Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaptation of The Big Sleep is an undisputed masterpiece of film noir and a cinematic national treasure. It easily stands on its own merits as an Old Ass Movie worthy of your attention.
But, James Bond fans in particular will find much to love. In many ways, it feels like a prototype for the Bond flicks. I don’t know if the creators of the Bond film series were consciously influenced by The Big Sleep. If they weren’t, then there’s a helluva lot of coincidences to explain away.
I’ll get to those later. First, let’s catch you up on your Big Sleep. Humphrey Bogart plays the hard-boiled Los Angeleno Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a private detective – and the star of a series of novels by Raymond Chandler, including the one on which this movie is based.
Marlowe is hired by the retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to discover who’s blackmailing his daughter, Carmen (the sultry Martha Vickers). Carmen is no angel, and even her own father describes her as “still a little child who likes to pull the wings off flies.”
Carmen’s older sibling, Vivian (the elegant Lauren Bacall), is fiercely defensive of Carmen and tries, unsuccessfully, to pump Marlowe for the dirt on what kind of trouble she’s in.
The Sternwood blackmail threat arrived on letterhead from a rare book dealer, but Marlowe soon discovers it ain’t books Carmen has been sticking her pretty little nose in. As Marlowe negotiates a convoluted maze of double-crosses and triple-crosses, he learns both Sternwood sisters are running with a rough crowd. Their vices collectively include gambling, boozing, pornography, and quite possibly, murder.
From the get-go The Big Sleep foreshadows James Bond’s cinematic adventures. Here’s a few examples:
• When Marlowe meets Carmen in the film’s first scene, he playfully introduces himself as “Reilly, Doghouse Reilly.”
• Marlowe receives his marching orders from a stoic General Sternwood, whose sober demeanor reminds one of M, Bond’s boss.
• Marlowe is an incorrigible flirt. The story brings him into contact with a host of attractive minor female characters: a cab driver, a librarian, two fawning cocktail waitresses and more. He macks on them all and he even gets lucky with a sexy used bookseller.
• The racy double entendres that are such a hallmark of the Bond series are all over the place here. When Marlowe hires the aforementioned cab driver to follow a suspect’s car, he tells the driver he needs her for “a tail job.” The driver gamely replies, “I’m your girl, bud.” While Marlowe’s hunting up clues in a used bookstore, the owner invites him stay for awhile to wait out a rainstorm. His reply? “I’d a lot rather get wet in here.”
• Marlowe even employs a rather slick gadget: a spring-loaded gun rack hidden under the dashboard of his ’38 Plymouth.
Perhaps the greatest contribution this film offers to the Bond series is the complex dynamic between its male and female lead. Philip Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood are constantly verbally sparring, as their mutual attraction grows. This affectionate, yet adversarial relationship was echoed later in many of the best Bond films. The most memorable Bond girls are the ones who can match wits with 007 and don’t surrender their affections without giving him a good chase.
This frission is exactly what made Casino Royale such a welcome return to form. Daniel Craig and Eva Green are like a modern-day Bogie and Bacall. Both Craig and Bogart have faces that are chiseled from granite, and eyes that communicate a thousand emotions.
Bacall and Green both exude class and confidence. And, they’re both gorgeous enough to convince the viewer our heroes might risk their lives for a taste of their love.
The formula of The Big Sleep — and the best Bond films that followed it — is equal parts sass, seduction and danger. That’s a tantalizing recipe that never goes stale.