Howard Hawks Blogathon: Deciphering THE BIG SLEEP

This post is part of the Howard Hawks Blogathon organized by Ratnakar at Seetimaar – Diary of a Movie Lover. The blogathon began on May 15 and runs through May 31. Check out these posts, there’s no one more deserving of a two-week tribute from some great bloggers than Hawks.

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The image above is taken from Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which has a reputation for being a great yet somewhat incomprehensible film noir. No one can really deny the gritty atmosphere created by Hawks and his team, or the unmistakable chemistry between the leads, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which Hawks displayed to great effect. But, due to factors beyond Hawks’ control, the plot is a bit difficult to follow, supposedly even for the author of the book on which the film was based, Raymond Chandler. Any Google search will turn up the story that, when asked (by Hawks and the film’s writers) which character killed another, Chandler didn’t know either.

Whether the Chandler anecdote is true or not, it is certain that the transition to film further complicated the author’s already convoluted novel. How did this happen? Spoiler alert: There are plenty in here! If you haven’t read or seen The Big Sleep and you care about spoilers, stop reading and come back once you have read or seen it. Even if you have read the book or seen the film, you might want to refresh your memory before reading the rest of this post. This SparkNotes plot summary of the book is the briefest I’ve found. A diagram is always helpful as well.

Mostly accurate diagram from The Reelist.
Mostly accurate diagram from The Reelist. Though images from the film are used, the events depicted are those of the book.

Two major circumstances upon which the book’s cohesion depends ran afoul of the Hays Production Code. The first was that Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers in the film) kills Sean “Rusty” Regan (before Marlowe enters the story), making her older sister Vivian Regan (Vivian Rutledge in the film, played by Lauren Bacall) both a widow and an accessory to murder. The second is that Arthur Gwynne Geiger, who is blackmailing Carmen with compromising pictures, is a pornographer who is in a homosexual relationship with Carol Lundgren (who murders Joe Brody because he thinks Brody killed Geiger). Whew! Anyway, neither of these plot points could stand under the Code. The identity of Regan’s killer is fuzzy in the film; it’s implied, but never actually stated, that Eddie Mars killed Regan for messing around with Mars’ wife. Mars then evaded justice and collected blackmail from Vivian by convincing her that Carmen killed Regan. Neither the pornography, illegal in 1944, or the homosexuality are ever referred to; thus Sternwood family chauffeur Owen Taylor’s motivation for killing Geiger is unclear, and Lundgren’s motivation for gunning down Brody is greatly diminished. So that’s one layer of complication.

"I sat down...and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble." Lauren Bacall as Vivian
“I sat down…and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.” Lauren Bacall as Vivian

Further changes which don’t seem to significantly affect the plot were also made to the source material, to amplify Bacall’s role and strengthen Marlowe and Vivian’s relationship. Vivian is present in two major scenes from which she is absent in the book, one at Joe Brody’s apartment, and one at Eddie Mars’ hideout near the end. In the latter scene, it is Vivian, not Mona Mars, who unties Marlowe, helps him to escape, and accompanies him back to LA. There is a scene of her singing at Eddie Mars’ casino which is reminiscent of her début, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. And her last name is changed to Rutledge; she is still a widow but not Regan’s, which arguably reduces any incentive she may have to find Regan. Some of these changes affect later scenes in the film, but they don’t seem to affect the overall action of the story.*

In the book, Vivian is not present in the scene at Joe Brody's apartment. This has no material affect on the plot though because she's gone by the time Brody is shot (by Carol Lundgren)
In the book, Vivian is not present in the scene at Joe Brody’s apartment. Her presence has no material affect on the plot though, because she’s gone by the time Brody is shot by Carol Lundgren

However, there are actually two versions of The Big Sleep, and this is where things really start to get cloudy… The first version, which is closer to the book, began shooting in October of 1944, and was completed in January 1945. Though it was ready for release in March of that year, it was shelved, and ultimately not released in its original form, for two reasons. First, World War II was rapidly winding down and Warner Brothers, like the rest of the studios, was looking to fast-track war-themed properties into cinemas as quickly as possible. A detective story without a time-sensitive theme could wait. Thus, Bacall’s film with Charles Boyer, Confidential Agent, though shot after Sleep, was released before.

Which brings us to the second reason another version of Sleep exists: Bacall received reviews so horrible that they seemed to wipe out all the acclaim she’d received for To Have and Have Not. I’ve seen the film and I think they were overreacting. She is certainly miscast as an English aristocrat; the role should probably have gone to Margaret Lockwood or someone like that. But it’s Bacall, and she isn’t as awful as these reviews were. At any rate, her agent, Charles Feldman, who was also Hawks’ agent, wrote a letter to studio head Jack Warner, asking him to order a re-take of a scene which particularly bothered Feldman, known as the “veil scene,” and essentially requesting that “insolent and provocative” scenes, like those in Have Not, be added to Sleep, in order to save Bacall’s career and the film. Warner did order a re-take of the veil scene and the addition of more sassy scenes with Bogart and Bacall. Hawks re-assembled most of his cast and crew and filmed these in January of 1946.

The "veil scene" was cut and replaced with the scene in which Marlowe and Vivian prank the police.
The “veil scene” was cut and replaced with the scene in which Marlowe and Vivian prank the police.

For the 1946 version, which is the version usually shown on TCM and for big-screen revivals, Bacall’s part was further enhanced, and the plot further obscured. For instance, when Marlowe brings Carmen home from Geiger’s house, instead of leaving her with Norris the butler, Marlowe brings Carmen upstairs to Vivian’s bedroom, giving them an opportunity for a saucy exchange. This forces an alteration to the scene in Marlowe’s office which takes place the next day; Vivian can no longer say she wasn’t home the night before. The scene was dubbed over; if you look really closely, you can see it is a little off.

There are other changes, but perhaps the most important one is the deletion of an exposition-rich scene in the DA’s office, in which all the facts were laid bare as Marlowe is questioned by District Attorney Wilde and Captain Cronjager of LAPD. Don’t recognize those names? Both characters were completely cut, as they didn’t make sense without the scene. But it was replaced with this, one of the greatest extended double entendres ever:

To the great credit of Howard Hawks and his cast and crew, most critics and fans appreciate the mood of the film, the noir tawdriness of the characters, and the incandescent spark between Bogart and Bacall, and overlook, or even love, the disorder of the action. The Time magazine review of August 26, 1946 stated, “the plot’s crazily mystifying, nightmare blur is an asset, and only one of many,” and commended Bogart and Hawks for their work. Roger Ebert viewed both versions in 2009, and preferred the 1946:

The new scenes add a charge to the film that was missing in the 1945 version; this is a case where “studio interference” was exactly the right thing. The only reason to see the earlier version is to go behind the scenes, to learn how the tone and impact of a movie can be altered with just a few scenes….As for the 1946 version that we have been watching all of these years, it is one of the great film noirs, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler’s ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.

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Possibly the most famous fans of The Big Sleep are Joel and Ethan Coen, who paid homage to it with their 1998 classic The Big Lebowski. (A classic doesn’t always have to be old.) There are many connections between the two films, and the best post I’ve seen on the subject is The Big Parallel by John at the droid you’re looking for. Check it out.

* Another aspect of the story that doesn’t seem to affect, well, anything really, is that we’ll never know who killed Owen Taylor. This is the question that so confounded Chandler and everyone else. As stated above, the Sternwood family chauffeur, who was in love with Carmen, killed Geiger because the latter was blackmailing her. Taylor was found murdered in the Sternwood family Packard, sunk off Lido Pier. I’ve read the book and watched both movies a couple of times, and I don’t believe it’s in there. We’ll never know for sure I guess, but I vote for Norris, the butler.

25 thoughts on “Howard Hawks Blogathon: Deciphering THE BIG SLEEP

  1. Wonderful! I’ve needed this for so long. That didn’t stop me from re-watching this classic, though. So great is the film, the mood, the whole damn thing. Great contribution, Paula!

    1. Thanks, Michael! The complexity has never stopped me from watching and enjoying it either, it is one of the best movies ever, but it helped me to sort out what was different from the book. I’m glad you found it useful.

  2. This is a movie you need to watch at least three times to know what is going on.I like the other Bogey/Bacalls much more.

    1. I like all the Bogart/Bacall movies, but I agree, The Big Sleep needs a few viewings to sort out. At the same time though, not knowing what was going on never interfered with my enjoyment of it. To each their own. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi, Paula:

    Great addition and dissertation!

    I’m with John with this film. ‘The Big Sleep’ has to be seen several times just to figure out who’s who and doing what. But it’s glorious in
    its presentation!

    Neat, dapper threads for the men and opulent, slinky gown for the women in attendance. Made for shadowy B&W and laced with oblique, well timed humor. With Hawks and cinematographer, Sid Hickox and editor, Christian Nyby at the tops of their games!

    1. Hi Jack, always happy to see your comments 🙂 Big Sleep is a glamourous and beautiful film! There’s at least another whole post that could be written about the social signals sent by the costumes of various characters, which are largely lost to us now.

      I figure should have mentioned Hickox and Nyby, as you say, both did an incredible job, and probably the writers also, but I was worried that the post was already getting too long.

  4. I’ve seen the film three or four times, and I still have a hard time figuring it out – but it’s still so captivating! Great piece, and a good walk-through for the film as you guide us through the complicated, and often convoluted plot! I thought long and hard about doing this one for the blogathon, but then went with my old, favorite standby, To Have and Have Not, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with some of the confusing issues you were able to explore so well.

    I’ve never seen the alternate version, but now realize my completist side won’t rest until I do!

    Great job, Paula! Thanks for the post! I’m going to watch this one again in a few months, and I’m certainly going to revisit this post before and after I watch it for a little cribbing!

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you, I’m so glad you found this post useful. That diagram from The Reelist is a big help 😉 I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the ’45 version. I don’t think I could choose between Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, I really love that one too. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. First, thanks for the comment on my post, Paula!
    Watching The Big Sleep after midnight didn’t help my understanding of the film, but I got the idea of all the obscurity. If I read the novel, probably I’ll get more informations. After all, this ended up being more a vehicle for Bogie and Bacall than a true adaptation.
    Kisses!

    1. That’s very true Lê, and I think it’s a better film with more Bogie and Bacall. I can see where after midnight it would make way less sense 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  6. Hi Paula! Ok I had to avert my eyes from the spoiler part as I haven’t seen this yet. I really need to soon as I’ve never seen Bogie & Bacall together before. I learned about their relationship from Gregory Peck’s biography, sounds like it was one of Hollywood’s best romances. Apparently she was very loyal when he got sick despite the huge age difference.

    1. She definitely was and I think their story is one of the best romances ever, Hollywood or anywhere. They fell in love making TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT, you might want to start with that one. Like with MR AND MRS SMITH, you can see it happening. And it’s just a good movie anyway 🙂 Thanks for commenting Ruth!

  7. Wow, this was such a great post. I’d heard a decent amount of complaints about the Big Sleep before seeing it because it doesn’t make sense. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially the cracking dialogue. I knew some of the history but not all, so this was definitely interesting. So much of the success is due to Hawks, who has a knack for making even possibly frustrating material work out. Of course, I’ve never seen the original, but I may be giving him too much credit!

    1. Thanks for your kind words Dan 🙂 I think the original version is worth checking out if you get a chance, just for comparison. I don’t think you are giving Hawks too much credit. The ’46 version definitely benefitted from his uncanny way of knowing exactly how to maximize the strengths of his actors.

      1. Hawks has so much skill in that regard. I love so many of his films, including His Girl Friday, Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, and many others. Have you read his biography The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy? I thought it was a fascinating read.

  8. Ha, thank you! Such a hard film to decipher. I had to think about it hours after watching it to put the pieces together, which eventually led to an impromptu re-watch. But the film’s mood and atmosphere more than make up for the twisty plot. Plus, it has Bogart and Bacall and a great group of characters. Great job. You mind is far sharper than mine.

    1. You’re very welcome. I don’t know about all that though. I think reading the novel helps quite a bit, because it gives you the general idea and so much is there that they couldn’t include. But as you say, there’s a lot else going on that really makes it. Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by 🙂

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