Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Phillip Marlowe stood out as a character. He was mature, worldly, manly, direct in a way that even criminals found disarming. Finally, you have a plot that wastes no time on deliberation or description. It moves forward relentless, with a certainty that is not obvious until the reader finds himself breathless in wonder.
The film is directed by the brilliant Howard Hawks, who understood the story arc and knew he wanted to make a film that wasted no time. He hired the same writers who had fashioned his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the great novelist William Faulkner and science fiction/crime wizard Leigh Brackett (one of the first women to break through into either genre) and told them to waste no time. Unlike other screen adaptations, he wanted this one to leap directly from the page to the screen. Working separately on different parts of the book, they finished the first screenplay in eight days.
Private eye Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the mansion of wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). With two wealthy, bored daughters who move in a racy crowd, the old man finds himself blackmailed with the gambling debts of his youngest girl, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Sternwood’s former detective, Sean Regan, an old acquaintance of Marlowe’s, has disappeared. Before leaving, Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) asks him if he has been hired to find Sean Regan, who had been seriously interested in Carmen, but he won’t tell her anything, but the wisecracking and banter between them creates a sexual tension that is palpable.
Marlowe begins by investigating the man who holds the gambling debts, a rare bookstore owner named Geiger, but he discovers the man’s assistant, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) knows nothing about rare books and she stonewalls him on her boss. Hiding out in a rival bookstore across the street, he spends a rainy afternoon with the sexy proprietress (Dorothy Malone) before following Geiger home. Waiting in the car, he hears gunshots, sees a car roaring away, and then finds Carmen inside, high as a kite, with Geiger’s body on the floor before her. He finds a camera hidden inside a statue, but the film is missing. Looking around, he finds Geiger’s notebook, filled with names and unreadable ceiphers. Taking the book, he returns Carmen to the Sternwoods and finds that Mrs. Rutledge has no answers.
An old friend, Police Detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) brings Marlowe along when they fish a car out of the ocean just off a local pier. It belongs to the Sternwoods and the driver turns out to be a former Sternwood chauffer who had also been in love with Carmen. It has been made to look like a suicide, but the driver had been killed before the car was driven off the pier.
Mrs. Rutledge appears at Marlowe’s office the next morning with scandalous photos of Carmen and a new blackmail demand from a small time gambler named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). She can get the money through her friend, gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Marlowe says he will wait for her call that night before the $5,000 in blackmail money will be paid. During the day, he tails Brody to his apartment. That night, Mrs. Rutledge puts him off, but on a hunch, he goes to Brody’s and finds not only Agnes, but Mrs. Rutledge as well. Although held at gunpoint, he puts together the sequence of events as he understands them. The chauffer had actually killed Geiger and taken the photos, but Brody stopped him and confiscated them to bribe the Sternwoods, which he had done before. Marlowe suspects that Brody killed the chauffer, but Brody maintains his innocence and that killing remains unsolved. Carmen shows up with a gun, demanding the photos. Marlowe easily disarms all of them, but before he can get more information from Brody the man is shot through the door.
It is a complicated and twisting plot, but it moves forward relentlessly. The smart, sharp dialogue crisply moves the story along and renders it secondary really to the underplot: the growing relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge.
When Hawks directed To Have and Have Not, he knew he’d found the ideal screen couple in Bogart and Bacall, so he was determined to reunite them for this movie. By that time, their off-screen romance was big news in Hollywood and the pairing was natural. With a great script and an excellent cast, Hawks shot the film in 1944, but it was kept on the shelf for two more years, partly because Warner Bros. was working feverishly to release all of their wartime films before World War II was over and partly because there were problems with Bacall. After the huge hit with To Have and Have Not, she was considered a hot property, but her follow-up film, Confidential Agent, was a flop and she’d been widely panned in reviews. Her agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote a letter to Jack L. Warner, asking that several scenes in The Big Sleep be re-shot and the film re-edited to take advantage of Bogart and Bacall’s screen chemistry. Warner agreed and the two actors were called in to film additional scenes, including the now famous scene in the restaurant that is full of sexual innuendo.
One thing that becomes apparent right from the beginning of this movie is that beautiful young women are used in abundance to help create a strong feeling of free sexuality. It begins when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood residence and the gorgeous Carmen walks in wearing a really short skirt and throws herself into his arms. Then, you meet Mrs. Rutledge and Lauren Bacall shines as a young urbanite living life on the edge. It continues with the girl at Acme Books, played by Dorothy Malone, who unpins her hair and closes the store to spend an afternoon drinking rye whiskey with Marlowe. Then there is the female taxi driver that Marlowe rides with who gives him her card and tells him to call her at night when she’s not working.
In the pivotal scene between Bogart and Bacall that was re-shot, the two of them are talking about having a relationship in terms of horse racing. She wonders just how far he will go and he replies that it depends on her. Is she willing “to go all the way?” This tightly wrapped sensuality, contrasted against the violence, the mystery of not knowing exactly what is happening in a plot that moves forward darkly, relentlessly creates a movie that almost impossible to stop watching. It moves that way right to the end, when we finally sense that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge will be able to consummate their smoldering desires.
Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has been restored to allow modern viewers to see it as released in 1946. The DVD also includes a documentary on the two versions of the movie, showing scenes that were cut and added, so viewers can see how much the film was improved by the re-shoot.
It is every bit as strong and engaging today as when it was first released and that is one reason it will always be considered a classic, perhaps the very finest example of film noir and one of the best movies ever made.