Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bogart and Bacall

Film: The Big Sleep
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

There are certain things that, when I see them on the description of a film, give me a very good feeling. Certain elements almost guarantee that I will enjoy a film very much. I tend to like films done in the noir style, for instance. I also tend to really like films that star Humphrey Bogart. This gives The Big Sleep a lot of potential.

Okay, I’m kind of bullshitting here. I’ve seen The Big Sleep before and I know I like it. I’ve even read the book it was based on—in fact, I read the book before I saw the film. Philip Marlowe is in many ways the greatest of the noir detectives, and Bogart is really the best guy to play Marlowe. And here, he gets to play opposite his real-life eventual wife, Lauren Bacall. What could be better?

The Big Sleep starts simply and gets complicated quickly, like many film noirs. Marlowe (Bogart) is called to the house of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood is old, sickly, and near death. Those aren’t the problems on his mind, though. What is on his mind is the actions of his two daughters. The older is Vivian Rutledge (Bacall). She has her vices, which include gambling and booze, and she also married badly, considering her husband is now out of the picture. The younger daughter, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), is a bigger problem. Carmen has all of Vivian’s problems and more. Her biggest problem is that it appears that she likes men far too much.

In this case, Carmen has incurred a number of promissory notes to a man named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, who runs a rare bookstore. It looks like a simple case of blackmail. General Sternwood wants Marlowe to take care of the problem because his old go-to guy has gone missing for the past year or so. Marlowe goes to investigate and discovers that the woman who works at Geiger’s store appears to know nothing of antique books.

Marlowe tails Geiger to his house and guess who shows up. It’s Carmen. A few gunshots later, and Marlowe rushes in to see what’s happened. He finds Geiger dead on the floor and Carmen dressed up in a slinky outfit in front of a hidden camera and drugged off her ass. It’s never stated outright, but Carmen has descended into the world of pornography, either to pay off those promissory notes or for some other reason.

And this is where things get complicated. Bodies begin to pile up. The Sternwoods’ chauffeur ends up blackjacked and dead in the bay, and bodies seem to tail Marlowe wherever he goes. Much of this is in the pursuit of finding the pictures of Carmen. But in comes many more complications and many more people and more and more shooting. Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge flirt with each other, and eventually, the bad guys get what they deserve.

The joy of any film noir is in the dialogue between the characters and the twists and turns of the plot and all of the gunplay. The Big Sleep has all of this in spades—and it’s got Bogart and Bacall doing what they do best. This is what a film noir should be. I could say a lot more, but it’s more fun to see this film for the first time and watch where it goes, to see the back and forth between the characters, and enjoy Bogart do what he does.

Why to watch The Big Sleep: It’s noir. What more do you need?
Why not to watch: So many characters, so much shooting.


  1. Points to you for even trying to explain the plot. It got me really confused, but in a wonderful way. You get the feeling that there is so much more behind this film than what we actually get to see. But the real draw for me was following Bacall and Bogart do their thing. The horse riding metaphors are sooo randy.

    1. It genuinely helps if you read the book. I didn't have a problem following the story, but I freely admit that it helps that I'd read the book not long before I watched it.