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'The Big Sleep': A film noir masterpiece that remains incomprehensible

'The Big Sleep' - Howard Hawks

When we look back at the legacy of The Big Sleep, it is almost a mystery in itself that this film is regarded by many scholars as one of the greatest productions from the film noir era. 75 years later, almost everyone agrees that The Big Sleep’s plot is a screenwriting disaster. But they also unanimously nod when someone claims it is a masterpiece. How did The Big Sleep transcend valid criticism to become one of the definitive post-war cinematic gems?

The answer to that question is often attributed to the magical on-screen partnership of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall but that can’t be the only reason we are still talking about The Big Sleep. After all, they have starred together in more appealing projects like Hawks’ To Have and Have Not as well as John Huston’s Key Largo. The Big Sleep has been described as a “timeless classic” but that’s not true either since the film feels overwhelmingly dated, a relic from a lost time.

Based on an equally confusing novel by Raymond Chandler, the screenplay for The Big Sleep was handled by the likes of the legendary William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Due to the immense contributions of these literary giants, the film takes on a conversational tone with quick-fire exchanges and lengthy ratiocinations. Despite the fact that the plot is completely secondary to the cinematic experience, it forms an indispensable part of The Big Sleep’s perplexing legacy.

Starring the irresistibly charming Humphrey Bogart as Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep presents a labyrinthine quest in which Marlowe is tasked with the responsibility of tracking down the criminals who are blackmailing a wealthy General. As we follow Marlowe into an endless night, we lose track of the objectives and the mission. Instead, we start perceiving The Big Sleep as an examination of the night itself which is decorated with dead bodies, insidious intent and the lingering taste of nicotine.

It is futile to try and chart out what exactly happens in the film because the cast and crew had no clue in the first place. In a famously recorded incident, Hawks sent a wire to Chandler in order to launch an enquiry into the details of the plot. However, the writer insisted that Hawks was asking the wrong person. Chandler later told his friend: “They sent me a wire … asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either!”

In many ways, Hawks managed to construct a quasi-Kafkaesque vision from the skeletal framework of Chandler’s text. The countless shifting parts do not add up to make a whole, Martha Vickers flits in and out of the narrative like a beautiful spectre who has made up her mind to haunt us and the explanations only confuse us further. Instead of the usual investigations of motives and reasons, The Big Sleep constantly reassures us that the specifics of the crime are inconsequential when compared to the “Bogie and Bacall phenomenon.”

By the end, we are convinced of the same and start relishing the excellent sound design as well as Sidney Hickox’s mesmerising cinematography which effectively translates the smoke and mirrors of Marlowe’s world to the visual medium. It is too absurd to dwell on the details when the writers, the characters, the director and almost everyone else had given up on the plot. It doesn’t matter because The Big Sleep succeeds as something completely different – a crystallised spectacle of irrational intrigue.