What Makes The Big Sleep A Film Noir?

What Makes The Big Sleep A Film Noir?

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: December 31st 2010
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 114 minutes

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep is directed by Howard Hawks and stars Hollywood’s original glittering couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the second of their four films together.

Bogie plays Philip Marlowe, a private detective hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to deal with the gambling debt his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) owes to bookseller Arthur Geiger who is now threatening her. On his way out he is summoned by the general’s eldest daughter Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) who suspects Marlowe was called to the house to help find her father’s right-hand man Sean Regan who was having an affair with a casino owner’s wife and has now mysteriously disappeared.

As Marlowe begins looking into the Geiger case, he is drawn into a sordid murder mystery involving blackmailers, gamblers, pornographers and killers with two tempting ladies caught right smack in the middle of it. What’s a guy like Bogie to do?

Although not a genre in itself, film noir relates more to the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. The term is used to describe certain kinds of films which came out of Hollywood in the decade following World War 2, typically identified between 1941 and 1958; their bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia mirrored post-war anxieties, pessimism and suspicion and in many ways counter-balanced the optimism in screwball comedies and musicals which the studios continued to produce during this time.

The Big Sleep falls into the category of film noir perfectly; it has the morally ambiguous hard-boiled detective hired to solve a case, the young temptresses who symbolise the loss of innocence and an escalating feeling of tension topped off with the chemistry between the film’s protagonist and the leading lady played by the sultry, husky voiced Bacall.

Jerold J. Abrams, in the chapter From Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir from the book The Philosophy of Film Noir by Mark T. Conard, Robert Porfirio elaborates on film noir qualities which are present in the character of Marlowe:

“The hard-boiled detective is even more isolated, even more Cartesian: he lives entirely alone and has no friends. And this makes his already asocial nature all the worse. The hard-boiled detective is isolated and angry, hopeless and amoral – he’s a dark character in an even darker labyrinth. He’s unrefined and in many way perhaps unlikable. But, then, why should he care? As Marlowe (Bogart) puts it: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself, they’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”

But it’s not just his manners and way of life which makes him a classic film noir character, it’s also the way he moves and the way he dresses. Porfirio continues:

“The hard-boiled detective is excessively detached – he moves in the shadows and at night, ducking into corners and alleways. Always he stays “covered”, always cloaked in his massive trenchcoat with the collar up to hide his throat. Nothing’s getting in there – and not a lot comes out. Hardly the conversationalist, he’s a man of few words – although when he does speak, he’s witty and waxes the deadpan innuendo about the evils of the human soul, as it its everyday (nothing really for inquiry). He wears a fedora with the lid down, just barely revealing his strained brow and penetrating detective eyes. Physically, he’s expressionless, and pretty stiff. He’s strong, but not very large, and certainly not very tall, although as Marlowe puts it in The Big Sleep (in his typical wisecracking manner): “Well, I try to be”.

The Big Sleep

Having already been paired up for To Have And Have Not (1944) where Bogie and Bacall sizzled onscreen and off. Hawks was determined to repeat the same success here. Portions of the film were re-shot to capitalise on the affair (which lead to the couple’s marriage shortly after the film was completed) and new scenes were added such as the risqué dialogue about racehorses spoken by Bacall:

Bacall: “…speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come from behind… I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free….”

Bogart: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”

Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

After an initial test screening by Warner Brothers, Bogie’s agent Charles Feldman wrote to studio head Jack Warner to have some scenes re-cut. Martha Vickers performed so well that she completely overshadowed Bacall’s scenes. Film critic Roger Ebert quotes Raymond Chandler (writer of the novel which the film is based on):

“So they cut the picture in such a way that all her best scenes were left out except one. The result made nonsense and Howard Hawks threatened to sue…”

The film’s release was held back for over a year so the studio could get through a lengthy back log of war themed films. By the time they were ready to release The Big Sleep Bacall’s previous film Confidential Agent (1945) had flopped following bad reviews. Chandler was nervous about Bacall getting another bad review which would result in not only her career being damaged but also her new husband’s who was one of Warner Brothers’ most bankable stars at the time.

Although the plot is rather confusing and the killer’s identity is never openly revealed, The Big Sleep is not really about solving the case, but rather investigating it and while doing so we see something develop between these two tantalising characters (Marlowe and Vivian) – lust. While other actors such as Robert Mitchum and Alan Ladd played roles of hard-boiled detectives in other film noir classics such as Out Of The Past (1947) and The Blue Dahila (1946), it’s Bogie who, without a doubt, epitomises the character making The Big Sleep one of the big classics of cinema.

The Philosophy of Film Noire
Mark T. Conard, Robert Porfirio
University Press of Kentucky, 2007

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