Rarely do film versions of classic books surpass the quality of the originals. It happened in 1946.
Raymond Chandler’s 1939 detective novel The Big Sleep introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, tough guy with a heart of gold who, together with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, crafted the mold for many of today’s literary gumshoes. Chandler’s crime novel is filled with intrigue, betrayal and the ever-popular femme fatale. At the center of the complex plot is Marlowe, whose love/hate relationship with the City of Angels is evoked through crisp dialogue and often introspective ruminations. This is hardboiled fiction at it finest, and is universally considered one of the classics of the genre.
Seven years later, Howard Hawks, one of the finest directors in the history of film, responsible for such classics as Scarface (1932), Sergeant York (1941) and Rio Bravo (1959), brought Chandler’s creation to the big screen. Armed with a screenwriting team that included William Faulkner, in one of his few Hollywood ventures, Hawks created a film that is every bit the equal of its literary counterpart.
Hawks’ film is blessed with the cinematic chemistry of Humphrey Bogart (as Marlow) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge), who were never better together onscreen. The script seems specially designed to highlight their charisma and sexual attraction, something quite evident in the following exchange:
VIVIAN: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first; see if they’re front runners or come from behind; find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
MARLOWE: Find out mine?
VIVIAN: I think so.
MARLOWE: Go ahead.
VIVIAN: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
MARLOWE: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
VIVIAN: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
MARLOWE: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
VIVIAN: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.
This exchange is highly surprising and unexpected for a time when censors controlled much of what appeared onscreen. Perhaps it reflects a temporary easing of the reins during a year when the nation celebrated the end of a costly war. Or perhaps the censors were so hypnotized by the quality of the script that they were afraid to challenge Faulkner and his co-writers.
Whatever the reason, this exchange, and many others like it, elevate Hawks’ film to classic status. Its script is one of finest ever penned for a Hollywood film.
The Big Sleep is far from perfect. Its complex plot and hectic pace can lead to viewer confusion that can only be overcome by a second viewing. Still, one could do much worse than a second go-round with Hawks’ film. It withstands the test of time and remains a true cinematic classic.