So convoluted that not even author Raymond Chandler was certain how it all came together, and so completely frustrating in its narrative structure that no chronology of events will suffice herein, the re-teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) cemented their on screen/off camera chemistry as one of Hollywood’s legendary romantic couples. Bogart is P.I. Philip Marlowe, assigned to investigate the mysterious murder of a chauffeur, Sean Reagan and the comings and goings of Gen. Sternwood's (Charles Waldron) two wayward daughters.
The eldest, Vivien Rutledge (Bacall) is an arrogant risk taker who is somehow beholding to resident racketeer, Eddie Mars (John Ridgley). The younger, Carmen (Martha Vickers) is a neurotic lost waif who turns up drunk and disorientated next to the body of one Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz). Geiger has been using his rare book shop as a front for spurious activities that are never fully explained in the film.
From here the plot doesn’t thicken so much as it coagulates with an ever expanding roster of spurious characters who come and go - adding density to the plot without much clarity attached. We're introduced to Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) who, together with Geiger's former sales girl, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) is attempting to bribe the Sternwoods for some serious money by withholding compromising photographs of Carmen and Geiger. Marlowe and Vivien break up their little blackmail party, but before they can learn how deeply Joe is involved, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) puts a bullet in him.
Who is Harry working for? Why Eddie Mars, of course. Why? Well...although the story makes less and less sense as the film unravels to its inevitable conclusion (having Bacall fall into Bogart’s arms), this tale of mismatched intrigues and diabolical assassinations is thoroughly compelling. Even upon repeat viewings of the film I'm not entirely certain how this is possible, but trust me, it is.
Marlowe hightails it to a remote country house where he finds Vivien with Mrs. Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen). Marlowe confronts Mona with the truth about her husband; his criminal activities and all the gruesome murders he's been involved in. And although she angrily casts a drink in his face, Mona knows Marlowe is telling the truth. Vivien and Marlowe escape into the night, presumably bound for the nearest police station to reveal their findings and wrap up the crime...uh...crimes?
But who killed Sean Reagan? Who cares? Evidently not even the book's author, Raymond Chandler knew the answer to that one. In fact, he whole-heartedly admitted as much to director Howard Hawks, that he had forgotten about that 'incidental' plot point while writing the book.
Although completed in 1945, The Big Sleep was withheld from general release for nearly a year. At the strenuous insistence of Bacall’s agent, Hawks re-shot many of her scenes with different hair and makeup and actually inserted several new sequences that showcased Bacall’s impertinent repartee with Bogie.
The Big Sleep is perhaps the most perfect example of style trumping substance, a smash hit for all concerned, and probably the best pairing of Bogie and Bacall on film: lovers on and off the big screen. In the final reel, when asked by Marlowe what Vivien’s problem is, she delivers the sultry reply, “Nothing you can’t fix.” The Big Sleep proves there was nothing these two couldn’t do.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is quite impressive, though hardly perfect. Image quality wavers between near pristine and less than average, with age related artifacts persistent throughout. Except for a few brief instances where the image appears to have been sourced from imperfect secondary elements, the B&W image is in fairly good shape with a refined and solid gray scale.
Whites are, for the most part, clean. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Digital anomalies are not an issue. The audio is mono but nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a blow-by-blow comparison analysis by UCLA film preservationist, Robert Gitt.
This disc also contains the original 1945 cut before Hawks elected to reshoot scenes with Bogie and Bacall. The narrative structure of the ’45 version is more linear – but neither version makes complete sense. In the end – it doesn’t really matter. The Big Sleep is spectacular! Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)