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.
I’ve seen Otto Preminger’s “Laura” three or four times, but the identity of the murderer doesn’t spring quickly to mind. That’s not because the guilty person is forgettable but because the identity is so arbitrary: It is not necessary that the murderer be the murderer.
Three or four other characters would have done as well, and indeed if it were not for Walter Winchell we would have another ending altogether.
Film noir is known for its convoluted plots and arbitrary twists, but even in a genre that gave us “The Maltese Falcon,” this takes some kind of prize. “Laura” (1944) has a detective who never goes to the station; a suspect who is invited to tag along as other suspects are interrogated; a heroine who is dead for most of the film; a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual; a romantic lead who is a dull-witted Kentucky bumpkin moving in Manhattan penthouse society, and a murder weapon that is returned to its hiding place by the cop, who will “come by for it in the morning.”
The only nude scene involves the jealous man and the cop. That “Laura” continues to weave a spell — and it does — is a tribute to style over sanity. No doubt the famous musical theme by David Raksin has something to do with it: The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under a lot.
There is also Clifton Webb’s narration, measured, precise, a little mad: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass.
It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.
”It is Clifton Webb’s performance as Waldo Lydecker that stands at the heart of the film, with Vincent Price (see above), as Laura’s fiancee Shelby Carpenter, nibbling at the edges like an eager spaniel.
Both actors, and Judith Anderson as a neurotic friend, create characters who have no reality except their own, which is good enough for them.
The hero and heroine, on the other hand, are cardboard. Gene Tierney, as Laura, is gorgeous, has perfect features, looks great in the stills, but never seems emotionally involved; her work in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945) is stronger, deeper, more convincing.
Dana Andrews, as Detective Mark McPherson, stands straight, chain-smokes, speaks in a monotone, and reminded the studio head Daryl F. Zanuck of “an agreeable schoolboy.” As actors, Tierney and Andrews basically play eyewitnesses to scene-stealing by Webb and Price.
Directed by Lewis Allen. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Audrey Totter, George Dolenz, Peter van Eyck. Released April 15, 1955.
Edward G. Robinson and George Raft last appeared together in the 1941 Warner Brothers feature “Manpower” on which, it has been said, they did not get along.
The two actors are co-stars again fourteen years later in the 1950s noir “A Bullet For Joey. ”Raft had been appearing in low budget noir programmers for the low budget Lippert Pictures, while Robinson’s last two movies were the western “The Violent Men” and the drama “Tight Spot,” both for Columbia.
They’d come a long way from the gangster movies in which each actor had established himself. Raft is hardly the most versatile actor of his time, but he has a very firm, anchored presence in every scene. Edward G. Robinson is a brilliant actor who owns every scene in which he appears. Both are a good reason to see “A Bullet For Joey.
”Robinson is a detective investigating a cop’s murder in Montreal, and as he digs deeper he discovers a complex plot where mobster Raft is being paid to help kidnap a nuclear physicist and turn him over to communist spies.
Audrey Totter is a seductive blonde whom gangster Raft uses to help him execute his kidnapping plot.
Lewis Allen uses no fancy angles, simply framing the action.
“A Bullet For Joey” progresses at an even pace, with new developments, that pop up continuously to further enhance the narrative. It is taut, suspenseful, and well acted.
One year later Robinson would score big in “The Ten Commandments.” He would continue to remain active until his death in 1973, his final film being “Soylent Green” in which he gives one of his finest performances.
Photo: Peter Lorre played the serial killer in “M”.
M is supposedly based on the real-life case of serial killer Peter Kürten, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf”, whose crimes took place in the 1920s, although Lang denied that he drew from this case.
“At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany — Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke,” Lang told film historian Gero Gandert in a 1963 interview.
In 1930, when Lang placed an ad in the newspaper stating that his next film would be Mörder unter uns (Murderer Among Us) and was about a child murderer, he immediately began receiving threatening letters in the mail.
He was also denied a studio space to shoot the film at Stakken studio.
When Lang confronted the head of Stakken studio to find out why he was being denied access to the studio, the studio head informed Lang that he was a member of the Nazi party and that the party suspected that the film was meant to depict the Nazis.
This assumption was based entirely on the film’s original title and the Nazi party relented when informed of the film’s plot.
M was eventually shot in six weeks at a Stanken Zeppelinhalle studio just outside of Berlin. Lang also made the film for Nero-Film instead of UFA or his own production company.
It was produced by Nero studio head Seymour Nebenzal, who later produced Lang’s The Testament of Doctor Mabuse.
Other titles given to the film before “M” were Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City searches for a Murderer) and Dein Mörder sieht Dich an (Your Killer Looks At You).
While researching for the film Lang spent eight days inside a mental institution in Germany and met several real child murderers, including Peter Kürten.
He later used several real criminals as extras in the film and eventually 25 cast members were arrested during the film’s shooting.
Peter Lorre was cast in the lead role of Hans Beckert, the mentally ill child murderer.
During filming, Lorre acted in the film during the day while appearing onstage in Valentine Katayev’s Squaring the Circle at night.
Lorre’s character whistles the tune “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1.
However, Peter Lorre himself could not whistle – it is actually Lang’s wife and co-writer Thea von Harbou who is heard.
The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, associating “In the Hall of the Mountain King” with the Lorre character.
Later in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he is nearby, off-screen.
This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation, a technique borrowed from opera, is now a film staple.
Nicholas Ray’s astonishingly self-assured, lyrical directorial debut opens with title cards and lush orchestrations over shots of a boy and a girl in rapturous mutual absorption: “This boy … and this girl … were never properly introduced … to the world we live in …” A shriek of horns suddenly obliterates all other sound – their shocked faces both turn toward the camera, and the title appears: They Live by Night.
Meet 23-year-old escaped killer Bowie Bowers and his farm-girl sweetheart Keechie Mobley (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell), in an imaginary idyll of peace and contentment that will never come true for them.
Bowie, jailed at 16 for killing his father’s murderer, has known nothing but jail, and is still a boy. Having escaped the prison farm with two older bank robbers – T-Dub and the psychotic Indian Chicamaw “One-Eye” Mobley (Jay C Flippen, Howard da Silva) – he feels loyalty-bound to tag along on their crime spree.
Keechie is Chicamaw’s niece, and soon circumstances force them to lam it cross-country at the same time as they tremblingly discover love for the first time.
Somehow all the planets aligned for Ray, a novice director with an achingly poetic-realist vision of Depression-era Texas and the determination to implement it wholesale: a perfect source novel, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us; and exactly the right combination of producer (John Houseman), studio (RKO) and sympathetic studio head (Dore Schary). The result is luminous in its imagery and highly sophisticated in its musical choices.