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The Big Sleep


DVD SAVANT

We’ve waited long enough: Bogart’s take on Raymond Chandler’s tough guy Philip Marlowe is finally on Blu-ray, with Lauren Bacall hyped as his provocative leading lady. The fascinating 1945 pre-release version is also present, with an uncut copy of Bob Gitt’s versions comparison docu. Somebody tell Elisha Cook Jr. not to drink that stuff.


The Big Sleep
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 114 min. / Street Date February 23, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt, Sonja Darrin, Tommy Rafferty, Theodore von Eltz.
Cinematography
Sidney Hickox
Film Editor Christian Nyby
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, William Faulkner from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Directed by Howard Hawks

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep became big news again in 1997 when Warners put out its first DVD, and let Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fans see an entire alternate version that hadn’t been seen since 1945. I’ll have a lot to say about that below. We’ve been griping about the length of time it’s taken this Bogie classic to reach Blu-ray, and WB’s disc doesn’t disappoint. Upon learning the backstory of the restoration process, I now understand why the alternate 1945 cut is a supplemental extra, and not a full HD alternate.

The Big Sleep has never had a lack of fans. Bogart’s Philip Marlowe isn’t that much different than his Sam Spade, but he’s a good enough fit to avoid resentment from the Raymond Chandler fans. The movie is stylish enough to have prompted English critics of the ’60s — perhaps trying to score points off the Bogie craze — to compare Bogart’s Marlowe to James Bond. Marlowe’s car dashboard has a trick locker with a pair of revolvers for special emergencies, and sexy women seem similarly attracted to Marlowe, as if he and Bond shared the same mating pheromones. Bogart’s private detective differs with Chandlers in some ways: he isn’t as much of a loner, and his relationship with the cops is less antagonistic and more Hawksian-professional. The big changes come with the enlargement of Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge character — the release version of The Big Sleep tweaks scenes to revisit the audience-pleasing star chemistry of B&B’s debut pairing in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not.

This movie is famed for having a storyline that purportedly nobody can follow. A much-quoted anecdote says that Bogart and Hawks called Raymond Chandler during the shooting of a scene, to get the right answer for a story detail, just so they’d shoot things right: “Who exactly shot a certain victim?”  Chandler’s answer, that he didn’t know himself, sounds very much like one of those apocryphal stories invented for publicity, in this case to disguise the fact that Hawks’ fidelity to the book, combined with the Lauren Bacall reshoot / re-cut, did indeed make The Big Sleep very difficult to follow. Nobody cared — the excitement of the action and the stars has never lost its appeal.

Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) takes on a new case with a daunting number of wrinkles. The wheelchair bound General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hires him to find Shawn Regan, a boyfriend of one of Sternwood’s daughters but also the old man’s drinking companion. The complications set in when Marlowe must extricate the nymphomaniac Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from the murder scene of Arthur Geiger, a bookseller. Pornographic pictures of Carmen are sent to her older, more stable sister Vivian Rutledge, who hands them over to Marlowe but can’t get him to say why he was hired. The investigation leads Marlowe to a pair of blackmailers and eventually to Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), a mobster who owns a casino and runs a hot car racket. Vivian has some kind of relationship with Mars, although she won’t say what — Shawn Regan may have been bumped off because he ran off with Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen). More murders occur, including that of a little guy sent to shadow Marlowe, who impresses the detective by refusing to betray his girlfriend Agnes Lowizer (Sonia Darrin), even at the point of death. She’s Geiger’s secretary, which makes Marlow fear that Vivian may be involved in Mars’ criminal activities. That’s too bad, because he and Vivian are enjoying a hot flirtation. But caution is important, because Mars’ main killer Lash Canino (cowboy star Bob Steele) would like nothing better than to rub Marlowe out.

The Big Sleep has style and flash, with Howard Hawks’ nimble camera moving in for close-ups more than usual, and executing fast moves and pans to keep up with the action, which for 1946 is quite brisk. WW2 films opened the door a bit wider for displays of violence, and Hawks gives us poisonings, shootings and nasty punch-ups, not all of them in silhouette or off camera. The movie does look its age, for the whole thing appears to have been filmed on interior sets, even an exterior neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills and a country lane in a fictional Southern California town called Realito. Hawks’ skill at keeping scenes alive hits a peak in the apartment of Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). The room is packed with uncooperative characters trading tough talk and pointing guns at each other. Although the scene goes on for several minutes it never becomes ridiculous, and in fact builds to an unexpected climax.

Hawks surely welcomed the opportunity to cast all of the stone fox babes peripheral female characters needed in this movie. Marlowe can’t go anywhere without interacting with some cigarette girl, librarian or taxi driver (there’s a war on, you know). Each gives him the eye or hands him her contact info. Hawks ‘created’ Bacall as a star and considered her his girlfriend until she and Bogart clicked, which leads us to wonder what kind of a revolving bedroom door policy the director had with his many starlets of interest. The actress that played Mona Mars in the first 1945 version of The Big Sleep was replaced when Hawks reshot the scene almost a year later. This causes us to wonder if the switch was due to her unavailability, or because of a fault in her acting, or — yes, we think this way — if Hawks was more interested in a shiny new prospect.

Marlowe’s secondary love interest is Dorothy Malone’s book clerk, who becomes hot and bothered talking about first editions. Unless she took him in the back room to play Parcheesi, Ms. Malone makes post-Code movie history with a casual sex encounter. Marlowe gives her a smiling, ‘thank you ma’am’ and moves on to play phone sex games with Vivian, but in person instead of on the phone. One-liners suggesting aggressive physical attraction proliferate: “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”  Or Bacall’s line: “I liked that. I’d like more.” Although the repartee substituting horse racing jargon for sex chat sounds halfway lame now, their delivery is excellent. In 1946, that racy exchange must have sounded scandalous — Marlowe talks about ‘seeing them work out first’ and ‘taking a little breather in the backstretch,’ while Vivian counters that how far she can go ‘depends on who’s in the saddle.’   Well, it is a little more clever than today’s junior high school tease talk.

To snoop in Geiger’s bookstore, Marlowe dons glasses and turns up his hat brim to disguise himself as a gay bookworm. Is Bogart’s performance any good?  If intent is what gives offense, Raymond Chandler wrote scenes like that more than once. When it pleased him he’d throw a ‘fag’ character into a book chapter just for variety. I remember reading my first Marlowe book and noting that an effeminate character was described as wearing a ‘flowery Ecuadorian shirt,’ which in Chandler’s odd reasoning was proof positive of queer status. I was dating a woman from South America at the time, and she had just given me a flowery Ecuadorian guayabera shirt as a gift!

Twenty year-old Lauren Bacall looks at least twenty years too modern, as if she really belonged to the 1960s. Sometimes she seems a collection of overstated features — eyebrows, eyes, lips — on a face far too small to contain such mismatched items. But the overall effect reaches through the screen to communicate acute sensuality. Hawks’ wife spotted Bacall on a magazine cover, and he coached her in the basics of being a Hawksian sex symbol: trading insolent tough talk like a man, while announcing a provocative availability. It also helps for a Hawks woman to be tougher than the males, refusing to cry when shot through the shoulder by a Comanche arrow, that sort of thing. That doesn’t happen in this particular movie, but Bacall’s Vivian is the kind not to bat an eye, just to prove how tough she is. Handy pointer for characterizations: Vivian is frightened when she witnesses Marlowe punching out a creep in a parking lot. That’s proof enough that she’s faking, that the whole thing was staged for our hero’s benefit.

Max Steiner’s dynamic music score places the film in the ’40s too, as does the fact that the music in Eddie Mars’ casino are old standards, not contemporary swing tunes. Raymond Chandler’s book was about a modern tarnished knight errant, who maintains a moral standard in a corrupt world. Hawks’ The Big Sleep is a romantic thriller that emphasizes star appeal, but to its credit it retains Chandler’s array of labyrinthine plot machinations and grotesque characters. Elisha Cook Jr. has a marvelous scene. He’s once again a deadpan loser, in love with a woman who is probably using him. Yet Bogie’s slick detective respects and salutes the little man’s unbreakable commitment to something he loves.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Big Sleep gives tough guy and film noir fans what they want, a much-improved HD scan of the Bogie-Bacall classic, with a great soundtrack that makes gunshots seem especially loud and nails every Max Steiner cue. All those elaborate exterior/interior sets look much better when properly timed, with the added contrast range of Blu-ray. The digital cleanup and restoration is first rate.

Warners’ extras include a reissue trailer showing Bogart/Marlowe in a bookstore, discovering the Big Sleep with the help of yet another cooperative clerk. This one doesn’t let her hair down or remove her glasses, though. In college I talked myself into more than one girl’s dorm room, hoping they’d signal me by letting their hair down or removing their glasses. It wasn’t that easy.  I listened to a few minutes of one of the alternate Spanish language audio tracks, and discovered that it must have been created later, after discrete audio elements were discarded. The music track often drops out just as people begin to talk, creating an odd vacuum. Some scenes use totally new jazz cues, with saxophone solos obviously not from the ’40s and more suitable for a Mike Hammer movie!

The alternate 1945 pre-release cut was shown almost exclusively to servicemen overseas, in 16mm. The Big Sleep sat unreleased for several months because Warners wanted to release war-themed fare before the victory made such films less desirable. The lag time allowed Bogart, Bacall and Bacall’s agent to petition Jack Warner for reshoots to recreate some of the sex chemistry from To Have and Have Not by enlarging Bacall’s role. The rediscovered first version is presented in Standard Definition because acceptable elements don’t exist for it. A full restoration would cost a fortune, and would still not match the release version for quality.

This pre-release version is accompanied by a UCLA Film and Television Archive short subject. Archivist Bob Gitt explains in full detail the difference between the versions, and then conducts a thorough versions comparison. The old DVD had space for only an abbreviated, seventeen-minute cut-down of Gitt’s presentation, but this new Blu-ray has the whole show. The versions are indeed very different. Following the book more closely, the 1945 cut spends more time with the cops and allows peripheral characters more visibility. The 1946 release version restages Bacall-Bogart scenes to make their interaction more of a romantic flirtation. Bacall’s appearances are more glamorous and better costumed (a scene with an ugly veil was replaced), and the focus of scenes is re-oriented to favor her Vivian over other characters, especially women. To balance out added dialogue scenes with Bacall, the better part of a reel of cop interaction was dropped. Marlowe now encounters much less resistance from the police, and plot points once fully explicated are now glossed over with just enough cover dialogue to impart essential information. No wonder the final version invites us to enjoy the intrigues and forget about deciphering what’s going on — I’m still shaky on a number of issues. I’m not even certain that my partial synopsis above is completely accurate.

I’d advise viewers to enjoy the polished release version first, unless you happen to be first & foremost a Raymond Chandler fan. The twisted relationships and games of deception are just as entertaining either way. The film’s gallery of hoods and operators is so large that confusing the names is all too easy: Eddie Mars, Lash Canino, Shawn Regan, Joe Brody, Carol Lundgren.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Sleep Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish
Supplements: 1945 Alternate Version (116 minutes); The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946 (35 minutes); Introduction by Robert Gitt; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2016

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