Here is an embarrassing admission for a film reviewer and cinephile: before last night and watching The Big Sleep (1946), I had never seen a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. I will leave you to draw further conclusions from that revelation. Regardless, in all the films I had seen and all the classes I have taken, never did I see a Bogart movie. I am familiar with many of them, though I cannot say I had heard of The Big Sleep before it was suggested to me on social media. Maybe I had. At any rate, I have seen one of his films now, and I look forward to more.
In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart plays former cop turned private detective Philip Marlowe. He is called to the home of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a wealthy retiree with two rather problematic and attractive young daughters. Their good looks are one problem, their behavior quite another, and they are basically the reason why Sternwood summons Marlowe. The daughters’ nature becomes evident upon Marlowe’s arrival. The first to greet him is the youngest of the two, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who seems to fawn over every member of the males species into whose arms she can fall with her catchphrase, “You’re cute.” Marlowe is unmoved, and heads resolutely on to see Sternwood. The heart of the matter is a series of blackmail schemes leveled by various parties against the Sternwood family. The patriarch is under no illusions that it is related to his daughters’ antics, and he once had a man who handled their indiscretions named Sean Reagan who has also gone missing. Hence Marlowe is brought on to put a stop to these matters, and he agrees to do so. It is on his way out that he meets the eldest Sternwood offspring, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). It is actually her problem with gambling that is leading to the blackmail, but she believes he has been ordered to track down Reagan, with whom Carmen had become entangled. Look, this plot is one tangled web of who had dirt on whom, and while it can be followed if you watch it, it also also very hard and tedious to describe. So the person signing the blank checks Sternwood is supposed to fill in is a local bookseller named Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) and Marlowe tracks him to his home. However, who should also show up there but Carmen, who is also supposedly in love with Geiger. The family driver, though, another of her paramours, goes in and kills Geiger. And as the old saying goes, the plot thickens. As it turns out, Geiger’s landlord is Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), owner of a local casino where Vivian does her gambling. He had placed a hidden camera in Geiger’s house that captures Carmen at the scene of the crime. Any other sensible person would run for the hills when faced with such a nest of illicit affairs, but Marlowe takes a liking to the Sternwoods, especially Vivian. Thus when Mars arrives at Geiger’s place and warns Marlowe off the case, it only drives him to investigate it further. His interest is piqued even further when Vivian attempts to pay him off, believing that he had wrapped everything up in regards to Carmen. Yet Reagan is still missing, and Marlowe does not like to leave loose ends. In the course of Marlowe’s inquiries, he receives a tip that Reagan is being held by Mars’ men at a house in the countryside. When he gets there, he finds that Vivian’s wagering had made her a pawn of Mars, and he is captured. Yet Vivian had also fallen for Marlowe, and she works to free him. From there, they learn that Reagan had actually been murdered by Carmen, though Marlowe is able to pin it all on Mars, thus freeing both Sternwood girls. Or something. There is a lot more in between, but these are the basics.
The Big Sleep is a classic example of a sub-genre of film known as film noir. There are three main elements to this style: urban setting, violence, and dimly lit scenes. Check, check, and check. You can throw in a certain forwardness on the part of female characters too. That part is not totally essential, though it is not uncommon and certainly true of this example. It is interesting to think of these themes when you consider that at this time film production was governed by something known as the Production Codes. Roughly speaking, they were a set of guidelines for moviemaking that dictated their content. Among other things, violence and overt sexuality were strongly discouraged, and if you had them in your film they would not get the kind of exposure a studio would want. That is why so many noir movies are barely heard from, even in their own day, because they were usually relegated to that dreaded “B” category. I bring this all up because the Production Codes were actually written by a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel Lord, and they were enforced by another practicing Catholic, Joseph Breen. They were both members of a Catholic movie watchdog group known as the Legion of Decency (and the inspiration for the title of this blog), and they published their recommendations on films in parish bulletins throughout the middle of the twentieth century. While you could obviously get some things past the Production Codes, as films like The Big Sleep can attest to, rarely did they receive the Legion of Decency stamp of approval. Still, considering how films are made today, this would practically be rated G.
Given how relatively tame is The Big Sleep by today’s standards, I see no problems watching it if you are in the mood to see a bit of classic Hollywood. Before seeing it, I had the impression of Bogart basically playing the same character in every film. This may still be true, but he shows a bit of range in this one as well. Be warned, though: if you watch it, pay attention!