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THE BIG SLEEP

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone
Director:  Howard Hawks
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Documentary The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  February 15, 2000

Film ****

I have to confess…as much as I love Humphrey Bogart, I had never actually seen one of his most popular films, The Big Sleep.  Basically, I had gotten the wrong impression about the film over the years from people who described it with words like “confusing”, “hard to follow”, and “who killed the chauffeur?”

That last bit, I’ve since learned, has grown into one of those legends of Hollywood folklore.  Apparently, during the filming, Bogart suddenly asked that very question, and it brought production to a halt.  Nobody knew.  It wasn’t in the script.  Even a desperation call to author Raymond Chandler didn’t help; it turns out he didn’t know, either.

In the end, it didn’t matter much to the story.  After all, this film boasted a higher body count than any film noir up to that time, so there was plenty of murder and mayhem to investigate.  Like most examples of film noir, it’s a simple case that grows more and more complex as it unfurls.  I found myself completely engrossed in the story and the characters, and instantly sorry I had waited so long to experience the movie.

The other legend involves the two versions of this film, which has been the source of much controversy and discussion among fans over the years.  Both versions appear on this DVD:  the 1946 was the final cut, which was shown theatrically and has become the version everybody knows.  The original 1945 was never screened, but recently discovered, restored, and can now exist in side by side comparison with its more famous counterpart.  So why two versions?

If you believe the documentary included on the disc, it was largely to save Lauren Bacall.  Bacall had made a sizzling screen debut opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not, and the two were paired again for The Big Sleep.  But while the 1945 version was being placed on hold long enough for Warner to distribute their remaining war themed films (for fear the audience would begin to shun them with World War II coming to an end), Bacall made a third film, Confidential Agent, where she was painfully miscast as a Brit, and ended up drawing terrible reviews from the critics and a somewhat cooler reception from the audiences.

For fear Bacall might be subject to more bad press for her somewhat underwritten role in The Big Sleep (and because by that time, she was Mrs. Bogart), she and Bogie and other cast members, along with director Howard Hawks, went back and shot some new scenes, including a few of the picture’s most memorable ones, and inserted them into the existing film, trimming out a few less interesting parts.

Upon examining the unseen 1945 version, two things are apparent:  the revamped 1946 version with more of Bacall clearly is the better film (even if the plot is a bit more cohesive in the original), and that the studio needn’t have worried about her performance in the film, which was quite good even without the additional sequences.

I really can’t begin to assess the film’s story and plotline, which is quite intricate and involving, and I can say from recent personal experience, much more fun if you discover it for yourself.  It simply requires a little attention being paid to it.  The screenplay is one of noir’s best offerings…witty and clever throughout, and moving along at a good pace, which helps command the audience’s interest.  And if Bogart created the iconoclastic film noir private eye in The Maltese Falcon, he perfects it in this picture, leaving an indelible blueprint for the character in the vernacular of cinema.

And not enough can be said about the on screen chemistry between Bogie and Bacall.  They were in love, and their real life romance injects each of their scenes with energy and intensity.  It doesn’t come much better or more classic than this.

Video ***1/2

This is another commendable effort from Warner for one of their older titles.  This film is treated like the classic it is on this DVD with a gorgeous black and white transfer, with sharp imaging and detail throughout, no grain or compression evident, and surprisingly little in the way of noticeable aging marks.  A few spots here, a scratch or two there…remarkable for a 50 plus year old movie. 

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is clean and clear throughout, peppered with occasional bits of surprisingly loud gunfire or screaming to make the listening experience suitably dynamic.  Again, considering the age, the disc is quite remarkable.

Features ***

The disc contains a trailer and a rather effective documentary that briefly compares the two versions of the film:  what was cut, what was put in, what was slightly altered.  It’s a terrifically interesting reference tool, and sums it up very nicely for those who prefer to stick with the beloved 1946 version and not venture onto the disc’s other side.

Summary:

The Big Sleep is as good as film noir can get.  Expertly written and crafted, well paced and directed, and smartly acted by a top notch cast, including Bogie and Bacall in their prime.  It truly is the mystery movie to end all mysteries.  And before you ask, no, neither Gordon, Alex nor myself murdered the chauffeur.  We were working that night.  ;-)