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Review: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

(This review kicks off Humphrey Bogart Week at M. Carter @ the Movies, cooked up solely because I’ve found myself in the throes of a hopeless, all-consuming Bogey obsession.)

They just don’t make couples like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall anymore. From the playful repartee to those lingering glances and smoldering chemistry, Bogart and Bacall in the same spot was a recipe for romance — and not the grating, swoony kind, either. Theirs was a crackling relationship that had smarts and sex appeal. Every time they eyeball each other in “The Big Sleep” it’s like the two are dancing Tango to music only they can hear. They always look to have a dirty secret they won’t let us in on … which is why the Bogart-Bacall pairing is irresistible, and unmatchable.

Their onscreen chemistry is legendary — Bogart married Bacall, 26 years his junior, three months after he divorced his third wife — and evident just about everywhere in Howard Hawks’ wildly convoluted “The Big Sleep.” Though devoid of anything so flirtatious as the “put your lips together and blow” scene from “To Have and Have Not,” there’s one moment in particular, a small one that almost goes unnoticed, that feels positively sinful. The magic happens like this: Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) pays a visit to private investigator Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in his office. Instead of taking a chair, she perches on his desk demurely, trying to look innocently alluring but not, under the gumshoe’s keen gaze, succeeding. She rubs her skirt casually, almost absentmindedly while Philip, never taking his eyes off her, fires off a “go on and scratch.” The skirt gets a tug an inch above her knee; Marlowe gets a peek he doesn’t take, a wry grin he doesn’t shape his lips into. But something has happened. The air is charged. Elicit sex scenes have less electricity than a scratch and a look.

There are scores of red-hot little moments like that between Bogart and Bacall in “The Big Sleep,” and the film’s plot, penned by William Faulkner, works triple-time to overpower them. Because of the strength of the leads, the story, quite blessedly, never succeeds. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s first novel, “The Big Sleep” introduces Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, a private detective who never lets chit-chat get in the way of a scalding quip. He’s hired by Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an aging widower with two saucy daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Bacall’s sharp-tongued Vivian. Sternwood wants Marlowe to get to the bottom of who’s blackmailing Carmen for her latest scandalous act. This appears to be a simple job, which means Marlowe will tumble down a rabbit hole far deeper than he foresaw. The blackmail trail leads him into a much knottier situation. There’s an early murder followed by another (or suicide?), with Marlowe butting heads with casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and a ruthless lackey named Lash Canino (Bob Steele).

Is it possible for any viewers to unravel the intricately knotted threads that comprise “The Big Sleep”? Tougher feats have been accomplished, but even Faulkner admitted ignorance about directions his script took, as if he started writing and the story got away from him. Keeping tabs on all the characters, and how they know the Sternwoods, and what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it, is daunting. Faulkner’s script will test — and likely exhaust — the patience of everyone except the most determined viewers. It’s so complicated that there’s the maddening sense that the writer wants to ensure we never know the final score. And because there are so many layers, more than one character gets shafted in terms of development, like the dangerous Eddie Mars, or Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), paid to tail Marlowe, or Carmen, painted as a one-note sex kitten.

Somewhere in the mess, though, the diversions, chases and beatings (shocking in the ’40s) start to fade into the background. Bogart and Bacall shift into the foreground, and their sexually charged exchanges become the reason to hang in there. Any couple who can turn a discussion about horse racing — Vivian: “You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free”; Marlowe: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go” — into sizzling foreplay deserves top billing.

Grade: A-

Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A