Screening Log #44: The Big Sleep (1946)

Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Directed by Howard Hawks
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone

There is a particular kind of delight in watching people converse, using language as a mixed martial artist would use elbows and knees. I would assume there are many reasons that, for most part, larger budget Hollywood films have abandoned this sort of high-level dialogue that’s clever, nuanced, and comes from intelligent characters at a fast pace. I would assume that most of the reasons for this transition toward broad-stroke expository dialogue are financial, anchored in foreign market box office dollars; communicating in one’s own language is a slippery enough affair without the complication of translating idioms and double entendres.

As such, it was not without a strong sense of relish and nostalgia that I watched Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart, and Vivian Rutlegdge, Lauren Bacall, flirt pugilistically with their words in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Here is dialogue, razor sharp, generated by Raymond Chandler and shaped into a screenplay with the aid of William Faulkner, as literary a force behind a film as one will find. That this dialogue finds its way into the mouths of actors as iconic as Bogart and Bacall is only fitting. Howard Hawks direction rounds out the film as a product comprised of only the highest calibre involvement, as one of those films wherein all the parts are appropriate and everything fits in a nearly uncanny manner.

The film follows Marlowe as he sets to work for Vivian’s father. The plot unfurls like a loosely woven sweater; Marlowe’s leads pull him through one discovery after another, the causality of the events he first set out to investigate reveal themselves to be moored in darker, more treacherous water. Marlowe and Vivian play a game of tug-of-war, each verbally jousting with the other in the hope of dislodging a fact about the case that the other may know that they do not. Vivian, as is often the case in noire films, and, I suppose, life in general, is not quite as sparklingly clean as she at first seems. Indeed, even in her name – conspicuously different from that of her father and sister’s – a tension is posited. Vivian’s last name reads as a conflation of “rut” – here read more in the mammalian term of a period of estrus – and “ledge”; the character is, by name, always precariously perched above sexual expression. To attempt any concise summary of the plot and its undulating nature would be an exercise in endurance typing. Suffice to say that connections between seemingly unconnected emerge, and these connections are complicated to the point that Marlowe is seamed snugly into the midst a convoluted plot of extortion, drugs, pornography, and, eventually, murder.

The Big Sleep, despite its complex plot and large list of supporting characters who come and go (sometimes violently) with little explanation, is carried very much by its sense of character and dialogue. Much of the dialogue is retained from the original Chandler novel – I’m told by the people I watched the film with who are familiar with the book – and is delivered with an easy force by the actors. Hawks’ direction, classically forthright, often plays with shadow to highlight or juxtapose with what is happening in any given scene, but largely gets out of the actors’ way to allow the script to do the narrative heavy-lifting.

I have to admit that my engagement with classic Hollywood cinema has, to this point, been relatively shallow. There are many films that I have not yet seen that I know I should; case in point, The Big Sleep was the first film of Bogart’s that I’ve seen – yes, I’ve never seen Casablanca, or The Maltese Falcon – point the shaming fingers this way. Approaching these iconic works is always intimidating for me; where do you begin discussing a film that has worn countless tongues thin over the years? Perhaps, then, The Big Sleep, and its intoxication with language, provides a clue. Cinema is fundamentally composed of moving images, true, but its most engaging subject remains people, and people are themselves inescapably tied to language. There is a language unique to the images on screen, and when this language is married to the spoken word, when spoken well, the product is timelessly human, a reminder that sometimes we speak about the cinema and others it speaks about us.

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