“You go too far, Marlowe.” “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”
Black film — that’s the English translation of film noir, the French term for the stylish crime thrillers of the 1940s. The moniker is more appropriately translated “dark film,” for the movies are dark in every way. The darkness that dwells in men’s hearts is laid bare (at least, as bare as the Hays Code would allow). Light is used to contrast and create deep, sharp shadows. The genre’s greatest include The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Double Indemnity, The Third Man, Touch Of Evil, and of course, The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep may be one of the best examples of film noir, but it has a mixed history. It was based on Raymond Chandler’s first novel, published in 1939. The book introduced Philip Marlowe, hard-boiled private eye. Marlowe first appeared on the silver screen in Murder, My Sweet (based on the novel “Farewell, My Lovely”), portrayed by Dick Powell. Humphrey Bogart, Warner Brothers’ megastar, was picked to play Marlowe in The Big Sleep. By 1944, he had appeared in over fifty movies, including The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Though Bogart would play many detectives in his career, this was the only time he portrayed Marlowe. The character was played by the likes of James Gardner, James Caan, and Robert Mitchum in other adaptations.
The Big Sleep began filming in 1944. After it was finished and screened in 1945, Lauren Bacall’s agent begged studio head Jack Warner to reshoot parts of the movie to give Bacall more exposure. Bogart and Bacall had lit up the screen in her screen debut, To Have and Have Not, but Bacall’s follow-up picture, Confidential Agent, was a critical dud. Her agent wanted to salvage her career, and capitalize on the duo’s on-screen and off-screen chemistry. Warner and director Howard Hawks agreed to the changes. So, several scenes were reshot and The Big Sleep was reworked. The result was the theatrical cut that most people have seen.
The plot of The Big Sleep revolves around murder, blackmail, sex, homosexuality, drugs, and pornography — all heady topics, and certainly not ones that were addressed in any sort of specifics under the stringent rules of old Hollywood. The vagueness of the crimes and ties between the characters only adds to the baffling nature of the plot. Few renowned movies have stories this confusing — even the author of the novel didn’t know if one of the characters was murdered or committed suicide.
Philip Marlowe was hired by a General Sternwood family to clean up some sordid business, namely debts owed by the General’s youngest daughter, Carmen, to a rare book dealer, Arthur Geiger. The General also wants Marlowe to find his confidant, Sean Regan. The investigation turns complicated when, in the course of the same night, Geiger is murdered (right in front of Carmen Sternwood) and the Sternwood’s chauffer dies under mysterious circumstances. Marlowe’s inquiries lead him to Eddie Mars, who somehow is involved with Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), General Sternwood’s other daughter.
I’m going to stop my description of the plot right there, for several reasons. One, the movie is confusing. Even after watching both versions, the documentary describing their differences, and reading part of the novel, I still couldn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fall together. Two, devotees of cinema are probably already familiar with the movie, or do not want to have the entire plot of a film spoiled by a smarmy critic. And three, there is a far better analysis of the movie at Filmsite.org. It was only after reading their extremely detailed analysis (my print-out of it was thirty pages long) that I understood who killed who and why. I figure, why should I just summarize their great work when you can go read it for yourself. Anyway, the important part of a DVD review is how the disc looks and sounds…
I’m not sure what kind of restoration work (if any) went into Warner Brothers’ DVD release of The Big Sleep, but their efforts are disappointing to say the least. The two versions of the movie — the 1945 prerelease version and the 1946 theatrical cut — are presented on opposite sides of the disc. Good luck figuring out which side is which. The small writing along the hub doesn’t indicate which side is which, other than an “A” or “B” in the part number and the different running times. The menus and supplemental content are identical on each side of the disc as well. Video quality isn’t as bad as the one Madacy release that’s made its way into my collection, but it’s close. All manner of pops, scratches, and vertical lines mar the negative on both versions. Through most of the movie, there’s a particularly distracting problem: the right-hand side of the frame is washed out, while the left-hand side is too dark. Curiously, the reels of the prerelease version that contained the changes from the theatrical cut are far cleaner and don’t possess the dark/washed out problem.
Audio is presented in dual-channel mono. I’m unsure how most releases present older mono tracks, but I found it most distracting to hear dialogue separated to either side of my living room, rather than in the center channel. I ended up using the sound field processing capabilities of my Sony receiver to force the sound into the center channel. Extras are limited on a documentary and a theatrical trailer. The documentary is about sixteen minutes long and explains the differences between the versions and why the cuts were made.
The Big Sleep is an old movie, so I can forgive the video problems. However, Warner Brothers should have taken more care when releasing it to DVD. Is it too much to ask to be able to figure out which side of the disc is which without the aid of a magnifying glass or deduction? I am, however, glad that it can be a part of my collection. Humphrey Bogart ranks right up there with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart as my favorite big-screen actors, and I love film noir. It’s great to be able to see how a few subtle cuts can affect a movie, and actually make it better. Anyone who feels the same would be well advised to make it a purchase.
I’d recommend that anyone who likes the movie read the novel. I thumbed through it at my local Barnes and Noble, and the movie is remarkably similar to the book, other than things the producers would have had to change to accommodate Humphrey Bogart as the star (Marlowe was tall in the book; Bogart was only 5′ 8″) and the limitations of the Hays Code.
Please note that in giving my ratings of the disc, I am rating it as compared to my expectations of a movie of similar vintage. I feel it would be unfair to look at The Big Sleep next to, say, The Matrix, and expect the audio and video quality to be on par with a recent release. That said, the video mark is low because it’s obvious that very little restoration was performed.