cares what’s going on, it’s all too much fun to worry about details like that. A famous anecdote: During shooting, neither Hawks nor Faulkner nor the other screenwriters (the reliables, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) could figure out who had killed a certain character, so they wired Chandler this question and he wired back that he couldn’t figure it out, either.
There’s a teasingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole affair, a dry, witty approach that is typically Hawksian, as one woman after another (Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, etc.) makes passes at Bogart’s implacably insolent Marlowe, who has dialogue like, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” or “You oughta wean her, she’s old enough,” or even “Hmm...” to which the response is, “What’s that supposed to mean?” and he answers, “Means ‘hmm.’”
Chandler once said, “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it,” and Hawks takes full advantage of this axiom by essentially shaping each and every sequence in the entire movie from Bogie’s viewpoint; he is the beginning and end of every scene, and nothing happens without being filtered through his responses. Of course, the book is constructed that way, but Hawks could easily have altered this, and he could’ve screwed up the lines, but as he wisely used to say, “You couldn’t get better dialogue than Raymond Chandler’s,” so he leaves it alone. Tense and fast-paced, the picture has a pervasive intelligence and honesty that simply doesn’t date. One of my personal favorites for years, The Big Sleep holds up well under repeated viewing because the black humor and generally evil atmosphere feel continually contemporary.