The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks in 1946, is known for being confusing and frustrating to watch. The plot, adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler, is hard to follow and heavily censored due to the Hays Code. I've seen the beginning of this movie many times in classes I have taken (I took two classes on film noir and hard-boiled fiction in college), but never the whole thing. I've read Raymond Chandler, but never The Big Sleep, not that it matters. The Big Sleep, as Ebert says, " about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results" (The Great Movies, 70). The plot takes a back seat to the romance between Bogart and Bacall, and their chemistry is more engrossing than anything else happening on screen.

The dialogue is everything that I love about this genre. It's fast, and it's outlandishly clever. I love the banter that Bacall and Bogart have - it's so racy and funny. They Hays Code prevented any overtly sexual content, so the screenwriters had to come up with witty ways to get around it. The most famous scene in this film is the "racehorse" conversation that Bacall and Bogart have, which Ebert faithfully quotes: "Bacall: "...speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they're front-runners or come from behind... I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free...." Bogart: "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go." Bacall: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."" (The Great Movies, 71). I loved this scene, I was laughing just because it was so well-written and surprising. I love how Bacall comes across as so confidant and sultry, undeterred by Bogart and the many ladies who fall all over him the whole film.

I really love film noir, and this movie was no exception. It was like watching Raymond Chandler's novels come to life on the screen, and it felt like I was just hearing his dialogue read aloud by the actors. Ebert must have felt the same way, writing, "As for the 1946 version that we have been watching all of these years, it is one of the great film noirs, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler's ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares" (The Great Movies, 71).

The genre is not for everyone, though. The Big Sleep, especially, needs a lot of focus to watch. There isn't much action - you need to sit and listen to the dialogue, often fast and vaguely confusing, to make any sense of it. Listening to that much dialogue is not a skill many people have anymore. Movies now are mostly visual, not auditory, so a lot of people aren't use to so much talking and bantering. Hard-boiled detectives are often hard to relate to, as well. They are not good guys or bad guys, but guys who know about the dark underbellies of cities and are comfortable there.

I don't have a lot of time to write about this movie, sadly, as I have to run out to make it to an appointment, but it's a really good movie, especially for fans of the genre. Watching Bacall and Bogart tease each other through dialogue was so satisfying and fun. Adaptions of hard-boiled fiction are always hard, especially when the Hays Code existed, which heavily censored the plot and often made the endings less satisfying. But watching this on it's own, not knowing about the novel or anything else, I really loved it, and I hope you check out this film if you're a fan of the genre, or of Bogart and Bacall. :)

Have any of you seen this film, or other great film noirs? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie essay on The Big Sleep
Wikipedia page on The Big Sleep (check out the thing that were omitted from the movie due to the Hays Code)


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