The Big Sleep is the movie responsible for my awakening as a film-lover. It remains my favourite all-time film, not only for the effect it had on me the first time I saw it, but also for its sharp tongue and wry smirk.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Philip Marlowe, a private detective with a chequered past. Tolerated barely by the police, but loved by the ladies, he is the ultimate tough guy. When hired by General Sternwood to investigate the blackmail of his younger daughter, Marlowe falls into a web of lies, double-talk and trickery – which gets so bad that many in the audience can’t follow the intricate plot lines. It would not be the star vehicle it is were Marlowe to fail, but the fun is in the ride.
And what a ride! After meeting Sternwood, Marlowe meets the elder daughter, Lauren Bacall as Mrs Rutledge, and the sparks fly. Much of the film is a dual between these two characters – the banter and scripting is astonishing. Filled with sexual innuendo and hidden meaning, the chemistry is electric. The two stars fell in love during filming of the earlier To Have and Have Not, later marrying, and in fact new scenes in The Big Sleep were shot with extra dialogue between them to play up on public awareness of their real-life romance. (Both versions are available, the original version and the newer version with the extra scenes.) The two stars give excellent performances, and I could watch them go for it all day, any day.
Bogart’s character almost seems designed to give him as much credibility as a sex symbol as possible, with every woman who crosses his path falling under his spell. Dorothy Malone’s bookstore proprietress shares a scene with Bogart that rivals he and Bacall’s chemistry, and I can’t help but love it. I have heard criticism that these touches are evidence of a personality flaw inherent in Bogart himself, an insecurity if you will, but I find that unnecessarily critical. The bookstore scene is one of my all-time favourites.
The lesser characters are not as well developed, but this film really is about the star couple, and I forgive this minor flaw every time I watch it. There is excitement and suspense, although all in 1940’s style which some modern viewers may find corny, and then the inevitable outcome which won’t surprise. Shot in Black & White, obviously, this may disturb those who only ever watch multiplex releases, but I was like that once upon a time, and this film changed me.
Whilst this may not be the absolute greatest film ever made, it is my favourite. Opening up a world of new experiences for someone raised on Men At Work and the Lethal Weapon series, maybe it could work its magic on you too. We can only hope.Rating: