“Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.”
Over the last 70 odd years, the idea of film noir and the hard boiled private dick has been invented, reinvented, subverted and post-modernised more than a few times over. From the original black and white days of stone faced men, to the slacker 70s vibe of Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, to the slacker 90s vibe of Jeff Bridges of The Big Lebowski, to the slacker new millennium vibe of Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. But after all these years and all these different iterations, I feel like the original is still the most iconic and recognisable. The original being Humphrey Bogart, in movies like The Big Sleep.
Now, the plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously convoluted, and even according to the screenwriter and director, has several plot holes that may melt your brain if you try to fill them in. So I’m not gonna even attempt to set it up in my own words. Instead, I’ll rely on a few choice lines from the good people at Wikipedia.
“Private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is summoned to the mansion of his new client General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). The wealthy retired general wants to resolve gambling debts his daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), owes to bookseller Arthur Gwynn Geiger. As Marlowe is leaving, General Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), stops him. She suspects her father’s true motive for calling in a detective is to find his young friend Sean Regan, who had mysteriously disappeared a month earlier.”
“Vivian later comes to Marlowe’s office with scandalous pictures of Carmen she received with a blackmail demand for the negatives. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s bookstore, where they are packing up the store. Marlowe follows a car to the apartment of Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), a gambler who previously blackmailed General Sternwood. He returns to Geiger’s house and finds Carmen there. She initially claims ignorance about the murder, then insists Brody killed Geiger. They are interrupted by the owner of the home, small-time gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).”
That synopsis barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in The Big Sleep. According to the IMDB Trivia section for this movie, “In re-cutting the film, Howard Hawks removed the scene in which Marlowe explains the crimes. The film’s success supported his growing conviction that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time.” And I’ll be buggered if Hawks wasn’t right.
Every now and again, I’d find myself confused, and even a little frustrated as I tried to string the story together and keep track of everyone’s relationship to everyone else. But those moments of confusion and frustration never lasted long. Because I would soon be engrossed once again in the amazing performances, the seedy world and the effortless chemistry between every single actor on screen. Not only did I not mind the convolution, as I think about it now, that convolution might be one of the movie’s biggest strengths. Because I know for a fact that I’ll watch The Big Sleep again, and having another stab at figuring it out is the thing I’m looking forward to most with that next watch, and probably countless more watches after that.