The Big Sleep (1946)
Thursday May, 30 2019 at 07:00 AM
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Director Howard Hawks told Warner Brothers' head Jack Warner it was going to be easy. He had already blocked out half the movie ahead of time and could easily get around the censor's objections and have the whole picture ready by the end of the year. Confidence like that begs for complications and Hawks got it in spades. However, The Big Sleep (1946), meant to cash in on a popular team while they were hot, would not be released in its finished form for almost two years.
Warner was looking for another property to pair Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall after their hit To Have and Have Not (1944). Hawks, who had also directed that movie, suggested a novel by Raymond Chandler who was hot in Hollywood at the moment after Billy Wilder had used a Chandler screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944). Unfortunately, that meant Chandler was unavailable to adapt his own book because he was under exclusive contract to Paramount, so Hawks hired the man who had re-written To Have and Have Not during filming, future Nobel Prize for Literature winner William Faulkner, and paired him with Leigh Brackett, the author of another tough-guy detective novel Hawks had recently read. The director was a little taken aback to discover Leigh also happened to be a woman. Nevertheless, he decided to give the 28-year old authoress a try, launching her as one of the most important women screenwriters for action-adventure movies with work on such movies as the classic western Rio Bravo (1959) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
Faulkner set the writing method, dividing Chandler's novel by its chapters with Faulkner and Brackett adapting alternate chapters without consulting the other. In that manner they spun out a draft that squeaked by the censors in just two weeks and Hawks began shooting on October 10 with a Christmas 1944 release a clear possibility. Shortly things began to go wrong. First, the script was still a little vague. Bogart asked at one point who was supposed to have killed the character Owen Taylor. Hawks didn't know, the screenwriters didn't know and, when they telegraphed Chandler to ask him, he said he had no idea! Faulkner and Brackett put together a scene in which Bogart's character Marlowe figures out the murder with the help of an investigator from the D.A.'s office.
Then the real reason for all that heat between Bogart and Bacall boiled over. The married Bogart had ended the affair with Bacall that began on the set of To Have and Have Not and returned to his wife to try to salvage his marriage. It didn't work and Bogart went on a bender that delayed shooting through the Christmas holidays. Meanwhile Hawks took over some of the scripting duties, re-writing in the mornings in an effort to eliminate scenes and speed the picture along. It sounds like a harrowing experience but it must have had its pleasures. At one point Jack Warner sent a famous memo down to the set: "Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop."
The fun didn't stop until January 12, 1945 when Hawks brought production to a close. Cut together over the next few months the movie had its world premiere for servicemen in the Philippines in August 1945. Warner Brothers delayed the U.S. release under the mistaken impression that Confidential Agent (1945) was a better lead for their new star Lauren Bacall. That turned out to be a mistake when the picture flopped and now the studio was desperate for a touch of that To Have and Have Not magic. However, preview audiences did not find it in The Big Sleep as it was then cut, complaining that there were too few scenes with Bogart and Bacall together. Cast and crew were rounded up, some new scenes were written by Philip Epstein and six days of reshooting took place in January 1946. Twenty minutes of the 1945 version, including the labored-over explanation for Owen Taylor's death, were cut and replaced with eighteen minutes of new footage and retakes. This 1946 cut became the final classic which was one of Warner Brothers biggest hits and kept the teaming of Bogart and Bacall, now legal after their May 21, 1945 wedding, as popular on the screen as it was in their new home.
Director/Producer: Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Philip Epstein based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Cinematographer: Sid Hickox
Editor: Christian Nyby
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Dorothy Malone (Acme Bookstore clerk), Regis Toomey (Bernie Ohls).
BW-114 min. (1946 version), BW-116 min. (1945 version).
by Brian Cady