08 February 2009

"I got a Balinese dancing girl tattooed across my chest."

A friend once confessed to me that she had seen a film I really liked and found she didn't care for it. She feared that I would consequently think less of her. Poppycock. One of my top ten movies of all time is The Third Man (1949) but the missus doesn't like it. (I know, weird, huh?). But I respect the wife's views on movies more than anyone I know. Can the failure to share enthusiasm for a particular film cost you someone's respect? Shouldn't.

If you're going to talk directors, then someone not liking, say Woody Allen or William Wellman, well that right there would be a deal breaker. Or if someone didn't like French films or movies from the 1970's. But I don't know that there's a particular movie that a person would absolutely have to like to earn my respect. I guess I could even get along with a person who didn't like The Godfather or Grand Illusion (wouldn't be easy).

But I'll bet you wont be surprised to learn there's an exception to the rule.

The Big Sleep (1946).

A look at my top 100 English language films of all time reveals that The Big Sleep is ranked #19. So why this film and not one of the preceding 18 or one of my favorite foreign language films?

Okay so have I just painted myself into a corner or can I explain myself? We'll see....

The Big Sleep is one confusing movie. I've seen it maybe a dozen times and still had trouble following the convoluted plot when I watched it earlier today.

You'd think after all those viewings I'd have the story down cold and you'd be incorrect. Yeah sure I've got the basics. Rich guy with two wild daughters hires private detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to sort out the blackmailing of his youngest and wildest child. Marlowe tails the blackmailer, finds him murdered, looks like the daughter has been set up...On and on it goes with many more murders including one that even Raymond Chandler, the author of the book upon which the film is based, couldn't account for. Eventually Marlowe and oldest daughter, played by Lauren Bacall fall in love. It could hardly be a spoiler to say that all ends well.

So how the hell can I, and for that matter millions upon millions of film lovers, revere a movie that has a nearly incomprehensible plot?

It's a basic law of film appreciation that with movies "what" is not nearly as important as "how." If what a movie was about was all that counted we'd not bother watching any of them a second time and DVD sales would plummet. (I should here note that some some lovers of The Big Sleep get their jollies out of sorting the plot and have totally deconstructed it.)

The Big Sleep is a classic "how it's told" film. And it's told in such a brilliant way that if a person can't appreciate it than I'd have to question their taste in films (unless they were eight years old, then I'd give em time).

The Big Sleep has some of the greatest film dialogue of all time. To wit:

General Sternwood: How do you like your brandy, sir?
Philip Marlowe: In a glass.

Vivian: I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

Vivian: What will your first step be?
Philip Marlowe: The usual one.
Vivian: I didn't know there was a usual one.
Philip Marlowe: Well sure there is, it comes complete with diagrams on page 47 of how to be a detective in 10 easy lessons correspondent school textbook and uh, your father offered me a drink.
Vivian: You must've read another one on how to be a comedian.

Told ya. And that was just a sample. The key to witty dialogue is that it flow with the movie. If dialogue seems overly affected, inconsistent with the character or if it sounds rehearsed, then it'll distract audiences. In a film like this or as a recent example, Juno (2007), we enjoy the wit of the characters and don't notice that its beyond what most normal people are capable of.

The Big Sleep also has Bogie and Bacall in their second of four film pairings (they married shortly after completing The Big Sleep.) They were wonderful together, and no, I'll not venture an opinion as to which of their screen pairings was the best.

You could get into a long, entertaining argument about which was Bogie's performance. Certainly he did more "acting" in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). But he was never truer to the Bogie persona than here (I know you think Maltese Falcon (1941), we'll settle this another time). (Casablanca (1943) is in a whole other category.)

Here Bogie is especially tough, smart, honest, irresistible to the fairer sex and quick with a quip. And speaking of the fairer sex, there's a lot of them in this film stumbling all over themselves to give Marlowe a tumble. Martha Vickers as the youngest daughter damn near steals the film and Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk does infinitely more with one scene than most actors do with a whole movie.

There is a certain predictability in film that can be comforting. With a lot of private eye or cop movies you know he's "going to get his man" the fun is watching how he does it. No one was more fun to watch than Bogie. Yeah, I said no one.

So with The Big Sleep you've go great dialogue and great characters. But I'll tell you what, I could watch it with the sound off and be entertained. Stylized realism is well and good but director Howard Hawks takes us smack dab into upper and middle class L.A. of the the 1940's so well that you can feel transported back into time. This is not noir type grittiness either. There are book stores that look like book stores. Apartments and houses that look like people lived in them. A cafe scene where you can smell the coffee and taste the eggs.

I love the atmosphere of the movie. Rain is regular feature in films and in The Big Sleep it's so good you find yourself reaching for an umbrella.

Why might someone not like The Big Sleep? Maybe they don't like old movies. Maybe they don't care for anything in black and white. Maybe they can get past the confusing plot. Maybe they don't like Bogart. (I've met people of these descriptions.) Those are not acceptable reasons for a true film aficionado. I can accept not loving The Big Sleep. But not even liking it? Unforgivable.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to find out why on earth the missus doesn't like The Third Man.


R. D. Finch said...

I love this movie too. One thing that impresses me is how each part, down to the smallest one, is so perfectly cast. Every single character, no matter how much screen time they get, is memorable.

I read the book before I saw the movie, so some of the things that had to be left vague in the movie made more sense to me. One of the reasons Vickers's character is so goofy is that she is on drugs (opium, as I recall). The reason the Sternwoods want that photo back so badly is that it is a nude one taken while she was stoned on opium. That's the connection with the "rare" book dealer who took the photo. Don't recall how clear it is in the movie, but the books he deals in are porno.

A few years ago, TCM showed the original version of "The Big Sleep" before some scenes were re-shot (because Bacall wore a very unflattering hat with a veil over her eyes) and several scenes were added to create more interaction between Bogart and Bacall, including the one where they meet at the night club. An interesting comparison, but the final version is clearly better.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue happens the first time Bogart goes to the Sternwood mansion and Vickers practically molests him in the hallway. He says to Bacall, "Your sister tried to sit on my lap...while I was standing up."

And that Lincoln Continental Bacall drives--what a beauty! It's the same model Sonny is driving in "The Godfather" when he's ambushed at the toll booth.

your eldest child said...

I think it would be really funny if I didn't like the big sleep. would you stop liking me? Unfortunately you probably showed it to me when I was in middle school and I don't remember how I felt about it.
Though I do want to add that if I was able to get over my bff not liking barney fife, anything is possible.