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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-