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The Big Sleep

CritiqueQuotes • Philip Marlowe at the movies

The Big SleepFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literary form

Literary, crime, mystery

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 72,000 words

The Big Sleep scene
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall team up in the first filming of The Big Sleep in 1946.

Double-Bogied Marlowe

The Big Sleep (1946): Film, 116 minutes; director Howard Hawks; writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman; featuring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

Of the two film presentations of The Big Sleep itself, the 1946 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is, of course, the favourite.

It remains not only the most popular rendition of any Raymond Chandler novel, but is usually cited among the handful of greatest film-noir classics made by Hollywood, along with Double Indemnity (for which Raymond Chandler helped write the screenplay), The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past and Laura.

And it is a great one.

Two concerns about it though. For one, much of the criticism of the novel The Big Sleep as being too complicated comes from this film. Legendary director Howard Hawks admitted he couldn't follow the story and noted that even Chandler couldn't advise him who killed one of the characters (the Sternwoods' driver).

It probably didn't help having the brilliant—but often difficult—novelist William Faulkner on the script-writing team. And it's inevitable the plot would become too dense when it's compressed into a two-hour flick.

This movie is faithful to the book in terms of plot—except for a little cutting down on the themes of pornography and homosexuality for a 1940s movie audience and an ending suggesting an ongoing romance between the Bogie and Bacall characters. And, oh yeah, there's a half-hearted attempt to suggest a solution to the unsolved murder.

Verbal warfare

But the black-and-white film is so moodily stylish, and the two leads crackle with such sexual tension, that the narrative complexities can be overlooked. The dialogue out-Chandlers Chandler at times. Where the novel has Marlowe describing his encounter with the youngest of the Sternwood girls with "She tried to sit in my lap", the film has Bogart saying, ""She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up."

Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe
Classic gumshoe Bogart.

There's gunfire and beatings and gorgeous dames aplenty, but it's mainly a movie of terrifically entertaining verbal warfare, particularly between the two leads.

However, this brings up the second problem: Bogie and Bacall. We love them together. But Bogie and Bacall aren't in the book. In Chandler's hands, Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood spar briefly near the beginning, he helps her out of a jam in the middle and they don't get back together again until near the end—all without much indication they're falling for each other. She's above him socially and he's above her morally. The film, however, makes them into a doomed pair of would-be lovers.

Apparently The Big Sleep was filmed a year and a half before it was released but it was held back to give priority to war films. A cut of The Big Sleep as it stood in 1945 is said to have shown both Martha Vickers as the younger sister and Dorothy Malone as the bookstore manager stealing the spotlight from Bacall. Before the film was released in 1946 the studio cut Vickers's sexy scenes and inserted more glamorous, sympathetic shots of Bacall, building up the relationship between the big sister and Marlowe.

As for Bogart, he's replaying his role of Sam Spade opposite Mary Astor's femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon from a few years earlier. His Marlowe may be seen as Hammett's detective embittered by the earlier experience, more cynical than ever. Chandler's Marlowe should be more of an idealist, ready to give a guy or gal a break whether he or she deserves it, a man who refuses to be hardened by the corruption he deals with daily.

Marlowe (Bogart) and Vivian (Bacall) have their first encounter in The Big Sleep.

But this nitpicking could give the wrong impression. The Big Sleep is closer to the novel than you might expect of Hollywood and it's a film you want to go on and on, despite the intricacies of plot.

You also want to see Bogart continue to play Marlowe in adaptations of the rest of Chandler's books. Too bad this didn't happen.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Philip Marlowe at the movies

1942, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1969, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1998, 2022