Friday, December 10, 2010

Deconstructing The Big Sleep

Husband and I both love old movies. Give us Astaire and Rogers, the Marx Brothers, or Bogart and Bacall and we're in heaven. There are some movies that we've each seen dozens of times and will always watch when we see them in the TV listings. I am genetically incapable of not watching Casablanca if it's on. Never mind that I could probably quote the entire movie, if it's on I'm there. Popcorn, Husband, and Sam playing "As Time Goes By" doesn't get much better.

One of those must-watch films is The Big Sleep. Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the Big Sleep is a crime classic with Bogart as Philip Marlowe and the plot has something to do with a kidnapping, blackmail, a couple of murders, and general law breaking. I say "something to do with" because in spite of the fact that I've probably watched the movie upwards of 50 times, I do not understand what the hell is going on. It has a storyline that is not so much complex as incomprehensible.

There are perhaps 20 characters that either appear or are referred to in the script and many of them I couldn't tell you who they were. There's an old guy who talks about orchids being "too like the flesh of man." There's Bacall smoking hot as one daughter of the old guy. Her younger sister is a drug addict who is being blackmailed and who I don't think appears sober in the entire film. There's a missing chauffeur who doesn't actually appear but his existence is crucial to the plot. Too bad I'm not sure why he's crucial. Bogart is, of course, Marlowe -- the smart-talking, world-weary private dick hired by old guy to help with the blackmail. There's another offstage character named Geiger who owns a bookstore that's a front for something (still no clue what). He's got a sexy adenoidal receptionist who knows nothing about books but who has a small guy with a big crush willing to drink something lethal rather than sell her out. There's some sort of charade about Bacall being at a casino and pretending to win money so a payoff looks nothing like a payoff. And there's a shoot-out at the end.

If I'm vague on the details it's because i am vague on the details. Again, I could quote entire blocks of dialog but I'm still not sure who killed the driver.

And yet, in spite of my ongoing confusion, I love this movie. Most movies that are incomprehensible just annoy the crap out of me. But this is an exception. Perhaps it's because of the razor-sharp dialog (William Faulkner was one of the co-writers of the screenplay). When Bogart and Bacall flirt you can feel the heat coming off the screen. There's a great scene where they're talking about horse racing and it turns into verbal foreplay with Bacall commenting that when it comes to "going the distance" that "it depends on who's in the saddle." Maybe it's the way Marlowe alternates between confused, amused, and just plain angry throughout the film. It could be the intelligent and slightly sly direction by Howard Hawks. But there's something in the magical alchemy that went into this film that captivates me every single time.

And every single time that Husband and I watch it, we turn to each other as the end credits roll and ask "what just happened?"


Kittie Howard said...

LOL, you just made me feel a whole lot smarter. I never figured this one out either. (You're right about that dialogue being on fire, wow!)

Duke said...

You may love it because Bogart rules the known universe. He is legend.

Fo said...

Don't forget that fantastic scene in the bookstore... :)

Duke said...

As an aside, no one knows who killed chauffeur Owen Taylor. During filming Hawks cabled the author Raymond Chandler who replied, "Damned if I know."

Chandler never tied up that plot line because it didn't matter to the story. He didn't care who killed the chauffeur.

Decca said...

Duke, the fact that nobody knows makes me feel much better. You're also right about Bogart ruling the world.