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Spotlight on: Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep

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Cover of The Big Sleep DVD Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep

How does a movie become a classic when it doesn't make any damn sense? Howard Hawks' adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep is a perfect example of what happens when box office potential trumps creative integrity.

The plot of Raymond Chandler's novel (featuring his most famous creation, gumshoe Philip Marlowe) is confusing enough. (Even the author didn't know how one character died.) Putting it on the screen would have to be done very carefully. Unfortunately, after the film was shot, someone decided that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall needed more scenes showcasing their sexual tension -- scenes that aren't in the novel.

As the film was already approaching two hours in length (and it's a long two hours, at that), it was decided to put the duo's new scenes in place of existing ones that just happened to be instrumental in the furtherance and clarification of the storyline. Thus, we end up with a mystery that has an unfair solution. But, hey, there's Bogey and Bacall giving the look to each other under a haze of innuendo.

The couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not, but Bogart tried for a while to make his marriage work. The couple would wait until after The Big Sleep to wed. (Which brings up a point: Bogart and Bacall are such a legendary Hollywood couple, I wonder how many people are aware that, after Bogart's death, she was married to Jason Robards for eight years.)

Credited with writing the screenplay are two names of great import in Hollywood and literature: William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. The pair, together with Jules Furthman, adapted Ernest Hemingway's novel for To Have and Have Not. (Faulkner adapting Hemingway? Wow!) Faulkner also did a lot of uncredited work on other scripts. Leigh Brackett, primarily a writer of genre fiction, was associated with only a few films, but almost all of them were classics (and most were Howard Hawks / John Wayne collaborations). A rundown of her (yes, her) credits (in addition to the two above) includes Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, The Long Goodbye (from another Chandler novel), and The Empire Strikes Back (she died before completion of her draft). John Carpenter and Debra Hill even named the sheriff in Halloween after her (her gender was not widely known by her fans).

Watch out for Martha Vickers as Bacall's sister. The first scene is a real firecracker, and the rumor is she was so good in this film that she outshone Bacall, leading to much of her role ending up on the cutting room floor. It doesn't pay to act better than the star.

Well ... since this seems to have degenerated from a discerning review into a "How much trivia can I fit on one page?" random ramble, it's probably best to cut it short. My original point was simply that The Big Sleep is a film classic and should probably be seen by anyone who calls himself a film buff, but that doesn't mean that the viewer has to go along with the general assessment of it as a "good" film, or even an "entertaining" one. Because, other than watching Bogart and Bacall go at each other in a couple of contrived scenes, it isn't. Read the book instead.

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