Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Big Sleep Is Yet Another Excellent Humphery Bogart Noir Feature

I felt an immense sense of relief to learn, after watching The Big Sleep for the first time, that the plot is considered by many to be a tad hard to make out. I thought I had missed something while watching the film, maybe a crucial line that clarified the whole story, but it turns out that even some of those responsible for the feature would be the first to admit that certain plot points (like who was behind the murder of a driver) don't get resolved. But this is one of those times where something like a convoluted plot that might be a debilitating problem in another movie actually works in the favor of The Big Sleep as it helps make the larger conspiracy that detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphery Bogart) has found himself inadvertently caught up in feel wide-spanning and makes it seem like the odds are truly up against Marlowe.

Of course, like any 1940's noir detective (a role Humphery Bogart played with such reliable talent as Gene Kelly did playing charming song n' dance men in the 50's or Robert Downey Jr. does with playing cocky know-it-all's in the present-day), Marlowe never meant to get himself into so much trouble, he was just taking a gig for General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants Marlowe to do some digging regarding a debt one of his two daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers), owes. While doing the requisite investigating, it isn't long before Marlowe finds himself in over his head as he stumbles across Carmen sitting in a daze in front of a dead body, a corpse that soon vanishes without explanation. What exactly is going on here? Maybe the other daughter of General Sternwood, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), can offer up some answers as she tries to exact her own agenda...

Marlowe's hunt for the truth regarding what exactly Carmen has gotten herself caught up in takes him face-to-face with a number of colorful individuals whose vulnerability is typically highlighted to a fascinating degree in the script (which was penned by three writers, including William Faulkner!). One of the movies best scenes comes from this emphasis on how so many of the people involved in this caper are just normal people as it shows Marlowe ambushing Joe Brody as his home, with Brody and accomplice Agnes constantly coming off as people way out of their field in trying to do even the most basic sort of intimidating over Marlowe, who realizes that dealing with such inexperienced but determined individuals makes this whole situation a volatile one that needs a delicate touch to be defused.

Many noir movies of this era get a lot of entertainment out of pitting detective protagonists against figures of broadly defined menace, so it's fascinating to see The Big Sleep separate itself from the pack by making a figure like Joe Brody one whose just as distinctly human as the lead character. This approach that places a large amount of emphasis on the humanity of these characters helps to create some sequences of real suspense too, like the chilling level of subdued terror expressed by supporting character Harry Jones as he's being interrogated by a nefarious figure (something a hidden Marlowe watches from a distance), actor Elisha Cook Jr. nicely conveys how Jones recognizes that his life is coming to a close in this moment in a manner that just crushes one spirit despite the viewer having minimal time to get to know the character.

That's what's so good about The Big Sleep, it proves that storytelling aspects (a Byzantine plot or minimal screentime to develop characters) that might sink another movie can be overcome if you make what's happening on-screen transfixing. Intricately developed characters are an impressive artform, but making a supporting character like Harry Jones immediately emotionally engaging despite the lack of extensive set-up for the character is also an achievement unto itself, one that can be chalked up to a number of factors ranging from the aforementioned performance of Elisha Cook Jr. to the precarious position Marlowe is in in this sequence (he has to stay hidden so he can find out an important location only Jones knows about but he does so at the peril of Jones perishing) to the directing and so many other elements that coalesce beautifully to all under the direction of Howard Hawks.

With The Big Sleep, Hawks shows remarkable range as a filmmaker, the guy managed to create one of the all-time great comedies, screwball or otherwise, nearly a decade prior with Bringing Up Baby and now he's managed to craft an excellent noir that relies heavily on quiet dread and similar atmospheric elements that stand in direct contrast to the upbeat wacky antics of that 1938 Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant classic. While darting between different genres, Hawkes maintains his gift (seen in the previously mentioned Bringing Up Baby and the 1940 gem His Girl Friday) for realizing how deferring a large amount of a movie to two lead actors with sublime chemistry can be a fool-proof way to create an entertaining movie.

The two lead actors whose chemistry The Big Sleep gets so much mileage out of are Humphery Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the former a man who could be arguably thought of as the very face of American noir cinema who played off so many iconic leading ladies in his time as an actor yet always managed to have such rich and unique chemistry with each of them and Bacall is no exception. For her part, Bacall plays off Bogart in style, she ably portrays Vivian always having some undercurrent of an agenda of her own in the most intricate of ways and the way she makes sure her character can go toe-to-toe with Bogart's character in their dialogue exchanges. Like I said, certain plot elements of The Big Sleep may not totally make sense or come to fruition, but that really feels like an irrelevant detail when both the performances from these two actors and the movie they're starring in is so immensely absorbing.

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