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The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (1946)

Wednesday August, 29 2018 at 08:00 PM

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One of the screen's greatest whodunits was a Hollywood mystery in its own right. Originally completed in 1945, The Big Sleep sat on the shelf as Warner Bros. waited for the right time to release it. There was a glut of feature production in Hollywood during World War II, leading to similar decisions at other studios. Anticipating these factors, costume designers avoided passing fads so the films would remain timeless, and most such films made it into theaters with few changes. With The Big Sleep, however, the studio decided to make major changes in the original, which had only been seen by U.S. servicemen overseas. The original cut was then filed in the vaults, leaving true film buffs hungry for a look at the picture that could have been.

The Big Sleep was originally produced as a follow-up to the successful teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the latter making her film debut, in To Have and Have Not (1944). When studio head Jack Warner asked producer-director Howard Hawks to suggest a follow-up, he immediately thought of Raymond Chandler's first novel about flinty, honorable private eye Philip Marlowe. Warner had actually considered the story earlier, but like most in Hollywood, thought Chandler's work unsuitable because of censorship problems. In The Big Sleep alone, he would have to convince the Production Code Administration to pass a story involving pornography, nymphomania, homosexuality and police corruption. In addition, the story's ending suggested that Marlowe had gotten away with murder.

Hawks got most of his material past the censors by treating it suggestively, leaving a lot of the sexier stuff in the viewers' minds rather than on-screen. He also got around the problems with the ending by simply asking the Production Code representatives to write it themselves. When they came up with the final fadeout, he offered them jobs as writers.

Reuniting Bogart and Bacall was a great idea for box-office, but initially provided some problems for the stars. Although they had fallen in love making To Have and Have Not, they had stayed apart since then so that Bogart could salvage his marriage to actress Mayo Methot or at least get her to quit drinking. When they re-teamed for the new film, Bacall was so nervous around him she could barely keep her hands still. And before long, they were back together, as he entered a cycle of leaving his wife, returning to give her one last chance and leaving again. But even though the turmoil was causing Bogart to drink more than usual, it only slowed down production by a couple of days.

What really slowed production down was Hawks' penchant for re-writing. He often kept the company waiting while he and Jules Furthman redid the day's scenes, and then started shooting late in the afternoon. By the time the picture shut down it was 34 days behind schedule. Thanks to Hawks' economy in other areas, however, it was only $15,000 over budget.

The Big Sleep previewed in February 1945. Although audience response was good, people were disappointed that they hadn't recaptured the magic of Bogie and Bacall's work in To Have and Have Not -- they just didn't have enough time together on-screen. Bacall's agent, Charles Feldman, suggested re-shooting the film to build up her role, but Warner ignored him. Bacall had another big vehicle she had finished right after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent (1945), a wartime espionage film co-starring Charles Boyer. Since her role was larger in that picture, and the film was more timely, Warner decided to put The Big Sleep on the shelf until Confidential Agent had played out. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a disaster. Although the film got some decent reviews, Bacall's work was largely panned. The good impression she had created in To Have and Have Not was almost destroyed. Feldman pressed his case again, and this time Warner agreed. Philip G. Epstein, who had co-written the script for Casablanca (1942) prepared some new scenes, which Hawks shot in November and December of 1945. The film premiered in the U.S. in 1946 and scored a smash hit with audiences and critics.

There was one big loser in the film's renovation -- actress Martha Vickers, who played Bacall's younger sister, the sultry, depraved Carmen Sternwood. Hawks had been so impressed with the model-turned-actress that he had convinced Warner's to buy her contract from Universal. Then he had worked tirelessly with her, teaching her how to turn on the sex appeal (some say he also had an affair with her). The few in Hollywood who saw the original film thought she stole it from its stars. But in expanding Bacall's part, the studio had to cut something, and that included some of Vickers's best scenes. In the time since shooting The Big Sleep, she had failed to live up to the potential shown in that film, partly because Warner's stuck her in a series of colorless good girl roles. She quickly faded from the Hollywood landscape.

The original version of The Big Sleep remained a mystery for decades, with only a few 16mm prints in circulation. In 1996, however, Bob Gift of the UCLA Film & Television Archives supervised a restoration of the original, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1997, 52 years after it was originally finished. The original not only restores several scenes with Vickers and other characters, but it lays to rest one of the most colorful stories about the film's creation. Hawks had always told interviewers that the murder mystery was so complicated nobody could figure out exactly who killed whom. When the writers couldn't tell who murdered the Sternwood's chauffeur, Hawks called Chandler for advice, only to learn that he didn't know either. At least that's the story Hawks liked to tell. But the original 1945 version includes a scene in which Bogart explains the case to the police, including a complete list of murder victims and their killers. Hawks cut the scene because he didn't think audiences really cared if the plot made sense as long as they had a good time. Besides, it gave him a great story to tell later about the film's confusing plot.

Producer-Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Jones), Regis Toomey (Bernie Ohls), Sonia Darrin (Agnes), Bob Steele (Camino), Martha Vickers (Carmen), Dorothy Malone (Girl in Bookshop), Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Theodore von Eltz (Geiger).

by Frank Miller



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