Raymond Chandler knew a thing or two about the breeze. Consider this opening paragraph from one of his early short stories, from 1946, entitled Red Wind: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Chandler also knew how to pull together a spellbinding narrative. The Big Sleep was classic Chandler and reflected Hollywood’s fascination with murder, blackmail, private detectives and, of course, pretty women. The Big Sleep referred to in the title is a sort of hipster shorthand for death. This moody 1946 film noir directed by Howard Hawks is a story about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results. The difference becomes apparent, and significant, as the plot unfolds.
Speaking of plot, the narrative in The Big Sleep is extremely convoluted and hard to follow. During production, neither the director (Hawks) nor the writers (William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) knew whether chauffeur Owen Taylor was murdered or had killed himself. They sent a cable to Chandler, who told a friend later, “They sent me a wire… asking me, and damn it, I didn’t know either!”
Warner Bros. did not release The Big Sleep until they had turned out a backlog of war-related films. Because the war was ending, the studio feared the public might lose interest in the films, while The Big Sleep‘s subject was not time-sensitive. Attentive observers will note indications of the film’s wartime production, such as period dialogue, pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a woman taxi driver, who says to Bogart, “I’m your girl.” Wartime rationing influences the film: dead bodies are called “red points”, which referred to wartime meat rationing, and Marlowe’s car has a “B” gasoline rationing sticker in the window, indicating he was essential to the war effort and therefore allowed eight gallons of gasoline per week.
Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman, asked that portions of the film be re-shot to capitalize on the evident chemistry between Bacall and Bogart and to counteract the negative press Bacall had received for her 1945 performance in Confidential Agent. Producer Jack L. Warner agreed, and new scenes, such as the sexually suggestive racehorse dialogue, were added.
The main protagonists in this twisting, turning saga appear equally as confused about the plot (the who did what to whom, what, when, and why) as audiences on first viewing. (There are seven killings – one of the seven occurred before the film’s action.) What makes things especially perplexing is that important characters involved in the plot never appear alive on screen; (e.g. Owen Taylor and Sean Regan); several other characters appear only momentarily or are rapidly dispatched, and important information is deliberately missing.
In all, The Big Sleep is a raucous, deftly engineered thriller that can be enjoyed again and again. With or without popcorn!