Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep has, quite rightfully if you ask me, long been held up as the epitome of the Hollywood detective pictures of the 40s. It's not quite a noir — its ending is too optimistic and its hero totally lacking in the genre's requisite fatalism — but it's nevertheless rooted in a shadowy noir visual aesthetic, with much of the film set on rainy urban evenings and along dark country back roads as twisty as the famously serpentine plot. The film's mad confusion of murders, blackmail, gambling, and mysterious intrigues is all set off when the aging and decrepit millionaire General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hires the private dick Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to investigate the blackmailing of Sternwood's wild, girl-child daughter Carmen (a sultry, hilariously slutty Martha Vickers). The problem is, the investigation's humble parameters are stretched, in short order, to include a handful of unexplained murders, the complicated web of gangsters and blackmailers surrounding both Carmen and her more urbane sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall), and the years-old disappearance of Sternwood's protege Shawn, widely thought to have run off with the beautiful wife of the gambling impresario Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). These convoluted plots, and the ever-expanding cast of characters involved in all these devious doings, should give some indication of the tangled threads of narrative running through the film, adapted with relative faithfulness from Raymond Chandler's equally complex novel.

Hawks, following up his first Bogart/Bacall pairing with this second outing for the duo (still only Bacall's third movie), seems to have again realized what he captured so well in To Have and Have Not: the simmering screen chemistry between the pair. Bacall is at the top of her game here. In this huge cast of characters, which is constantly rotating as new players are introduced into the proceedings or killed off at every turn, she makes sure that she monopolizes her screen time and makes an impression. By this time, her acting is already refined from her debut, and she's not quite the raw sensual force she was when asking for a light or teaching Bogie how to whistle. She's replaced this seething intensity with a cool, controlled elegance and a verbal wit that's up to the task of tackling the sometimes too-wordy dialogue of the script. Bogart sometimes stumbles over the screenplay's most prodigious tongue-twisters ("I wouldn't be here now if you hadn't said I should come out here if I needed help"), but Bacall is always more than a match for the verbiage.

She's also perfected the vocabulary of eye movements and wry facial expressions that would define her screen presence in this kind of moody 40s thriller, where the mere gesture of her raised eyebrow could convey a whole world of meaning. The film's final shot is practically a master class in understated non-verbal acting, as Hawks maintains a close-up on Bogie and Bacall, facing each other as they talk through the new status quo for their relationship. For the bulk of the shot, both actors are in profile, though Bogart continually turns his face towards the camera and back again. But Bacall maintains her profile throughout the scene, indicating her emotions only with that distinctive raised eyebrow and the slightest hint of a smile. As the scene closes and Hawks tightens the close-up, preparing for the final fade to black, Bacall turns towards the camera at last, casting her eyes rightward first, her gaze essentially preceding her face as she glances towards the approaching police sirens. Her face turns in a perfect arc, looking off into the distance at the right edge of the screen, then flitting back towards Bogart as the screen goes dark. It's a perfect end to the film, a brilliant use of looks and expressions as the unspoken subtext to the conclusion.

Elsewhere, Hawks' hand is felt most clearly in the way he allows the chaos and diversionary strategies of the script free reign, and the way he develops the characters within this utterly lunatic scenario. Each scene becomes an excuse, not necessarily for plot development — whatever "development" happens plot-wise is inevitably forgotten with the next series of twists — but for exercises in verbal witticisms and sexual innuendo. The script is particularly clever on this latter point, and perhaps the film's best aspect is its occasional detour into undercover sexual gamesmanship. The film's metaphors for sex are many. Horse-riding, of course, as Bacall drawls that "it depends on who's in the saddle" to an appreciative Bogie. And liquor too: when Bogart contemplates either spending a stakeout out in the rain or sharing a drink with a sexy but bookish shop girl, he obviously opts for the latter, telling her he'd "rather get wet in here" as she lets down her hair and takes off her glasses. He even turns business into an excuse for witty repartee, as he flirts with a cab driver who helps him trail a car. She tells him to call her up sometime, and signals that it'll be for pleasure, not business, by telling him to make it at night; "I work days," she laughs.

The film's often tortuously overwritten dialogue, which was extensively rewritten on-set from the original script, is turned to more uses than just coded sexual references. The most enjoyable of these is the great scene where Bogart stops Bacall from calling the police by grabbing the phone from her and playing a game with the desk sergeant on the other end. Bacall quickly catches on and the two have some fun with the phone call, defusing a moment of suspense and real narrative interest by transforming it into an occasion for some quick-witted screwball farce. The scene's function within the plot, concerning Marlowe and Vivian's attempts to figure out what the other wants and how much they each know, is quickly dispensed with as Hawks and the actors exploit the comic possibilities of the scenario instead. Although the scene is ostensibly about Marlowe and Vivian, it's also about Bogart and Bacall, having fun with their patter and handing the phone receiver back and forth as they segue smoothly from a serious conversation about Marlowe's case into this hilarious prank call. It's as though, for the space of a few moments, they're slipping out of character to fool around a bit, forgetting that the camera is rolling; it has the loose, improvisatory feel of a modern outtakes reel, with the crucial difference that this bit was simply left in the film.

This looseness is what makes The Big Sleep such a classic of the detective genre, even as it periodically releases the film from the boundaries of its genre, disregarding the endlessly elaborate plot in favor of these small character moments and bursts of sheer verbal ingenuity. It's a typically Hawksian film that celebrates talking, often talking in circles, and even more often the kind of talking that deals in half-truths, distortions, and outright lies. For Hawks, even if conversation isn't necessarily the most direct route to the truth, it's certainly the most fun one, and the route with the most opportunities for very human detours along the way. As a result, there's hardly a moment when someone isn't talking, and hardly a moment when someone's words aren't being revealed as not quite the whole story. Even the film's final moments are spent with lies, as Marlowe and Vivian concoct the story they're going to tell the police, which Marlowe maintains will be "close enough" to the truth. Ultimately, that's as close as these characters can get to a truth that is continually eluding them, as one story after another seems to be sufficient to explain the film's happenings, only to inevitably turn out to be just a small part of the whole truth.


Marc Raymond said...

Nice review, I like that you mentioned the scene at the phone. What I really enjoy is how the scene begins as the typical noir detective sequence with the lying female client and the detective who knows she's being at least somewhat deceitful. I like to show it alongside the opening of THE MALTESE FALCON for comparison in first year film courses. The scenes are very similar in terms of cutting until the phone call, when Hawks gives us a long take of the two characters performing. In many ways, the respective scenes in each film gives us a microcosm of the relationship between detective and client, as well as showing how directors can work stylistic variations on the classical form.

THE BIG SLEEP is also popular in film courses because of Raymond Bellour's essay "The Obvious and the Code", in which a short sequence of the two characters in a car towards the conclusion is broken down shot-by-shot. What is revealed in the subtle and probably unconscious way in which Hawks shoots the male and female characters differently, with the woman on display as object and the man as subject, driving the narrative (literally in this case). Makes a nice companion to Laura Mulvey's essay (and much easier to understand).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Did you ever see the first cut of The Big Sleep. TCM ran it a few years back. Bacall wears a very strange at with a veil in one scene -- like Juliet erto in Duelle. It was decided that the film needed more Bogie-Bcall interplay and so Hawks created new scenes for them, and re-edited the film. Thus its incoherent plot. The first version is more straightforward, albeit less entertaining.

Ed Howard said...

Marc, thanks for pointing out the structural underpinnings of that phone scene -- it's great the way it starts as such a traditional scene and then suddenly just flies off into screwball territory as though a page from a different script just got mixed in. The Bellour essay also sounds interesting, I'll be checking that out.

David, I haven't watched the full earlier version yet, though the DVD I have does feature both cuts. There's also an interesting visual essay which points out the major differences between the two versions, as well as discussing the reasons behind the beefed-up role for Bacall and the deletion of a lot of explanatory scenes that might've cleared up some of the hazier plot points. It seems like between the two cuts, Hawks and the producers increasingly moved towards an emphasis on moments and dialogue exchanges rather than plot development. The plot's clarity was quite literally sacrificed in order to pack in more great but extra-narrative Bogie/Bacall interplay, and also to squeeze in that hilarious scene between Bogie and Martha Vickers when she's waiting in his apartment.