The second onscreen pairing of Hollywood golden couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep remains one of the greatest film noirs ever made.
Based on Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, Bogart became the fourth – and arguably definitive - screen incarnation of Philip Marlowe. Over the years everyone from Robert Mitchum to James Caan and Elliott Gould (in Robert Altman’s anti-noir The Long Goodbye) have played the detective, but Bogart’s grizzled version is the only one anyone remembers. In terms of characterisation, Bogart plays it virtually indistinguishable from The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade (little surprise considering Marlowe was influenced by Spade), and the character remains the quintessential noir private dick.
And then there’s Bacall. At the time she’d just turned 20, but looked, and played far older. Bogart was 25 years her senior, and the two were already lovers after meeting on To Have And Not To Hold. The pair’s romance developed during The Big Sleep, resulting in Bogart leaving his wife and them marrying during Sleep’s lengthy production. Their chemistry is obvious onscreen and Hawks reshot portions of the film, boosting Bacall’s part to give Hollywood’s golden couple a chance to shine together.
And while the reshoot may have upped the sexual chemistry, it also helped complicate an already convoluted plot. Vital exposition scenes were changed or excised completely, and with 1940s censorship not permitting any explicit mention of the pornography or drugs central to the story, it’s far from the most straightforward film to follow (indeed, both Hawks and Chandler were unsure who was responsible for one of the film’s deaths).
But bizarrely, it works. It’s impossible to follow everything, but we don’t need to. The script (co-written by Empire Strikes Back’s Leigh Brackett, concerns Marlowe investigating a case involving two sisters, a pornographer, a blackmailer, a gangster and a couple of missing lovers) is engrossing enough that you don’t need every plot thread tied up; Bogart and Bacall sparkle; and there’s an impressive rogues’ gallery of villains (including Elisha Cook Jr.) so it cruises by on style alone. The Big Sleep remains one of the ‘40s greatest noirs, and a testament to one of Hollywood’s greatest on and offscreen pairings.
The Blu-ray also contains the unreleased 1945 cut of the movie (more exposition, less Bacall, not quite as good) and a fascinating half hour comparison between the two version, presented by film historian Robert Gitt.
THE BIG SLEEP / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: HOWARD HAWKS / SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM FAULKENER, LEIGH BRACKETT, JULES FURTHMAN / STARRING: HUMPHREY BOGART, LAUREN BACALL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (HMV EXCLUSIVE)