The Big Sleep (1946) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.

Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.

Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.

Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!

My rating is 5 outta 10.

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