The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks prided himself on being a 'straightforward' director, but as David Thomson notes The Big Sleep isn't a straightforward adaptation of Raymond Chandler's murky noir masterpiece at all. The trailer for the film has Lauren Bacall recommend the novel to Humphrey Bogart in a public library, and goes on to preview their romantic scenes, before acknowledging that yes there will be some snooping and shooting as well. Chandler's thriller is hijacked by Hawks and his two stars, who turn it into a love story – with the added frisson that the stars were already sleeping with each other.

So the labyrinthine plot, already difficult to follow in the book, is transposed without the effort to simplify or explain it. It doesn't matter really, it's just a pretext to throw Bogart into scene after scene in which he gets to flirt outrageously with every woman who crosses his eye-line. Bacall is only one of several options who fall for him immediately and inexplicably – the most baffling being a bookseller who closes her shop in order to take a drink and maybe a tumble with Ol' Bogie. That in itself is a strange reversal of standard noir tropes. Usually it's the femme fatale that has the men turning heads and serving her every whim. Here it's a guy that has all the ladies eating out of his hand. And it's all the weirder that he's pushing 40 and is no one's idea of a conventional hunk.

Even with the lascivious horse-racing metaphors, the film is less edgy than it looks. Bogart's character in Casablanca – supposedly a feel-good picture – is actually much darker, the heroism compromised by an environment in which men extort love from women in order to smuggle them to safety. Bacall's duplicity in The Big Sleep never feels dangerous because you know already that Bogart will put her in his pocket. The fact is established in a bizarre scene in which the pair improvise a prank call to the police. The two are already telepathic inseparable love-birds. It's cute, maybe, but it drains the tension and blasts the grit right out of the film.

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