Remember last April when I started a fresh category called “Rainy Day Movies” in my now-cobweb-infested blog? And the first review I wrote in it was on this sci-fi thriller from 1998 (which may or may not have consciously inspired “The Matrix”) called “Dark City”? No? No one? Nobody remembered that? The name “Dark City” ring any bells? No, not “Dark Knight”…..”Dark City”. No, not “Arkham City”….. “DARK CITY“. Look, you know what? Go back to waiting patiently for “Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham” to come out (on November 11th and November 14th 2014 in the U.S. and Europe respectively for the PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows (WOO-HOO!!!!), Mac OS X and iOS) and leave me and my precious, cobweb-infested blog alone!!! Sheeeeesh.
Aaaaanyway, today’s post is the second, long-awaited entry into a category I call “Rainy Day Movies”. Now a “rainy day movie” is a term that I may or may not have invented during a moment of extreme duress to describe movies that are best enjoyed when it’s rainy outside. Regardless of genre and decade, these movies must hold your attention from start to finish – to the point that you won’t even care if it’s raining cats and dogs or not. And it’s even better when the experience of watching a “rainy day movie” is heightened emotionally and/or physically by the cold temperature. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to watch “Dark City” or the film in today’s write-up on a rainy day, but believe me, it wouldn’t hurt to try.
I know at least two of you are probably thinking to yourselves right now: Why, oh why, am I writing about a movie from 1946 when I could be writing about “The Maze Runner”, “If I Stay” or some other recently-released tween movie based on a young adult novel that I’m certain I WON’T be reading due to lack of time? Well….I’ll tell you. “The Big Sleep”, directed by legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks (“His Girl Friday”, “Rio Bravo”, “Scarface”– the original, not the 1983 one) will be opening the official return of Campus Film Classics on Thursday October 9th at the UWI Film Building, No. 12 Carmody Street, St. Augustine, Trinidad. An initiative of the (St. Augustine) University of the West Indies’ (my alma mater, by the way) Film Programme, Campus Film Classics showcases some of the best films from the history of world cinema. Screenings are free and open to the public, and will take place once a week from Thursday October 9th to Thursday December 11th. All films will be introduced by film experts, including staff from the UWI Film Programme.
As I will be actively involved in Campus Film Classics (and no, I don’t mean as an attendee), I’ll be reviewing one film per month from its 10-week schedule, one of which will actually be introduced in person by….you guessed it….yours truly. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which film I’ll be introducing by checking out the CFC lineup at the end of this write-up.
And now, before you go into a big sleep, here’s my review of “The Big Sleep”. Yes, I will try to keep this review spoiler-free for those who haven’t seen this film. And yes, YOU’RE WELCOME!
“THE BIG SLEEP” (1946) – “So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”. So says Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, played by the recently-deceased Lauren Bacall, to Phillip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart. “The Big Sleep”, based on the novel of the same name by crime-fiction novelist Raymond Chandler (and the first in his career), was the second film centered on the fictional private detective Phillip Marlowe, the first being the impressive “Murder, My Sweet” (1944). It is the second film where Humphrey Bogart played an on-screen private eye, the first being the noir CLASSIC (and one of the greatest movies of all time) “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), and the second on-screen pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall after the WWII romantic adventure – and Bacall’s official film debut – “To Have and Have Not” (1945).
The history behind Bogart and Bacall’s second film is a Hollywood story in itself. As soon as “The Big Sleep” wrapped production, “To Have and Have Not” was released in theaters. Critics praised the performance of Bacall as the sultry, boldly insolent “Slim” Browning, an American wanderer who found herself in Martinique (the film’s setting) from “TRINIDAD, PORT-OF-SPAIN” (her words, not mine!), and her on-screen chemistry with Bogart, which was further emphasized by some of her lines in the movie, a MAJOR example being the famous, steam-inducing double entendre: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow”. “The Big Sleep” was also set for release in 1945, but got pushed back since World War II was drawing to a close and Warner Bros. wanted to get their war-themed films out of the way. Bacall’s next film was the WWII espionage drama “Confidential Agent”. Released theatrically after the marriage of a 20-year-old Bacall to a 45-year-old Bogart (thus proving the age-old philosophy that men are NEVER too old to marry! Here’s looking at you, George Clooney!), the movie received negative criticism for Bacall’s “amateur” performance. Studio execs at Warner Bros., who still had an unreleased “The Big Sleep” in their hands, sought to save Bacall’s career by doing re-takes of particular shots that they felt didn’t match the insolent character from “To Have and Have Not” that made Bacall famous in the first place. The result was 15 minutes of new sequences shot by Howard Hawks and added into the film before its official release on August 23rd 1946.
The Big Sleep”, like the novel that inspired it, is famous for its convoluted plot. One character’s death in particular (I won’t say who) was brought to the attention of Raymond Chandler himself by the director and the screenwriters, and even Chandler – the AUTHOR of “The Big Sleep” – couldn’t figure out who killed that character and why. But as the late, great film critic Roger Ebert stated in his “Great Movies” review of “The Big Sleep”, the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.
The story begins with Marlowe visiting the mansion of his newest client General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood is being blackmailed over some gambling debts owed by his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) to Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), a collector and seller of rare books. Normally, a situation like this would’ve been handled by Sternwood’s employee Sean Regan, but about a month ago, he disappeared mysteriously. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “get Geiger off his back”. However, Sternwood’s older daughter Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) believes that her father’s ulterior motive is to locate Regan. And thus begins Marlowe’s journey into a seedy world of double crosses, blackmail and murder, whilst trying to avoid….DUM DUM DUMMMMMM!!!! “THE BIG SLEEP”. That’s death, in case you were wondering.
Howard Hawks wanted to make sure the audience didn’t know any more than Marlowe, so Bogart is literally in every scene in the film, thereby allowing the story to unfold through his eyes and the audience’s. This makes for an engaging and very entertaining “WHODUNIT?” viewing experience, as you and Marlowe are trying to figure out who did what, who murdered who and why, and what the hell is really going on. And on the subject of Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart is FANTASTIC as the wisecracking, cynical private eye, and delivers some of the film’s most memorable lines (“Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom”, “I collect blondes and bottles too”, “Wait a minute. You’d better talk to my mother”. SIDE NOTE: Die-hard hip-hop heads should recognize that last quote as one of the samples used in Eric B & Rakim’s TIMELESS “Paid in Full (Coldcut Remix)”. If not, then you are NOT a true hip-hop head!! More like a foot or ankle or something, but certainly NOT a head!!!) .
Lauren Bacall gives a brilliant performance as the “spoiled, exacting, smart and ruthless” (as the character of General Sternwood describes her in an early scene) Vivian Rutledge. She starts off being cautious to trusting Bogart, but slowly and surely (and obviously in a film starring two real-life love interests) falls for his automatic charm. Like her character in “To Have and Have Not”, Bacall shows off her singing ability, this time in the rendition of a piano-driven “forties song” during the latter half of the movie. This song (I assume the title is “Sob Sob Sister”), with its theme of a male spendthrift and blatant a-hole who treats his wife like absolute crap, is actually kind of unsettling (by today’s standards) when you think about it, especially with lines like “But when his wife said sweetie / What did you get for me / He socked her in the choppers / Such a sweet, sweet guy was he”. Uhhhh-huh. However, the way the song is delivered (more particularly the use of Bacall’s trademark husky singing voice) makes this musical number oddly humourous, in a dark, peculiar, “so that’s the kind of music people were listening to back in the 40s. And they say “Blurred Lines” is misogynistic” sort of way. Anyhoo, Bacall’s character may be exacting, smart and a “tad bit” ruthless, but honestly, she’s far from spoiled. Martha Vickers’ character Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), on the other hand, IS. Crafty, conceited and overtly sexual (by 1940s standards), Carmen is CLEARLY the femme fatale in the story.
The script by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman is witty, clever and well-written. The musical score by iconic composer Max Steiner, isn’t as memorable as his compositions for “King Kong” (1933), “Casablanca” (1942) and of course, his GREATEST work – “Gone with the Wind” (1939), but its orchestral, melodramatic dips and swells matches the moody tone of the film perfectly. It should be noted that there is a presence of subtext in the film, cleverly weaved into its narrative to get past the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code (or the Hays Code as it was commonly referred to). The novel’s sexual themes of pornography and homosexuality were altered (*COUGH*subtly hinted*COUGH) in the script to ensure approval of the film by the Hays Code. So if and when you notice a dialogue scene CLEARLY hinting at sex that ends up with the two fully-clothed, fully-consented adults bidding each other farewell and parting ways as if NOTHING happened, don’t blame the filmmakers. Blame the goshdarn whippersnappin’ sons of hussies Hays Code!
In the end, “The Big Sleep” is an excellent film noir, and one of the best entries to emerge from that genre. The complex plot will prove daunting to first-time viewers (I’ve seen the movie twice and I’m still missing a few pieces of its narrative puzzle to make complete sense of it) but I suggest that if you keep your ears and eyes open, try not to think too much about what’s going on, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, try not to sleep on it (just because the name of the movie is “The Big Sleep” doesn’t mean you’re required to doze on it), you’ll find much to enjoy with this movie. A tighter script would have elevated “The Big Sleep” to the status of masterpiece like “The Maltese Falcon”, but with superb acting, sharp dialogue, masterful direction and enough twists and turns to make your head spin, it comes very close.
MY RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie. Best enjoyed on a rainy day“)
ALSO: As promised, here is the Campus Film Classics schedule for the next ten weeks. Each film begins at 7 p.m. For news of upcoming events, check out the UWI Film Programme Facebook page at: