The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks, 114 mins (PG)

Bogart and Bacall flirt with danger, and each other, in this re-release of a complex noir classic

About an hour into Howard Hawks's 1946 thriller The Big Sleep, detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is paid his fee and informed that his case is closed.

Naturally, he can't let the matter drop – not with nearly half the film still to go. An unwritten rule of private-eye fiction is that the hunt is never truly on until the shamus is told that it's off. "Why did you have to go on?" Lauren Bacall's Vivian Rutledge asks Marlowe late in the proceedings. "Because too many people told me to stop," he replies.

It's when the mundane matter of payment is disposed of that a gumshoe's investigation becomes something personal, and indeed mythical – a quest. In this case, Marlowe is no longer pursuing a blackmailer, or gambling racketeers, or a circle of drug pushers and pornographers, or whoever is the supposed quarry of his investigation (the stakes are notoriously obscure, and rapidly get lost once we enter the story's labyrinth). The real object of Marlowe's pursuit becomes Vivian herself, the sexual mystery that he is out to crack by getting closer to her – so much so that the investigation increasingly becomes an excuse for Bogart and Bacall to engage in volleys of urbane, innuendo-laden repartee. Take their horse-racing dialogue. Marlowe: "You've got a touch of class but I don't know how far you can go." Vivian: "Depends who's in the saddle."

Based on Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel, The Big Sleep ostensibly recounts Marlowe's hunt for the shady characters who are making life a misery for one General Sternwood (a majestically desiccated Charles Waldron), father of two wayward daughters. "I assume they have all the usual vices," the General says of his girls, "besides the ones they've invented for themselves." The younger daughter, Carmen, seems too blissfully stoned on her own libido to invent anything new – she looks as if she's content to run through the old reliable variations. As played by Martha Vickers, Carmen is, if not the louchest, certainly the most brattish vamp in film noir. She's too much a tarnished innocent to be a femme fatale, but without a doubt she's one of the most intensely sexual presences in 1940s cinema – even if the discretions imposed by the Hays Code of censorship meant that Carmen's outré vices had to be implied, not named. At one point, she's discovered in the house of Geiger the blackmailer adjusting her stockings in front of a Buddha's head containing a hidden movie camera – a scenario of insidious strangeness in the Max Ernst league. The requirement of discretion often gives the film a surreal innocence: in the gambling den that Vivian frequents, she's found singing a jolly, faintly risqué number with the resident glee club.

The plot is famously nebulous: when asked by Hawks and his writers to explain a key point in the story, Chandler himself was at a loss. Who knows, or cares, what happened to missing man Sean Regan, or who killed the chauffeur? But the screenwriters – Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and novelist William Faulkner, himself no stranger to narrative dislocation – keep adding twists and impasses, ensuring that wherever the story signposts disappear, talk and mischief flourish.

Despite the equivocation, sex is more visible here than in most films of the period. That is, sex not as deadly amour fou but as verbal flirtation and jousting, often with an easy, for-the-hell-of-it recreational pay-off. Take Marlowe's encounter with a bookshop assistant (Dorothy Malone), in which a rainstorm, a bottle of whisky and a lowered blind tell us all we need to know.

The big sleep of the title may be death, but it may also be just slumber, and dream. Few thrillers are as mesmerically dream-like, with Geiger's house – the false heart of the maze, to which the story keeps returning – forever sunk in mist and mystery, like a witch's cottage in a Grimm fairytale. Cameraman Sid Hickox's wet, foggy night scenes make the film less noir than perplexingly grey and hazy, like the damp tweed of mobsters' overcoats. As the plot thickens like narcotic vapour, no one is more fascinated than Bacall's Vivian: her awkward slumped posture in Marlowe's car suggests that she's ready at any moment to subside into sleep, or into his bed. The closing title card features as overt a post-coital metaphor as any ever seen in film: two cigarettes and an ashtray. Re-released this week, and the centrepiece of BFI Southbank's Howard Hawks retrospective, The Big Sleep is as fresh and perverse as ever, and remains one of Hollywood's most entrancingly strange bedtime stories.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney spends 127 Hours between a rock and hard place, watching Danny Boyle's true-life tale of peril

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory