Film from the ’40s is perhaps best remembered for all of the dark and moody crime dramas it produced that kicked off the film noir genre. Hundreds of films full of fog, dicks, and dames have been made over the years, but really there are only an elite handful that stand the test of time as the big ones everyone thinks of when they think about noir. 1946’s The Big Sleep is definitely one of those films, and seeing as it was directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, it stars the iconic duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, it was adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, and it features one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time, Philip Marlowe, it’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. This thing has pedigree to spare.
Laura, an Otto Preminger-directed film from two years earlier, doesn’t quite share the same reputation. Though Preminger is certainly an accomplished director in his own right, he’s not one of the few quintessential masters that modern audiences still name drop the way Hawks is. And though its stars—especially Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb—are all fine actors who had lengthy careers, their names haven’t passed into legend the way Bogart and Bacall’s have. Admittedly, Vincent Price lends Laura some modern day notability, but the point I’m trying to make is, despite the fact that film historians largely dig what Preminger accomplished here, Laura isn’t the sort of movie that lives on in the public consciousness, even though it’s so much better than The Big Sleep.
What do they have in common?
Both are black and white movies from the ’40s about a detective trying to solve a murder. That’s pretty obvious from the outset. But they’re also the kind of mystery stories that aren’t exactly what they appear to be at first. They start with the disappearance of a character who we don’t meet, and then they develop from there, revealing deeper layers the more the main character digs away. In The Big Sleep, Bogart’s Marlowe is hired to look into the disappearance of a wealthy but aging General’s favorite employee. In Laura, Dana Andrews’ Mark McPherson is hired to solve the murder of a magnetic woman (Tierney) who has affected several lives in very deep ways. These aren’t the sort of movies where the detectives dig through clues and shake down suspects either. Most of the scenes take place inside people’s houses and apartments. They’re light on action and heavy on dialogue, but they manage to keep your attention regardless.
Why is The Big Sleep overrated?
Humphrey Bogart is such a likable and charismatic figure, and the dialogue that The Big Sleep gives him is so deliciously clever, that you might think you could watch him wander around and match wits with other characters forever, without ever needing the film to give you anything else. But The Big Sleep tests this theory and proves it to be untrue. Not only are the ins and outs of all of these murders and double-crossings a lot of work to keep straight, but the film also takes its sweet time working out all of its knots, and, to add insult to injury, by the time the end credits roll it hasn’t even addressed all of the dangling threads.
I’ve watched this movie three times now, and still can’t claim to fully understand the plot. There are great scenes here that are a lot of fun to watch on their own, but when you look at them all put together, The Big Sleep starts to look more like an impenetrable problem to be solved than it does a piece of entertainment. After taking this one in a few times and still not fully understanding it, one begins to question whether or not they’re just dense. But, no, a quick Googling reveals that many have studied this story and not been able to make complete sense of it, and, as a matter of fact, there’s some indication that its original author, Raymond Chandler, might not even have a clear idea of who was supposed to have killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur himself. Shouldn’t a mystery story, at the very least, be able to explain itself by its end?
Some may say that this isn’t all that important, because the main attraction of The Big Sleep is that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, a palpable chemistry that led to their real-life marriage, and that everything else is just window dressing. But I would argue that the Bogart/Bacall pairing falls flat here, and certainly doesn’t produce anywhere near the heat that it did in To Have and Have Not. In fact, there’s a muskier smell of sex in the air during Bogart’s father/bratty daughter interactions with Martha Vickers, and certainly during his bookstore flirtations with Dorothy Malone than there is in any of the scenes he shares with Bacall. Their flirting back and forth in the nightclub scene is fun, but it doesn’t have you dying to see them get together in the end. For a movie that was marketed from the beginning as being another great Bogart/Bacall romance, that has to be seen as something of a disappointment.
Why is Laura underpraised?
Given its good reputation among film buffs and the fact that it fits so easily into a genre that casual filmgoers love to watch, why isn’t Laura one of those movies that movie geeks in training run to first when they’re just starting out their film educations? Maybe its because noirs are so strongly tied in our memories to the charismatic detectives at their center, and Laura’s Detective McPherson is probably the least memorable character in the entire film. Especially in comparison to a figure like Bogart, Dana Andrews seems to fade into the background of this one, and he works mostly as just the eyes through which we meet everyone else. That’s not such a bad thing when the people we’re meeting are Clifton Webb’s devious Waldo Lydecker and Gene Tierney’s radiant Laura Hunt, though.
The story here, which is adapted from a Vera Caspary novel, unfolds its mystery in a much more satisfying way, as well. The Big Sleep gives us heavy dialogue scenes where a thousand different names are thrown at us. We’re asked to remember people we never meet, or meet briefly. “Who killed this guy? Was it this guy? I think that guy might be in cahoots with that guy.” You’re left throwing your hands up in the air in submission. But, in Laura, you actually get to meet all of the people who may or may not be involved in the murder, and they’re all so different and memorable that it’s no task at all to keep them straight. It also helps that the focus stays aimed squarely at one question, “Who killed Laura Hunt?” Andrews’ Detective McPherson becomes so obsessed with finding out, he drowns himself so completely in the details of the victim’s life, that he starts to fall in love with a woman who he’s never met—and we do too.
The exposition scenes here feel like less of a chore too because of the way Preminger and his cinematographers keep the camera so confidently gliding through the sets and between the actors. The shots are kinetic, but never disorienting, and not only do they show off all of the design work Preminger and his team have done on Laura’s apartment, but they also make even the dialogue scenes seem exciting. This all comes to a head during the film’s big climax, a scene whose blocking, staging, and photography are exquisite. We know exactly where everything that comes into play in the scene is located, where all of the characters are in relation to one another, and the camera always puts us in the exact place we need to be for the goings on to have maximum impact. A movie that goes out with a bang can often feel better than it actually was as a whole, and Laura manages to save the best of itself for last.
Evening the odds.
If you’re one of the many who have never quite grasped the intricacies of The Big Sleep, but love it anyway thanks to the opportunity to hear Humphrey Bogart deliver lines like, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” that’s perfectly understandable. The film has its merits, and it’s a joy to re-watch every now and then. But, if you haven’t yet checked out Laura and it’s repartee that you like, it’s time you give this slightly more overlooked gem a chance. Dana Andrews might not be Humphrey Bogart, but any movie that affords Clifton Webb the opportunity to deliver the line, “You seem to be completely disregarding something more important than your career: my lunch,” is nothing to sneeze at either. That snarky old queen.
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