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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Big Sleep (1946)

Archetypal private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is asked by a wealthy general to assist with clearing his youngest daughter’s gambling debts. Things get complicated as soon as Marlowe walks out the door, when the general’s other daughter (Lauren Bacall) flings plot-twists and insults at him. A convoluted tale of murder and betrayal follows, so complex that during filming Howard Hawks phoned Raymond Chandler to ask who had murdered one of the characters (Chandler claimed not to know). Philip French, in a recent review, called it 'a film of infinite interest.'

Carmen supposedly owes the money to an antique book-seller. Prior to visiting his bookshop, Marlowe swots up on rare books at the Hollywood Public Library, where he consults a copy of Famous First Editions (a book which doesn’t exist in the real world). Fedoras and trenchcoats were evidently not the library-goer’s usual attire in mid-forties Los Angeles. The bespectacled blonde to whom Marlowe returns the book accuses him of not looking like a bibliophile (a fellow Cambridge librarian once told me that my tie was unsuitable for a College library – unfortunately she looked nothing like Carole Douglas).

By referencing his atypical clothes, the librarian subtly undermines a set of prejudices audiences might have about Bogart’s character. Three years earlier he had played Sam Spade - a darker, colder, more obviously flawed private eye - in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon. The brief library scene, while advancing the plot, also sets Marlowe apart from more traditional hard-men. It's difficult to imagine Spade in a library.

Bogart can go to the library and lose none of his cool. But the library gains by the association. In a playful twist, the studio used the library to promote the film. As if to taunt the film-addled French postmodernists who were teenagers when this film was released (Cahiers du Cinéma critics later referenced the film constantly), the trailer featured Bogart asking a different librarian for help choosing his latest read. When he confesses to being a fan of the Maltese Falcon, she offers him a book that has “everything the Falcon has and more, Raymond Chandler’s latest bestseller [it wasn't], The Big Sleep.” Bogart starts reading the opening lines, the library fades, and corpses, gunshots, car chases, fistfights, and long, loving close-ups of Lauren Bacall fill the screen.

So, Bogart and Bacall sharing cigarettes and witty dialogue. A screenplay co-written by William Faulkner based on a Raymond Chandler novel. And Hollywood Public Library - what a job that would be! Easily the best film made of a Chandler book, with Bogart the definitive cinematic Marlowe.

Director: Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: Sydney Hikcox
Editing: Christian Nyby
Cast includes Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone


  1. David Bromwich on the "Everyday Chivalry" of Hawks's films, published in the Guardian 15/01/2010, to mark the Hawks season at the BFI -

  2. The acting is superb in this film. This movie is almost Bond-like in terms of the number of appallingly beautiful women Marlowe accidentally encounters, all of whom seem to have a burning desire for him.

  3. You should look at the 'special shoot' trailer to The Big Sleep too - a totally artificial library set-up