It didn't begin like that. Two years before, in 1944, the director Howard Hawks had bought the film rights to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mystery and early versions of the script suggest that the film was intended to be roughly a straight adaptation of the novel, with some fashionable film noir touches. But between them Hawks, the Hays Office (the censors), a string of writers and the two stars succeeded in transforming The Big Sleep into an ambiguous hybrid: part classic film noir, part wise-cracking romance.
Hence the renowned obscurity of the plot. The New York Times's Bosley Crowther called The Big Sleep, "one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused". And tall tales still abound about the inability of anyone involved in the film to figure out who does what to whom and why. Hawks is even supposed to have wired Chandler during shooting to ask who was responsible for one of the six murders. The author himself could allegedly offer no answer. And yet Hawks said of The Big Sleep: "It's told from the point of view of the detective and there are no red herrings." Close scrutiny of the film confirms the director to be right on both counts. So why all the confusion, real or imagined?
The almost obsessively repeated claims about its impenetrability make The Big Sleep a fascinating object for anyone with a taste for solving puzzles and, indeed, if you work hard enough at unravelling the knots, you discover that all the various strands of the plot (with one possible exception) are resolved in the end. Once solved, however, the mystery refuses to melt away. There is something at the heart of The Big Sleep that has nothing to do with the plot, and is not susceptible to the rational activity of puzzle-solving. It comes down in the end to sex.
The noir plot of The Big Sleep hinges on the disappearance of a character we never see and the blackmail of the Bacall character's younger sister, Carmen (Martha Vickers). The Hays Office objected in more or less blanket terms to the focus on sex and drugs (Carmen's blackmailer is a dope peddling homosexual, Carmen herself a promiscuous opium fiend) which survived from the novel into the first version of the script, drafted by William Faulkner in collaboration with Leigh Brackett. The censors took particular exception to what they called "depravity". They required significant adjustments to the script, most of which would, on the face of it, have rendered Chandler's story completely unrecognisable. But the changes did not do away with the "depravity" so much as displace it: though Carmen scarcely utters a word throughout the film, her body speaks volumes, and suggestions of sexual perversion and other unspeakable vices surface in the eclectic orientalism of the decor of the blackmailer's hideaway.
This sort of shadowiness and allusion is all typical of film noir. But on top of this is laid the very un-noirish Bogart / Bacall plot. Their characters in some respects stand in for the detective/ femme fatale-duo typical of film noir, in which a duplicitous woman leads astray investigation and investigator and the man and the woman are equally caught up in the corruption that surrounds them.
The first version of the script, in which the Bacall character's part is rather small, did follow these conventions. But with each successive rewrite, the scenes between Bogart and Bacall, and Bacall's part in them, grew. None of the new material advances the action: it merely adds to the sexually charged word-play between the principals. If Bacall's character does retain some of the qualities of the femme fatale, her leading Marlowe up the garden path is more a straightforward tease than a devious ploy to ensnare the detective and thus undermine the investigation. Bogart's Marlowe plays along, not taken in for a moment.
Bogart and Bacall were married in May 1945, several months after the film finished shooting. But before it was released, the principals were called back for some new scenes, all of them amplifying the romantic.The August 1946 release capitalised on interest in the couple's wedding and The Big Sleep was promoted as a Bogart / Bacall romance, rather than a detective story. Expanding the romance element meant yet more cuts in the noir plot, condensing this aspect of the story to the point of obscurity. The censors' demands saw to it that the Chandler-based plot was contained in the images rather than in the dialogue. But the seductive wordiness of the romance element more than compensates for the muteness of the noir story.
What is important is that Bacall's now-legendary seductive glances were invitations to the most innocent fantasies.There are no hidden depths, no threats of the unfathomable feminine. "I didn't have a chance to thank you back there," says Bogart in the last scene. "You looked good, awful good." In the end, the couple prove themselves team-players of an exemplary kind: witty, resourceful, supportive and, above all, good.
n 'The Big Sleep' is re-released tomorrow. Annette Kuhn is Reader in Film and TV Studies, Glasgow UniversityReuse content