Monday, April 13, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946)

Did I say 10 Days? Well, it is 10 separate entries done on 10 separate days. Sure, the implication was that it was 10 consecutive days, but...

THE BIG SLEEP is another Philip Marlowe mystery, this time starring noir veteran Humphrey Bogart. Marlowe is drawn into the investigation by the aged Genreal Sternwood, the father of two promiscuous young ladies: Vivian, the divorcee; and Carmen, the chemically-addled wild child. It seems Carmen has accrued a large gambling debt and her creditor, AG Geiger, wants payment. Marlowe advises the general to pay, but promises to look into the situation. After following Geiger and Carmen to a cottage, Marlowe hears a scream and some gunfire. Two cars pull away and Marlowe rushes in to find Carmen alone, in a stupor, next to a corpse and an empty camera.

The plot gets more complex from there, as Vivian becomes involved, not only with the case, but also with Marlowe. She tries to buy him off the case, but he won't be satisfied until he's unraveled the knot of murder, blackmail, betrayal and revenge that he's found himself tied up in.

THE BIG SLEEP is notorious for its incomprehensibility. There was a cut that was finished by 1945, but was held back in deference to all the war-themed films, so that they could be released while victory was still fresh in the minds of the audience. This 1945 cut (available on the DVD), although clearer in its narrative, apparently did not feature Lauren Bacall as prominently as a star as she was being touted. Various extra scenes were written and shot, including the double-entendre-laden horse-riding exchange. But to include this footage other footage needed to be cut, including a nine-minute sequence where Marlowe explains the murders. What remains, intelligible or not, is considered a classic film noir.

But is it noir? For the most part, I would say no. Even though it features Philip Marlowe, the main character of two previous noir films, Hawks/Bogart's portrayal of him is much closer to the classic image of a hero than the previous films. Yes, he's a private dick, and he sometimes works the dark side of the street, but he seems to ba able to maintain a traditional moral compass, defending the weak, and righting wrongs. It is not until the end that Marlowe is truly tempted by the darkness. In his blood-soaked revenge haze, he inverts the villain's plan to kill him, torturing him with gunblasts inside the house, driving him outside the house, where his goons lie in wait to shoot whateve comes out.

This certainly qualifies the film for the "cruel" status laid out in Borde and Chaumeton's book. It also definitely has an erotic quality, not just from Lauren Bacall, but from Martha Vickers as well. The narrative is told straight, without voice-over or flashback, but does have a strange, disjointed quality due to the convoluted motivations and reasoning.

I have a preliminary definition scratched out, but I'll work on it a little bit before I post it. I want to go back and do some re-reading, as a definition of this sort is no easy task. Even so, it will probably go through several changes before I get it right.

1 comment:

Charles benoit said...

I'm looking forward to seeing that definition. I've never found one I like and I'm afraid any one I come up with is going to be as vague as Justice Stewart's definition of pornography.