40 Favorites: #4
Raymond Chandler. William Faulkner. Leigh Brackett. Max Steiner. Howard Hawks. Lauren Bacall. Humphrey Bogart.
Some films with such a pedigree end up as perceived if not actual failures. On The
Big Sleep, released by Warner Bros. in 1946, everything went right — at least judging by the end result, never mind this oft-circulated anecdote: Hawks, past and future director of classics from His Girl Friday to Rio Bravo, discovered that he didn't know the answer to one of the movie's minor mysteries. So he asked Faulker, the soon-to-be Nobel laureate who wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, moonlighting in Hollywood at Hawks' invitation. When Faulker realized that he didn't know the production reached out to Chandler, author of the Phillip Marlowe novel on which the film was based, and Chandler said he was stumped too. (Brackett was a science-fiction writer for prose and film whose credits later included The Empire Strikes Back; she worked on the script for The Big Sleep with Faulkner and Jules Furthman. Steiner was the frequently Oscar-nominated composer behind King Kong, Gone with the Wind,
and scores of other scores. Bogart and Bacall... well, they're Bogart and Bacall.)
I didn't see The Big Sleep on a big screen until college, during a great half-term class
on film noir, and fell in love. While it has an infamous surfeit of plot it's even better known for the steamy, stylish dialogue crossing hard-boiled crime fiction with screw-ball romantic comedy — perhaps as unorthodox a marriage as its stars, playing the superficially mismatched duo of hangdog gumshoe and high-cheekboned society gal, had themselves. Bogart and Bacall first shot off fireworks in Hawks' To Have and Have Not, he'd already played private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and Bogart's turn in Casablanca is to many his quintessential performance, but I'll take The Big Sleep over any of them — although, quite happily, I don't have to.
Updated and revised March 2019
Still from The Big Sleep © 1946 Warner Bros. Pictures.
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