The Big Sleep (1946) ****
A treasure trove of great lines, iconic performances, gloriously moody photography and some of the most labyrinthine plot developments ever foisted upon a Hollywood movie, The Big Sleep has as strong a claim as any to the title of greatest crime film ever made.
Just the title instantly conjures a hundred images and memories. You think first, obviously, of Bogart as Philip Marlowe, sardonic, disillusioned, resourceful, cynical yet possessed of a kind of battered nobility. You think of Lauren Bacall, in the second and most effective of their big-screen teamings, and of their dialogue, impeccably delivered and bristling with sexual innuendo. Then you recall that whole Warner noir universe, of shadows and rain and fog, high collars and felt hats, small-time crooks and girls on the make, where nobody can be trusted and everybody lies all the time.
But this is one of those films where virtually every line is quotable, just as every scene is a separate delight, and every character gets their own chance to shine. Think of Dorothy Malone’s cameo as the book store salesgirl who passes a boozy afternoon with Marlowe, of Elisha Cook Jr as Jonesy, the patsy whose efforts to get in on the action leave him dead, or of Martha Vickers as Carmen, Bacall’s thumb-sucking, nymphomaniac younger sister.
Then reflect on how Charles Waldron’s General Sternwood, forced to live in an orchid house after a lifetime’s dissipation and debauchery, is able to leave such an indelible impression despite appearing in only one scene, or that Sonia Darrin’s touching Agnes, the girl on the make who never gets the breaks, is not even listed in the credits. (Neither is Theodore von Eltz as the sleazy Arthur Gwynn Geiger or Joy Barlow as the bubbly, forthcoming taxi driver; both leave a memory.)
Though the story of Chandler confessing that even he didn’t know who killed the chauffeur is surely apocryphal (it’s not that hard to work out!) this is a dense and intricate plot for sure, made more so by the dictates of censorship. (You have to guess for yourself, for instance, that Carmen is both a drug addict and is embroiled in a pornography racket, a vitally relevant fact that the film merely implies opaquely.) Still, even if you don’t follow every twist it is unlikely you’ll be feeling short-changed come the breathtakingly tense final scene, notable for one of the most shockingly effective moments of implied violence in Hollywood history. The whole film is a lesson in how to achieve and sustain mood, style and excitement without once violating the dictates of the Production Code or setting foot outside a studio sound stage.
Incidentally, though Bacall is superb as the duplicitous older sister, it's Martha Vickers for me.