Director: Howard Hawks
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 114 minutes. Released 31 August 1946. Filmed in Warner Bros. studios.
Producer: Howard Hawks; screenplay: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, from the novel by Raymond Chandler; photography: Sidney Hickox; editor: Christian Nyby; sound: Robert B. Lee; production design: Fred M. MacLean; art direction: Carl Jules Weyl; music: Max Steiner; special effects: Roy Davidson and Warren E. Lynch.
Humphrey Bogart (
); Lauren Bacall (
); John Ridgely (
); Martha Vickers (
); Dorothy Malone (
); Peggy Knusden (
); Regis Toomey (
); Charles Waldren (
); Charles D. Brown (
); Bob Steele (
); Elisha Cook, Jr. (
); Louis Jean Heydt (
); Sonia Darrin (
); Theodore von Eltz (
); Tom Rafferty (
); James Flavin (
); Thomas Jackson (
); Don Wallace (
); Joy Barlowe (
); Tom Fadden (
); Ben Weldon (
); Trevor Bardette (
); Marc Lawarence.
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Wood, Robin, Howard Hawks , London, 1968; revised edition, 1981.
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Hyams, Joe, Bogart and Bacall , New York, 1975.
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Pettigrew, Terence, Bogart: A Definitive Study of his Film Career , London, 1981.
Wood, Robin, Howard Hawks , London, 1981.
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Sarris, Andrew, "The World of Howard Hawks," in Films and Filming (London), July 1962.
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Ecran (Paris), July 1972.
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Bellour, Raymond, "The Obvious and the Code," in Screen (London), Winter 1974–75.
Monaco, James, "Notes on The Big Sleep: 30 Years After," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1974–75.
Jensen, P., "Film Noir: The Writer: The World You Live In," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1974.
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* * *
An unidentified finger presses the doorbell of the Sternwood mansion. A butler answers. The guest intones: "My name is Marlowe. General Sternwood sent for me."
This introduction thrusts us into immediate alliance with private detective Philip Marlowe, and throughout the film we traverse the world of crime as he does. As the central character, he is in every scene: we know what he knows, nothing more, nothing less. We share his experience as if on a detective training course: we see the way he works, the way he choreographs his moves and orchestrates his space to provoke a desired reaction from his opponent; we share his cognitive processes by identification with his visual point of view; we adopt his attitude by osmosis.
This is the world of film noir in which the existential hero (here played by noir favourite Humphrey Bogart) moves through oppressive atmospheres and dangerous locales, encounters wicked men and women and strives to earn his salary by solving a minor-league murder while wading through a complex and confusing series of clues. Despite a blackmail premise which exposes a whodunnit plot, this Howard Hawks film concerns itself less with why or who, than with how, more with process than result. The story line is extremely complicated (even the author of the novel, Raymond Chandler, was reputedly unable to answer a certain key question about the plot) and unfolds at breakneck speed forcing the spectator to assimilate facts and assess situations quickly or succumb to confusion. Does it really matter who is blackmailing General Sternwood, or what happened to Sean Regan, or who shot Arthur Gwynne Geiger?
In adapting the Chandler novel for the screen, many details were altered and the directly political material erased, but an essential pessimism and cynicism remained. An atmosphere of corruption was pervasive and more than an investigation of a crime, this is an investigation into modern treachery. Marlowe is deceived, beat up, and threatened with extermination as he searches for the truth of a criminal situation. We are concerned not so much with what happened to others as what is happening to Marlowe.
What does happen to him is true in spirit to the novel except in the realm of romance. Marlowe's misogynistic streak replaced by a cynisicm which erodes as the developing romance with Vivian consolidates. In a typical film noir, male/female relationships are doomed, severed by the conclusion of the film—typified by Fred MacMurray's condition at the end of Double Indemnity or Bogart's loss of Gloria Grahame at the end of In a Lonely Place. In The Big Sleep Hollywood romance prevailed in Hawksian style; Bogart and Bacall lived out their celebrated off-screen romance on screen.
The Big Sleep was a Warner Brother's big budgeted film, not an RKO low budget "B"; box office stars, a top notch crew, and three major writers was not the usual treatment accorded to films of this genre. This studio treatment elevated the film to "A" status, but ultimately the box office was fuelled by a movie-going public anxious to witness romantic reality amidst Hollywood fiction.