Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Three

33 sleep

#33 — The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

Though The Big Sleep would never be considered experimental enough to suggest that it’s deliberating courting an antinarrative approach, it does oddly wind up making its own accidental argument about the invalidity of sanctifying cogent storytelling. Stories about the convoluted plot of the film flummoxing practically everyone involved are legendary. Based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, the film had three formidable writers credited on the screenplay: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Additionally, with Howard Hawks in the director’s chair, The Big Sleep boasted one of the clear masters of cinematic storytelling, at least as practiced in the form of traditional Hollywood narrative construction. And yet at different times, none of them could explain with absolutely certainty what was going on with the plot, down to whether or not a certain figure had committed suicide or been murdered. Even telephone calls to Chandler — author of the original material, after all — couldn’t clear matters up. Portions of the film were reworked to better capitalize on the outside notoriety of the two stars and story elements were changed depending on the availability of certain actors for reshoots.

If the film was built like a jalopy assembled by drunkards, it shockingly hums like a luxury automobile. The mood, sharp dialogue, strong sense of character, and mounting anxiety of the film overcome any reasonable worries about the rickety joists that hold the story up. Perversely, the tangle of the film’s plot accentuates the sense of complication pronounced enough to knock a crackerjack private eye like Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) back on his proverbial heels. The audience doesn’t really need to know what’s happening down to the most minute detail. Simply understanding that it’s an exhausting mess for Marlowe to sort out is sufficient for the film to make its impact. Who done it is far less important than the fact that it got done, and there’s no escaping a web as thick as this one once it’s been stumbled into. Suspecting that the mystery may be unsolvable is its own sort of satisfaction.

All this isn’t to imply that Hawks abdicates his responsibility to tell a lucid story. Indeed, one of the real pleasures of the film is watching the filmmaker artfully deploy every tool he’s got to try and keep matters clear, all the while serving the maelstrom of chemistry that was the pairing of Bogart with Lauren Bacall. The film was released a little more than a year after the twosome became husband and wife, making it their first real onscreen pairing as an official couple, and Hawks captures their scenes together like sparring matches between perfect matched fighters who appreciate one another’s gifts. Playing a wealthy daughter of privilege, Bacall delivers many of her lines as a flinty challenge, at times seeming to genuinely catch Bogart off guard with the level of authority she brings to the moment. Hawks accentuates the flirty schism between the two, quickening the film’s pulse in a way that mere story mechanics aren’t likely to manage. If the plot of The Big Sleep is elusive, there are plenty of other facets of it that are extremely easy to understand.

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