The Big Sleep: Proof That Plot Doesn’t Matter

We still don't know what happened in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's noir masterpiece The Big Sleep!

When The Big Sleep premiered exactly 73 years ago today, it marked the newest silver screen adventure of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s beloved private dick. In this context, Howard Hawks was delivering a hard-hitting crime story to audiences and dealing with seedy subjects so obscured by polite society that they can barely even be seen in the finished film: blackmail, pornography, murder, and the amoral decadence of the one-percent. All of these deliciously morbid ingredients were baked into what became one of the greatest noirs of the post-war era.

Yet, they are not alone what makes The Big Sleep a timeless classic of deep cynicism and even deeper debauchery. From the very first frame, even Raymond Chandler’s then very impressive name was cast in the shadow of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Immediately after the Warner Bros. logo, we see the unmistakable silhouette of Bogie giving a light to Bacall’s hazy visage, sharing again that immortal light of their first onscreen scene in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, a smoke made up of equal parts nicotine and fairy dust. When people still cringe at the dangerous power of suggestion tobacco can have in media, it is the specter of these two’s seductive cool that they dread. And in 1946, it was their dreamy and addictive outlines that preceded any names.

The Big Sleep title card that followed, much like the plot of the movie, is almost incidental.

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To be sure, The Big Sleep is a masterpiece of style and another victory for director Howard Hawks’ ear for rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. It’s an aggressive cinematic force of charming apathy, intentionally manufactured around the same triumvirate of talent and bruised egos that brought Bogie and Bacall together in the first place with To Have Not. In many ways, The Big Sleep is an encore for Hawks and his two oh, so insolent muses. And for many, it surpassed their first effort, even if to this day nobody can figure out exactly what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep, and who killed whom.

Famously Hawks even gathered his screenwriters, who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, together to unpack the dense narrative web of Chandler’s novel before finally just wiring the author to ask what does it even mean?! The way Chandler tells it in his papers, the filmmakers asked him who exactly killed Owen Taylor, a chauffer whom audiences never met until he pops up as the second inexplicable murder victim in 10 minutes.

“They sent me a wire,” Chandler wrote. “Asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either!”

No one really does. But who cares? The Big Sleep isn’t about the labyrinthine plot that Marlowe finds himself buried in for 114 minutes; it’s about just how cool he and Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge look getting out of it without breaking a sweat. And they do look very, very, very cool.

Before becoming the second movie starring Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep was that aforementioned Raymond Chandler novel. Published in 1939, it was Chandler’s first story with Marlowe, a wisecracking and hard-drinking private detective with a preoccupation for women and, occasionally, poetry. However, 1946’s The Big Sleep was not the first time the detective made the jump to the big screen.

Just two years prior, Dick Powell originated the role of Marlowe in Edward Dmtryk’s noir, Murder, My Sweet. As an adaptation of Chandler’s second Marlowe story (Farewell, My Lovely), it arguably gets closer to the softer edges of the literary Marlowe that Bogart and Hawks took outback and drowned during one of their numerous boating trips.

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Hardly as unflappable as Bogart’s deliberate detachment (Hawks’ favorite word to describe his leading man was “insolent”), Powell’s Marlowe is a hard-working private eye who seems genuinely concerned about his fate and the details of the case. He has voiceover to tell the audience what he’s thinking, and he dreams of dangerous faces every time he is knocked out. Bogie’s Marlowe doesn’t dream; that’s too much effort. He doesn’t talk to the audience either. We’re not worth his time. He’s the smartest person in the room, whether in the scene or movie house, and is moving too quick at Howard Hawks’ speed of wit to be anything less than disinterested in the plot of his own investigation. Whether facing down a gun or throwing a come-hither dame out of his apartment at night, The Big Sleep’s Marlowe is getting on with it so he can have another tête-à-tête with Vivian in the next scene.

This is a hero who defeats the villain of the piece by literally talking him into unintentionally commiting suicide during the Tommy Gun climax.

Still, this onscreen gumshoe shouldn’t be mistaken for Sam Spade, Bogie’s other detective protagonist from The Maltese Falcon (1941). As what many argue is the first noir film, John Huston’s Falcon made Bogart a star, but Sam Spade is far too cynical for even Hawks. A kind of ruthless bastard that shrugs when his partner is killed and likely doesn’t lose a minute of sleep after sending his lover Brigid (Mary Astor) up the river for all the bodies she stepped over, Spade is so hardboiled that his soul probably evaporated years ago. Marlowe is college-educated and interested enough in Vivian to cover up a murder, and that distinction is what makes The Big Sleep so much more of a character piece, and thus a movie star’s showcase.

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The plot connecting all this, from what I can tell, involves Marlowe being set on a case by Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron). As a decrepit and dying old man, Sternwood insists he’s lived a lecherous and debauched life, the kind that if this movie were made 10 years ago, Peter O’Toole actually could have embodied. However, little of it is seen on his shriveled remains, which is perhaps why Marlowe takes the case—besides needing the paycheck. As it turns out, Sternwood has two daughters who have taken after him in different ways. The first is the shrewd but purportedly pretentious Vivian (Bacall), whose young marriage to a Mr. Ruthledge is over before the film starts, and the groom is nowhere to be found (perhaps he’s buried out back?).

The other daughter who is actually the driving force of the story’s chaos is Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), a teenage seductress so wild and promiscuous that her short skirt on a lazy Sunday in the film’s first scene still raises eyebrows in 2016, never mind 1946. She has a habit of sucking her thumb while swooning into every man’s arms, including Marlowe. She also apparently has swooned into some questionable folks, including a Joe Brody who previously blackmailed the general with suggestive photographs of Carmen in compromising positions. Don’t worry Joe is going to die after his first scene. But until then, Joe appears returned to the Sternwoods’ lives, because now Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) is also blackmailing the general due to supposed gambling debts Carmen has recently incurred. Geiger too will be dead after his first scene.

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However, what the general is most concerned about is the fate of a character we never meet, one Sean Regan, another private eye that Sternwood considered to be like a “son-in-law” until he up and disappeared one day between extortion demands.

What follows is a dizzying narrative cul-de-sac where Marlowe follows Geiger to a shady house that ends with Geiger being killed by Owen Taylor (the chauffer who then immediately dies afterward to the befuddlement of even his creators), though at the time we think Joe Brody is the murderer. But this is made moot when Brody is also killed by Geiger’s own chauffer, who may or may not be working with gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), whose wife supposedly ran off with Sean Regan, but who is in actuality blackmailing Vivian separate from her father for other nefarious deeds committed by Carmen, because…

Look, I could bother unpacking this serpentine nonsense or point out that while none of it really matters, the film it stiches together very much does. Admittedly, I suspect the convoluted nature was in large part due to squeezing an unseemly story past the censors at the Hays Office through any means necessary. For starters, Carmen never had gambling debts in the novel, but was explicitly being photographed in naked pornographic images while as high as a kite (something hinted at in the finished film), and Geiger was always the one taking the photos. Also, Geiger didn’t have the story’s second murderous chauffer on hand, but a gay lover who murdered Joe Brody for revenge, which is a much more obvious motive than what is in the movie (causing confusion of which murders Eddie Mars planned, and which he did not). Similarly, the film made the bizarre choice of having Vivian being divorced from a Mr. Rutledge, as opposed to being Sean Regan’s widow, as in Chandler’s book.

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But in the end, whatever needless turns The Big Sleep adds to the maze, you never were going to find your way out. But why should you bother? In the thick of this film, Hawks has crafted the wittiest and fastest-moving detective noir of the genre’s ‘40s glory days. The pleasures found in the movie are simply Bogie and Bacall sitting in Marlowe’s office, turning verbal insults into the sudden discovery of a shared interest by trolling the local police department.

When Vivian calls Marlowe’s bluff and phones the coppers with details on a new blackmailer, Marlowe rips the phone out of her hand and plays dumb, pretending to be a confused child to Bacall’s icy demeanor. He then passes the phone to Vivian, who has gone from annoyed to bemused. Without missing a beat, she takes the phone from Bogart and says, “Hello? Who’s this? This police station, this isn’t the police station. Look, this isn’t the police station! What was that you said? Oh, my father should hear this.” And back the phone goes to Bogie with a new role to play.

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By the end of the scene, Marlowe is explaining to the police that whatever expletives he’s using that “Oh, I wouldn’t like that and neither would my daughter.” It’s swift, economical flirting at the expense of authority, and just insolent enough to have audiences either laughing or applauding. It’s scenes like this that are the heart of the movie when it isn’t about high-contrast lit gunplay. It is also one of several scenes reworked in post-production, another of which featuring plenty of colorful comments about “horse riding” between Bogie and Bacall that Casablanca’s Julius J. Epstein was brought in to write uncredited.

When Hawks knows what he has, he plays to its strength under all circumstances.

The short-lived trinity between the director and his two stars began and ended with decisions like this. For in many respects, right down to her name, Hawks cultivated “the Look” of Lauren Bacall to be a perfect complement to Humphrey Bogart’s own movie screen persona—or himself. Little did the director realize that his Pygmalion might have other designs altogether.

Famously, Hawks’ wife at the time discovered Lauren Bacall when the teenage model caught her eye on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Only 19-years-old, Betty Perske was dressed as a Red Cross nurse contributing to the war effort. Nancy “Slim” Hawks remarked to her husband, ““I don’t know if she can act or not, but she can certainly look at you.”

At this point, Hawks was already beginning production on To Have and Have Not, a very loose adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story, that he was mostly throwing out in favor of doing a light retread of Bogie’s character arc from Casablanca, but with more smuggling and scenes set at sea—which suited Bogart fine since while in the midst of his third marriage, this of the toxic variety to actress and drinking buddy Mayo Methot, he liked escaping to sea on his yacht the Santana and in the U.S. National Guard when he wasn’t shooting.

Within these parameters, Hawks didn’t seek another romance about ideology for Bogart, but one focused on finding the actor’s aloof peer from the female sex. As screenwriter Jules Furthman, of both Have Not and Big Sleep, tells it, Hawks proposed, “Do you suppose we could make a girl who is insolent, as insolent as Bogart, who insults people, who grins when she does it, and people like it?”

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After Slim discovered Betty Perske for him, Hawks revamped the young girl’s look, having her change her first name to “Lauren” (“Bacall” was the actress’ choice) and dressing her in literal clothes that belonged to his wife. He even had her onscreen character of Marie go by “Slim” as a nickname, just like his wife.

“I’m not saying I was the inspiration for the Hawks woman,” Slim wrote in her autobiography. “Rather, before he met me, the woman of his dreams was only in his head, and until Howard got to Bacall, there hadn’t been an actress to make that dream come alive onscreen.”

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Ironically, Hawks was oblivious that Bacall was also Jewish, which made any fantasies he had about seducing his cinematic ward a nonstarter. In 1996, Bacall told The New York Times that she didn’t tell him she was Jewish, “Because he was anti-Semitic and scared the hell out of me… He made me so nervous so I didn’t say anything. I was cowardly, I must say. I was not proud of myself.”

This likely made the “crush” he had on her (Bacall’s words) all the more awkward.

However, unlike most leading ladies whom Bogart gave the cold shoulder, she hit it off with the newly minted movie star to legendary effect. While “the Look” she became known for was an artifice—that iconic smolder was created to hide the fact that she was so nervous in her first movie that she leaned her head down into her chest and stared upwards, so as to not ruin takes by shaking—her chemistry with the 45-year-old Bogart was not. They began seeing each other by the third week of shooting and by the sixth, columnist Hedda Hopper was on set and catching wind. Needless to say that Bogart’s wife Mayo Methot was not pleased, nor was Hawks.

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Outraged that his perfect onscreen woman had fallen for the man her image was literally designed for, instead of himself, Hawks threatened Bacall. He claimed that Bogart was in love with the part she played, not her, and that he would leave her—but if she didn’t leave first he’d sell her contract he bought to Monogram, one of the worst studio’s on Poverty Row. To put it mildly, things soured between Bogart, Bacall, and Hawks.

Yet, serendipitously, Warner Bros. instantly realized To Have and Have Not would be a hit from the dailies. Thus before even releasing the picture, they pushed all three together again to work on The Big Sleep. By this time, Bogart and Bacall’s affair was in a détente, because Bogart still was unsure whether he could leave Methot. Yet after being on set again, the affair eventually picked back up and ended in one marriage dissolving, and wedding bells for a new one between the now immortally christened Bogie and Bacall.

There are other curious legends about the tensions between the three on their second film, including Hawks apparently setting up a surprise dinner for Bacall with Clark Gable in the hopes that they’d start an affair that would end Bogie and Bacall before the Methot marriage collapsed. However, whatever animosity there might have been behind the camera, it all informs The Big Sleep as a movie that showcases the resilience of classic movie star power to overcome all obstacles.

Indeed, the film was delayed an extra year from 1945 to ’46 after the war ended—WB wanted to get all their war-themed movies out in theaters before audiences grew bored with the subject matter—but this allowed the chance to add more scenes like the ones mentioned above between Bogie and Bacall after To Have and Have Not turned out to be a boffo smash.

It also, rather sadly, allowed the decision to be made to cut all of Martha Vickers’ scenes with Bacall, because there was a fear the even younger actress who played Vivian’s wild sister was upstaging the current ingénue of choice. It is a shame too since Vickers is quite good as Carmen, a spoiled heiress who has never been told no by her father or almost any man prior to Marlowe. Vickers’ only major film up to that point had been Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) where she had a small but memorable role as another young thing wolves dressed as men couldn’t resist. There is obviously a screw loose upstairs for her Big Sleep character, but that only heightens the banter when she keeps trying to crawl into a resistant Marlowe’s bed.

Her presence, like the wartime setting, all help inform The Big Sleep as a tough, male fantasy of the kind that Sean Connery would fulfill during the heights of the Cold War. Like James Bond after him, Marlowe is a product of his time. The fact that it is set in the war leads to curious notes about the character, such as the fact that his car has a “B” rationing sticker, which means he is allotted by the government the maximum amount of gasoline for a civilian during World War II: eight gallons. Also, underneath all the pictures of the then-alive President Roosevelt, Marlowe keeps running into beautiful young women, either as bookstore proprietors or as taxi drivers. Like Bond and future descendants of the uber-male, he turns all feminine heads. But unlike many since, his is not a solo act; he’s part of a duet.

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Once again, The Big Sleep is about a tough detective, yet it is not marketed or built upon a lonely cynic like Bogart’s Sam Spade, but around a two-hour flirtation between Bogart and Bacall. Bullets, booze, and bloody corpses amount to foreplay. By the time the movie opened, the most masculine of movie stars who, as Chandler memorably said, “Looked tough without holding a gun,” is also considered even more idealized to be holding his off-screen wife’s hand. The war was over and the film noir movement it helped birth with a new streak of urbane American cynicism was just beginning. Yet already, a post-war mainstream contentedness was sneaking in too.

The Big Sleep unintentionally subverts its own downbeat noir fantasy by having the dick and the potential film fatale get together. She isn’t a siren beckoning him to his doom like Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, or like Carmen would have been if he gave in to her advances (which is more or less the gist of the grimmer literary Big Sleep and perhaps the original edit of this film before reshoots); Vivian is his peer and every bit as acid-tongued in her retorts as Bogie. It is a bizarre courtship by way of insults, Bogart’s aloofness, Bacall’s disaffection, and Hawks’ rapid fire, dry humor.

The three collaborators had a clearly complicated history before the film and never worked together again afterward. Yet, such strange forces are perhaps why we ended up with a marvelously circuitous detective thriller that is always fresh, not least of all because you never know exactly why things are happening. It’s just amazing that they are occurring in the first place.

…Still, I’d love to know who killed that driver.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.