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

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'