#4 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is pure noir. A guy, a femme fatale, and a mystery that twists and turns in every dizzying direction. Anchored by Raymond Chandler’s novel and a screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks delivers a wildly entertaining descent into the Los Angeles underworld as it touches upon one fractured wealthy family and Philip Marlowe, the private investigator sent out to figure out why the family is being blackmailed. Roger Ebert described the movie as being about process instead of results, and I think that’s an apt description. This is about the steps that Marlowe has to take to untangle the mystery. The actual mystery ends up feeling secondary. That the movie ends up so compelling is a testament to every piece of the puzzle that got used.
Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe is called to the large estate of General Sternwood, an aged man of wealth who began a family late in life, having two daughters. The eldest, Lauren Bacall’s Vivian, is married to a man named Rutledge who has disappeared from her life. The younger of the two, Martha Vickers’ Carmen, is a wild young thing who instantly begins to play with Marlowe the second he’s in the door, playing up her attractiveness for the older man. The General is concerned, you see, because right after his body man, Sean Regan, he’s received a threat of blackmail around Carmen’s gambling debts, and he doesn’t want to pay it. Instead, he’ll have Marlowe investigate into who’s sending the note, and getting them to stop.
His first direction takes him to an antique book shop. After a bit of research into some rare books, he puts on an act and discovers that the woman manning the counter in the shop doesn’t actually know that much about rare books. He needs to see the man behind the operation, A.G. Geiger, staking the place out with a cute girl in another bookshop across the street, until he can follow Geiger to his house. Soon after, Carmen arrives in her car. Marlowe watches until there’s some gunshots, a scream, someone running away, and Geiger dead on his own floor with Carmen high as a kite in a chair next to him with a hidden camera, its film gone, obviously having documented something. Well, this mystery just started going deeper.
Recounting the intricate steps that take Marlowe all around Los Angeles would be pointless. Instead, what’s important is Marlowe himself. He’s the quintessential noir hero, and Bogart plays him perfectly. Sardonic, cynical, smart, and tough, Marlowe is a man with a mission. He is willing to go as far as possible to figure out the mystery at the heart of the Sternwood, even after the General has told him he’s done enough. Part of that is the femme Vivian Rutledge. It wouldn’t be a Bogart and Bacall movie if the two didn’t share some steamy romance, and The Big Sleep is no different from To Have and Have Not in that regard. Vivian may still be technically married, but her close approximation to Marlowe is going to draw them together and provide Marlow with the hook on which to get caught into the deeper mystery around her family.
One of the reasons that the mystery around the film works so well is the incredibly strong sense of perspective. The entire film is told from Marlowe’s perspective. He’s in every scene and in about 90% of the film’s shots. I’m regularly annoyed by films that play fast and loose with perspective, denying us insight into actions we should be able to see because of whom we’re following (David Lean’s Madeleine comes to mind). That’s not a problem here. We see everything through Marlowe’s eyes. When murders happen outside of his perspective, we know as little as he does about who did it. When murders happen in front of him, we see those, being invited to connect all the dots that he’s connecting at the same time. It’s a challenge for the audience to keep up because the mystery is so intricate that it would take a private detective like Marlowe to sort through it.
This is really just primo entertainment from a group of extremely talented people. This is kind of an idealized example of film noir, anchored by a wonderful performance from Bogart and confidently and deftly directly by Hawks.