Anyone who is wary of superlatives might want to skip straight down to the review of the disc because The Big Sleep is one film which is so good that it's hard to see how it could have been any better. Aspects which seemed flawed at the time are now fascinating and appear clever rather than annoying and the things which were good in 1946 have just got better with age. I'm undecided about whether it's better than The Maltese Falcon, but that's not a bad dilemma to be in at this end of the quality scale. We're talking classics, ladies and gentlemen, and the only distinction to be made is one of personal taste.
Humphrey Bogart, better than ever, plays Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe. Well, to be honest, he plays his world weary hero that he did so well but that's quite appropriate for this film which is the best adaptation of Chandler's strange twilight world at the end of its moral tether (well, best along with Robert Altman's wonderful The Long Goodbye but that's another matter). Marlowe, a good man in a bad world, is hired by General Sternwood (Waldron) to find out just why he is being blackmailed over his youngest daughter's gambling debts by a seedy bookseller called Arthur Gwynn Geiger. The search becomes increasingly convoluted as the film goes on but includes pornography, drugs, murder and, er, rare books. I'm not entirely sure that anyone has managed to work out exactly who did what to whom and why - although the longer 1945 version, included on the R1 disc but not here sadly, does elucidate certain areas of the narrative - but it really doesn't matter. Complaining that The Big Sleep is confusing is a bit like complaining that Dressed To Kill rips off Psycho - i.e. totally missing the point. Although the narrative confusion would seem to be partly accidental, the elliptical plotting is well ahead of its time. One of the pleasures of The Big Sleep is that it's one of the first detective films where the signifiers are more important than the signified. The ultimate conclusion of this in American cinema is Arthur Penn's Night Moves and, perhaps, Polanski's Chinatown, but I would suggest that the trend began here. The script is a model of its kind; smart, witty and fast - how's this for starters ? "I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like them myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings."
Howard Hawks was a master of several genres, none more so than comedy, and his skill is one of the key things which make The Big Sleep such a delight to watch. The spectacularly witty dialogue is handled with the elan that he demonstrated in his screwball comedies and the action is as tough as it comes - at one point, Marlowe receives a kicking which is surprisingly brutal for the period. The look of the film - dark, brooding and ominous - seems to anticipate the great John Alton's work on defining the visual codes of film noir. The DP here, Sid Hickox, does a fine job and hasn't received the credit he deserves. In fact, the only element of the film which I have reservations about is Max Steiner's over-emphatic music score that sounds too much like a Warners stock music track (which, in a sense, is what it is).
Then of course we have the cast, or more particularly Bogie and Bacall. Talk about sexual chemistry... the erotic frissons are enough to ignite the screen on more than one occasion. Great support from Martha Vickers and the splendidly catty Dorothy Malone, but it's the leading couple you come to watch and you will not be disappointed. Bacall, as the elder daughter of the Colonel, is pure distilled sex and demonstrates her ability to dominate the frame every time she appears. As for Bogart, he's on top form here. The slightly melancholic yet cynical hero he patented in The Maltese Falcon has blossomed here into something richer, almost mythical. Bogart's Marlowe is an almost Arthurian knight, the seeker after truth who is limited by his flaws but determined to see evil punished and to shine a light into the darkness, even the murkier depths of the human heart. Hawks allows him to be triumphant. In 1973, Robert Altman's updated take on The Long Goodbye (also written by the great Leigh Brackett) suggests that Marlowe's basic decency is his achilles heel and could be used against him. Interestingly, Michael Winner updated The Big Sleep in 1977 and set it, for reasons of his own comfort presumably, in London and the Home Counties - it would be kinder to draw a veil over this particular victim of Winner's recidivism, although Candy Clark wasn't at all bad in the role of the younger daughter.
But why talk about Michael Winner when you're in the presence of greatness. Howard Hawks was a master of mainstream American filmmaking and directed more classic pictures than most of his contemporaries. He is held in reverence by many younger talents and with good reason - watch The Big Sleep, and then perhaps Rio Bravo and Bringing Up Baby and you will see why.
Warners produced a fine edition of The Big Sleep on region 1, reviewed by Michael Brooke here, containing the earlier 1945 cut of the film and a short comparative documentary. The region 2 cuts both of these and contains only the familiar version of the film and the trailer. Having said that, it's not a bad disc.
The film is presented in the original fullscreen 1.33:1 format. It's not a bad transfer generally and sometimes extremely good but it lacks that "wow" factor which a really good monochrome transfer can generate. Still, after seeing this film dulled to the muddy greys of a TV showing it's nice to see a sharp print with proper contrast and deep blacks. It's grainy however and there is some noticable artifacting in places. But overall it's quite pleasing
The soundtrack is in mono and is also fine. Like Michael noticed on the R1, there is some hiss which I could do without, but no serious difficulties. I rather enjoyed listening to bits of the French soundtrack as well - nothing like seeing Bogart sounding like Jean-Paul Belmondo.
The trailer is highly entertaining and, as someone more pompously intellectual than me would suggest, very postmodern.
There are 32 chapter stops and the main menu is backed by music from the film.
A great film is presented on a disc which is acceptable without being outstanding. I suggest you get the R1 if you can, but for those of you with R2 only players, this is well worth buying, particularly as you can get it online for a tenner or less.
In the second of three reviews of classic Bogart films, Mike Sutton has taken a look at the Region 2 release of The Big Sleep. A fairly pleasing release although fatally lacking one key feature of the Region 1 disc.