LA story … Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Big Sleep.
Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext
The “big sleep” of the title is of course death, but the action in Howard Hawks’s classic hardboiled thriller from 1946, taken from the Raymond Chandler novel, often looks like the sleep of reason bringing forth monsters.
Only the fiercest concentration will keep you on top of the head-spinning plot, and in fact the plot reportedly defeated its stars and director while they were actually shooting, cutting, reshooting and arguing about it.
An explanatory scene was removed and replaced with one showing the leads flirting in a restaurant. Plot transparency was sacrificed in favour of the film’s sexual mood music and making its female star, Lauren Bacall, every bit as compelling as she could be.
The fact that Hawks moreover had to be relatively coy about the pornography and drugs makes the proceedings look even more occult and mysterious. But the narrative’s defiance of our comprehension is part of the film’s sensational effect and its remarkable longevity: it means that scenes, characters, moments and quotable lines (“She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up”) float up out of the mesmerising stew and into your consciousness like fragments of a dream.
The noir fused pulp detective fiction with the enigmatic form of German expressionism and The Big Sleep is an almost surrealist refinement of the noir genre. Bogart is Philip Marlowe, a private detective called in by an ageing sensualist when his pretty, tearaway daughter is being blackmailed.
Yet Marlowe is enamoured of her sister: a very cool customer played, of course, by Lauren Bacall. She was 20 years old and Bogart, her husband, was 44 but looking older — unwell, and battling with a drinking problem.
Nowadays, discussing the presence or absence of “chemistry” between stars has become a critical commonplace. Bogart and Bacall virtually invented the subject with their droll, laconic dialogue. There is a palpable charge in the air. Bacall ventilates the male atmosphere of the film, which is otherwise heavy, gloomy and dark: Bogart himself appears in almost every scene of the film and the mystery is also when he has time to go back home and sleep.
The movie’s disturbing and incomprehensibly labyrinthine story of murder and betrayal now looks like a fable by David Lynch, but Hawks his own storytelling force and potent and distinctive presence. Decades later, Polanski’s gumshoe would retreat from the unknowable mess of Chinatown, but the disturbing and chaotic crime-swirl of greed, vanity, lust and murder — its vortex too low down to be clearly seen — was trademarked by Hawks, Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.