Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 7, 2016)
One of the great Hollywood couples, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred together for the second time in 1946ís The Big Sleep. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, we meet Philip Marlowe (Bogart), a Los Angeles private detective.
Retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hires Marlowe to deal with blackmail related to his loose cannon daughter Carmenís (Martha Vickers) debts. This sends Marlowe to tail AG Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), the proprietor of a rare books store who may not be what he seems.
As he stakes out a remote house that Geiger entered, Marlowe hears a scream and gunshots. When he rushes into the abode, Marlowe finds a disheveled, drugged Carmen Ė and a murdered Geiger. This leads Marlowe into a complex, seedy world, one that eventually pushes toward romance with Carmenís edgy sister Vivian (Bacall).
For my money, 1941ís Maltese Falcon stands as the best movie of its genre, so any film noir with Bogart faces high expectations. While not quite as good as the sublime Falcon, Sleep manages to deliver a pretty strong detective tale as well.
Really, Iíd feel hard-pressed to find any areas in which Sleep falters. My preference for Falcon is just that: my own personal inclination. I simply like the basic story of Falcon more, so it gets the edge.
But itís a close call, as both films offer pretty similar strengths and few weaknesses. I guess Iíd argue Falcon offers the better cast, as I donít think Sleep boasts supporting actors as delightful as Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet.
However, Sleep comes with the superior female lead. Mary Astor was Falconís weakest link, as she appeared somewhat drab, and it never made sense that Bogartís Sam Spade fell for her.
Such concerns donít arise in Sleep. Bogart and Bacall show excellent chemistry, and unlike the lackluster Astor, Bacall more than holds her own against Bogart. The pair light up their scenes and give us a good connection at the heart of the film.
Though I find Spade to be the more interesting character, I like Marloweís versatility. He comes across more of a chameleon, and this allows Bogart to expand his repertoire. In particular, we get a fun scene in which Marlowe adopts a disguise at Geigerís store. Bogart embraces all aspects of the part of brings out the characterís personality.
Sleep also boasts a complex, intriguing story that unfolds in an involving manner. The screenplay comes with an astonishing pedigree, as it boasts an actual Nobel Prize winner! Though best known for his novels, William Faulkner worked on a few films, and Sleep remains the most noteworthy of the bunch.
Along with co-writers Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, Faulkner created a vivid script. The movie progresses in a dynamic manner that allows it to invest in various situations in a lively way that avoids lulls. The screenwriters manage to bring the tale to life.
Of course, director Howard Hawks adds to the project as well. He ensures that the film comes across with both style and substance, and he displays all aspects of the production in a positive light.
Ultimately, The Big Sleep offers a pretty terrific detective story. It fires on all cylinders and earns its status as a classic.