Film 2019: The Big Sleep

Last of the Bogart box-set, The Big Sleep is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, the first to feature private Detective Philip Marlowe. It’s a dark, intriguing film noir, full of betrayals and conspiracies, intricate and clever, whose bittersweet suggestive ending is perhaps the only false note the film suggests.
It’s also very interesting to compare and contrast Bogart’s performance as Marlowe, one of the most iconic figures of Twentieth Century crime fiction, with his portrayal of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Bogart is Bogart in both, but where Spade is blunt and aggressive, Marlowe is witty and cynical. Both are men who refuse to be imposed on, but it is Marlowe whose wit cuts and riles. Bogart is not quite the Marlowe of the series, in the way that the film, though using the title, never explains why. The Big Sleep is death and Marlowe is the man who is himself not mean.
The detective is hired by the elderly General Sternwood (a vivid cameo by Charles Waldron), a dissolute man who has outlived his ability to indulge in his capacity for wildness, but is only too aware that he has passed this capacity on to both of his beautiful daughters. We’ve already met the younger, Carmen, played by the astonishingly beautiful Martha Vickers, who prompts Marlowe into one of the most archetypal Chandler lines of all time when he says, “She tried to sit in my lap, whilst I was standing up.” The line comes from the film not the book: Chandler didn’t write it!
The General’s other daughter, Vivien Ruttledge, is played by Lauren Bacall. She’d already played opposite Bogey in To Have and Have Not, though this was before they’d married, and the film was much changed from its original 1945 cut to extend the relationship between the pair, to cash in on the public’s fascination with Bacall, and to de-emphasise Carmen, who was threatening to overshadow Bacall.
Ostensibly, Bogart has been hired to rid the General of a blackmail threat, based on the mentally deficient Carmen’s seedy activities (the sexual element of the book is heavily suppressed, mostly by omission, thank to the strictures of the Hays Office, the Board of Control, the Censors). Most people, starting with the lovely, cool, defiant Vivien, assume Marlowe’s been hired to find the missing Sean Regan. Regan, ex bootlegger, ex IRA, was the General’s employee, hired to sit and talk and drink, in short, to be a friend, and almost a son. Regan disappeared a month ago, rumoured to have run off with the wife of Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), a gambling mobster.
Marlowe wraps the case around him. The Sternwoods prize privacy, and Marlowe has to dig deep to keep them from becoming associated with the dirt that runs through this matter like poison. Pornography, murder, murder and murder again. There is something poisonous behind everything, acutely foreshadowed by the General’s early remark about orchids being poisoned by the sweetness of corruption. It’s meant as a metaphor for his family blood as passed on to Vivien and Carmen, but it stands for the whole film.
Marlowe isn’t trying to find Sean Regan, but nobody believes him, especially as he keeps his cards close to his chest at every moment. But everybody’s insistence about Regan indicates to him that the Irishman’s fate lies behind everything.
So he pushes on, through warnings from the DA to lay off, through attempts from Vivien to pay him off, through a beatdown from Eddie Mars’ men that leaves him bruised and sore but still digging. Marlowe is relentless, observing and judging, with a fine ear for lies and what lies behind them. And there’s a dirty moment when a quiet man, another shamus, Harry Jones (a wonderful cameo from Elisha Cook Jr., refuses to give up an address to a killer, and dies of poison whilst Marlowe can do nothing but listen.
But this is the level the film operates on. It has its principals, but it refuses to let the little players let it down. Charles D. Brown as Norriss, the Sternwood butler, refusing to allow Marlowe to get a rise out of him with sheer dryness. Dorothy Malone as the bookshop proprietress, teasing the cliché of the girl who becomes beautiful by removing her spectacles and unclipping her hair by already being beautiful with both, and bold with it. The cigarette girls at Eddie’s gambling hell, giving Martha Vickers a run for her money when it comes to great legs.
In the end, as it must, after a whole film’s worth of dirtiness that gets exposed and, to some extent, resolved by Marlowe’s refusal to be deflected from his pursuit of the truth – down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean – the truth comes out. Carmen, who doesn’t like the word no, shot and killed Sean when he refused her advances. Eddie Mars helped Vivien dispose of the body and even sent his wife away to fuel the rumour, although he then started some blackmail of his own. Marlowe forces him into a situation that sees him killed by his own men, a death that ends the corrupt web. He also forces Vivien to have Carmen committed to a psychiatric hospital, and the picture ends with the intimation that he and Vivien will go on to marry. Given the moral strictures imposed by the Hays Office, how the absent Mr Ruttledge will be accounted for, and indeed why he’s absent in the first place, are left to our imagination, and in the case of at least one member of the audience who loves the books, to a complete lack of interest. In the book, Vivien is married to Rusty Regan, giving her much more of a reason to be concerned about an attempt to find him.
My DVD doesn’t advertise itself as re-mastered, but the imagery is sharp and clear and the various shades of light and dark and all the greys between are subtle and varied. So is the film, which is a gem.

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