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The Big Sleep (July 29, 2008)

The Big Sleep was a gritty, detective novel set in the seamy side of Los Angeles by Raymond Chandler. Chandler specialized in that subject and that setting, and the book was published in 1939.

Howard Hawks, the director, bought the film rights for twenty thousand dollars and asked William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay. The style and immediacy of Chandler’s writing tended to disguise the fact that some of the plot was confusing. There is a famous story of Faulkner and Brackett asking Chandler who killed the first victim in the story. He is said to have answered, “I don’t know.” Some of that plot confusion was inherited by this movie. Plot purists will not be satisfied by how it is all explained.

Hawks started filming on October 10, 1944 and finished production January 12, 1945. In Hollywood, at the end of the war, films with a war story (and there were a lot of them) were rushed into release while films without direct reference to the war sat on the shelf for later release. The film didn’t go into general release until August 23, 1946, nearly two years later. Meanwhile, a pre-release version was shown to servicemen overseas. That is the version we will show tonight. It was reconstructed in 1996 by Bob Gitt and his team of film restorers at UCLA. The studio heads and Hawks spent a great deal of time analyzing this version. The general feeling was that Bacall’s scenes were not strong enough, specifically, she wasn’t given enough “scenes of the insolent and provocative nature that she had in To Have and Have Not”. The first version focuses on narrative, the second abandons some of that narrative to create scenes that focus on character rather than plot. Several scenes were reshot for the final version, with some increase in the plot confusion.

With the plot problems and second thoughts, you would think that the finished film would not be a good one, but that isn’t the case. Hawks’ biographer, Todd McCarthy, calls it “massively entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis, with Bogart etching the definitive Philip Marlowe, every woman in the film fairly oozing sexuality, a mood of sinister uncertainty draping the action, and a mystery being unraveled whose dubious clarity is at least matched by its scandalous fascination. The sense of intangible threats lurking in the darkness of the world at large…is especially helpful to this deeply mysterious puzzle in which everyone is suspicious and most are guilty of something.” Anyway, I hope you enjoy the puzzle that is The Big Sleep.