It has something to do with private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) being hired by a sickly old millionaire to look for the missing young man the codger considers his unofficial son. Along the way Marlowe dallies with the rich man’s two spoiled daughters. The older one (Lauren Bacall) falls hard for our cynical hero.
Beyond that it’s hard to say just what the movie’s about. The plot is so labyrinthine, you need a flow chart to take it all in.
Strangely enough, that confusion seems not to have hurt The Big Sleep at all. Bogie’s sardonic tough guy and the heat generated by the 19-year-old Bacall (with whom the married Bogie was having a torrid affair) were enough to make the film a hit back in ’46. And in the intervening years it has become a film noir classic.
Perhaps some of the plot’s fuzziness has to do with major changes made after the film had been completed by director Howard Hawks. The brass at Warner Bros. ordered massive retakes and radical cuts calculated mostly to boost Bacall's fledgling career.
This tinkering was meant to give Bacall more insolent dialogue with Bogart, thus capitalizing on her success opposite him in the earlier To Have and Have Not and, hopefully, to make critics and audiences forget her recent miserable performance in Confidential Agent. The goal was to save her career and thus the huge investment in time and money that the studio had poured into the leggy beauty.
As it turned out, the Bogie-Bacall banter added for the final theatrical version undoubtedly improved The Big Sleep. Even if you couldn't understand the plot, the individual scenes were played with terrific style, snappy dialogue, tough-guy posturing, and a hilarious collection of sexual double-entendres between Bogart and just about every woman in the cast.
So, like Raymond Chandler, you may not have a clue about who did what to whom. But you will definitely enjoy yourself.
Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 4: The Big Sleep (1946) Not Rated
- February 11: Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Rated PG
- February 18: Nights of Cabiria (1957) Not Rated
- February 25: After Hours (1985) Rated R
- March 4: Dark City (1998) Rated R
- March 11: Date Night (2010) Rated PG-13
- March 18: Blade Runner (1982) Rated R
- March 25: L.A. Confidential (1997) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements While the City Sleeps, the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.