This review is part of the Humphrey Bogart blogathon hosted by Meredith. The Blogathon runs from December 23rd through December 25th, 2011. By all means, please leave comments for one and all! :-)
Thanks to talented blogger Meredith of Forever Classics and her terrific blogathon saluting the one and only Humphrey Bogart (December 25, 1899 – January 14, 1957), we have back-to-back Raymond Chandler film adaptation posts here at TotED: last week’s Lady in the Lake, and now my entry in the Humphrey Bogart Blogathon, in honor of what would have been the great man’s 112th birthday: The Big Sleep (TBS)
|Raymond Chandler by Rick Geary
Ah, Howard Hawks! Was there any genre he couldn’t tackle with what seemed to be the greatest of ease? And with all due respect to Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner (I haven’t had a chance to catch up with George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon yet), was there ever a more perfect cinematic portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s private investigator hero Philip Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart in TBS? Or a more perfect leading lady for him than Lauren Bacall, playing Vivian Sternwood, who in 1945 happily became Mrs. Bogart for the rest of Bogie’s life? Admittedly, the kind of perfection I mean has nothing to do with such trifles as linear, crystal-clear plotting. (Clarity? We don’t need no stinkin’ clarity!) No, the elements that made the 1946 film version of TBS such a perfect entertainment include Hawks’ zesty direction; the film’s great cast, including those sleek, smart, sassy Hawks women, almost all of whom try to seduce him to one degree or another (I want to be a Howard Hawks kind of woman when I grow up!); and the tangy, moody yet cheeky atmosphere that Hawks and his screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett (as far as I’m concerned, she’s a Hawks kind of woman, too), and Jules Furthman created with sharp dialogue, humor, and suspense. The memorable characters Marlowe meets along the way range from colorful lowlifes to people of integrity staring down corruption and destruction. In my opinion, TBS is one of the most perfect thrillers about decidedly imperfect people in big trouble!
|"Build a greenhouse, reduce your carbon footprint," they said.
I shoulda called Nero Wolfe; he knows orchids!
|Marlowe knows reading is
fun, manly, and sexy!
TBS opens with the famous greenhouse scene, where Marlowe meets his wealthy new client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an elderly, ailing, wheelchair-bound widower who describes himself thus: “You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life.” General Sternwood wants Marlowe to help him keep an eye on Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the youngest and wildest of the two beautiful young Sternwood sisters, who’s being blackmailed over gambling debts. While Marlowe is at it, the General also wants him to see if he can find his friend Sean Regan, who Marlowe knew back in their rum-running days in Mexico: “I (Marlowe) was on the other side. We used to swap shots between drinks, or drinks between shots, whichever you like.” Sternwood has come to regard Sean as the son he never had. Sean, usually the family enforcer, always took care of anyone who tried to make trouble for the Sternwoods. However, Sean apparently drove off about a month ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. It’s clear that Sternwood misses him terribly, which touched my heart and got my suspicions aroused. Marlowe agrees to take the case.
|Oh, baby! What guy wouldn't want
to try weaning Carmen Sternwood?
Carmen is the kind of sexy, spoiled flirt who can’t say no, and won’t take no for an answer, either. She’s not shy about approaching men; in fact, Carmen gets to the point pronto when she meets Marlowe, deliberately falling into his arms—lucky for her that Marlowe’s a good catcher! Still, Marlowe makes it clear she’s not his baby as he tells butler Norris (Charles D. Brown, who makes a great straight-faced foil for Marlowe), “You ought to wean her. She’s old enough.” Between Carmen’s bedroom eyes and her gambling debts, is it any wonder she keeps getting herself into more hot water than a tea bag factory? But this time, Carmen gets in a jam it won’t be easy to get out of: Marlowe tails her to the home of book dealer and blackmailer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (the uncredited Theodore Von Eltz), only to find Geiger murdered and Carmen in a dazed, giggling stupor. Even worse, the Asian statue in Geiger’s house has a hidden film camera inside, and somebody’s already made off with the photographic evidence. Soon Marlowe is up to his fedora in colorful and dangerous characters, including gambler/gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), whose wife supposedly ran off with the missing Sean. By all accounts, Mrs. Mars isn’t the kind of wife a guy wants to lose, so what’s up with that? (Fun Fact: According to the TCM Web site, Eddie’s henchmen Sid and Pete were named for Bogart’s frequent co-stars and off-screen pals Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.)
|“So, shamus, how’re the Falcons doing this season?”
The strong, spirited, beautiful women in any Hawks film are always worth watching. TBS provides a veritable smorgasbord of fabulous females, all rushing in and out of the story like it was Grand Central Terminal at rush hour! One of my favorites was a young, pre-Oscar (for Written on the Wind) Dorothy Malone, proving guys do make passes at girls who wear glasses, especially when they let their hair down. Then there’s the uncredited but nevertheless captivating Sonia Darrin as Agnes Lowzier, another sulky, gorgeous, dangerous dame who may not get tons of screen time, but what she gets is, as Spencer Tracy would say, “cherce.” Agnes’ fool for love, Harry Jones, is played by Elisha Cook Jr. and he almost steals the show when he puts himself on the line for Agnes. The sacrifice that “Jonesy” makes on Agnes’ behalf really made me feel for the little guy.
|“That does it! No more sleepovers
for you, young lady!”
I’ve always liked General Sternwood, and how he calls a spade a spade (not to be confused with Dashiell Hammett’s detective Sam Spade, another iconic Bogart character). Indeed, I like the way Sternwood and Marlowe get along immediately, with their “insubordination” in common. Like so many parents, Sternwood has trouble keeping his two gorgeous young daughters out of trouble; as Marlowe says, “Both pretty, and both pretty wild.” Still, I’d say that even with her penchant for gambling, Vivian is the soul of sensibility and practicality compared to out-of-control Carmen. This isn’t the first time she’s been blackmailed, either; oy, some kids never learn! To further complicate matters, Marlowe and Vivian are starting to fall for each other. Even so, the clever, loyal Vivian makes it clear to Marlowe that she’ll stop at nothing to protect her sister and father as, separately and together, they work to solve this dizzy, violent, but gleefully entertaining mystery.
|That's some bad hat, Baby! No wonder Bacall
shed the chapeau in the retakes!
|Between Vivian and Mrs. Mars, Marlowe's fit to be tied!
|Like The Boy Scouts, Marlowe is always prepared!
|Love is like an itching on Viv’s knee, and baby, she can’t scratch it!
|Here's looking at you, Baby!
|"Baby, you're the greatest!"
If you’re a stickler for clear, linear plotting, don’t look for it in TBS, or any other Chandler novel based on one. Chandler’s strengths are in his witty, sardonic dialogue, his memorable characters, and the moody atmosphere he weaves with words. The ever-versatile Hawks evokes this atmosphere with his great cast and production values, including Max Steiner’s score combining suspense and playfulness, working beautifully with the delightfully insolent banter between Bogart and Bacall. In both TBS and Lady in the Lake (indeed, in almost all Chandler/Marlowe movies to one degree or another), at some point Marlowe gets fed up with the leading lady playing it cagey, and he almost always takes her to task, whereupon she hotly responds with a line like, “People don’t talk to me like that!” I always think of these scenes as “The Taming of the Hottie,” because here as in other Chandler/Marlowe movies, Marlowe and the heroine each give as good as they get. It’s especially fun in TBS with the evenly-matched Marlowe and Vivian. Hawks’ leading ladies always have (or quickly develop) spunk to go with their sexiness and strength! Hawks’ films had a reputation of being fun to make, and TBS was no exception. According to Lauren Bacall in her memoir By Myself, Hawks and company got a memo from studio head Jack Warner: “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.” No word on whether or not anyone did so (my money’s on “no”)!
Although TBS was actually completed and in the can by March 1945, Warner Bros. sat on it for about a year and a half. Robert Gitt, the Preservation Officer at UCLA Film and Television Archives, explains it all in the DVD’s Special Features. For starters, World War 2 was ending around that time, and movie studios were scrambling to get their remaining war movies into theaters before they started to feel dated; as a result, Warner Bros figured their detective thriller could wait for the nonce. But even more importantly, despite Lauren Bacall’s star-making role in To Have and Have Not, the movie that had brought her and Bogart together, her star was plummeting after her dreadful reviews as an upper-class Brit in the 1945 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Confidential Agent. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther didn’t sugarcoat poor miscast Bacall’s performance: “The noise she makes in this picture is that of a bubble going ‘poof!’” Ouch!
Happily, a knight in executive’s shining armor saved the film and Bacall’s career: Charles K. Feldman, the producer who also brought us 1967’s wild-and-crazy comedy version of Casino Royale. Feldman was Howard Hawks’ production partner, and his confidential advice really turned things around for TBS. In addition to shuffling some scenes and eliminating others, Feldman implemented other suggestions which really made the magic happen for the new-and-improved 1946 version:
- 1.) Bacall wore a none-too-flattering veil in the 1945 version. What was the costume department thinking? Moviegoers wanted see Bacall’s beautiful kisser, so they ditched that veil and reshot the scene.
- 2.) Hawks shot more scenes between Bogart and Bacall, encouraging their sexy, insolent attitudes. To borrow a line from the TBS trailer, audiences loved seeing That Man Bogart and That Woman Bacall that way!
- 3.) Mrs. Eddie Mars was played by Pat Clark in the 1945 version, but apparently she wasn’t available for re-shoots in 1946. Clark’s footage was scrapped for scrappier Peggy Knudson.
Enjoy the following Big Sleep links from YouTube:
Why, Miss Malone, you’re beautiful!
The Big Sleep, Bogart and Bacall and the prank phone call:
Lauren Bacall sings “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”
For more information about the fascinating making of The Big Sleep, check out the TCM Web site:
Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas to birthday boy Bogart, and Happy Holidays of all kinds to all of you and all you care about from all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.!