A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

I've cited Keats's "negative capability" before in warning about getting too involved with the literal details of a movie at the expense of missing the total effect, and it still seems appropriate here when it comes to figuring out exactly who did what to whom in The Big Sleep. Screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman are said to have consulted Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel they were adapting, about certain obscurities of the plot, and Chandler admitted that he didn't know either, which is as fine an example of being "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" as even Keats could come up with. So ask not who killed the Sternwoods' chauffeur, or even who really killed Shawn Regan -- if, in fact, Regan is dead. This is one of the most enjoyable of films noir, if a movie that has so many sheerly pleasurable moments can really be called noir. It's also one of the most deliciously absurd -- or maybe absurdist -- movies ever made, including its persistent presentation of Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe as an irresistible hunk, who has bookstore clerks, hat check girls, waitresses, and female taxi drivers swooning at his presence. The only thing that makes this remotely credible is that Lauren Bacall, and not just Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, actually did. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, one of the most obtuse critics who ever took up space in a newspaper, called it a "poisonous picture" and commented that Bacall "still hasn't learned to act" -- an incredible remark to anyone who has just watched her exchange with Bogart ostensibly about horse racing. This is, of course, one of Howard Hawks's greatest movies, and of course it received not a single Oscar nomination -- not even for Martha Vickers's delirious Carmen Sternwood. Vickers was so good in her role that her part had to be trimmed to put more focus on Bacall, who was being groomed for stardom. Sadly, Vickers never found another role as good as Carmen. Dorothy Malone, who did go on to stardom and an Oscar, steals her scene as the bookstore clerk amused and aroused by Marlowe's charisma. And then there's Elisha Cook Jr. as a small-time hapless hood not far removed from the Wilmer who stirred Sam Spade's homophobia in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1946). Except this time his demise elicits something Marlowe would seem otherwise incapable of: pity.

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