I was a wee bit unimpressed with Bogart and Bacall’s earlier To Have and Have Not, but only because the script was a little meh. This noir adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel is much better.
Bogart plays private eye Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s go-to detective for most of his novels. He’s summoned to the home of General Sternwood, a wealthy – but frail and grievously ill – retired general living with his two grown daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Sadly, neither daughter is all that well-behaved, and Carmen has found herself the target of a blackmail attempt the General asks Marlowe to handle.
It all seems pretty straightforward, so Marlowe accepts and is about to head out when the General starts reminiscing about a former employee, Sean Regan, who used to take care of these kinds of things until the day that he mysteriously disappeared. But when Marlowe asks further about Regan, the General waves him off – it’s not important, just stick to the blackmail case, kthxbye. Then as he’s leaving, Vivian stops Marlowe at the door for a word; she also thinks that the General wants Marlowe to look into the vanished Regan, and tells him to leave that case alone. Marlowe agrees – it’s what he was asked to do anyway – but is now even more curious, of course.
So of course the simple blackmail case gets more complicated and does end up involving Regan – as well as Carmen, Vivian, an antiques dealer named Geiger, three of Geiger’s lackeys, a night club owner named Mars, some photos, gambling debts, two of the Sternwood’s chauffeurs and a hapless errand runner named Harry Jones who’s just trying to help a girlfriend. I’ve been annoyed in the past with noir detective plots that pile on more and more byzantine threads until the whole thing collapses; this, however, keeps everything impressively under control, and kept me guessing along with the film as it unfolded (if I talk back to the screen during a film at all, it’s a good sign).
And you also have another chance to see Bogart and Bacall onscreen. Their chemistry was the best bit of To Have and Have Not, and here they get a much better showcase for it, especially during an innuendo-laden scene where they’re at a night club and are discussing a mutual interest in horse racing:
Vivian: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.
Bogart and Bacall had recently married at the time they were filming, and I have a hunch that their evening after they’d shot this scene was very pleasant indeed.
Their chemistry actually lead to a headache for the directors – but not in the way you think. The Big Sleep was originally completed in 1945, but then the studio sat on it so they could get through a whole backlog of war films; the studio’s fear was that audiences would soon lose interest after the end of the Second World War, and were rushing to get everything out. One such film was an espionage drama that paired Bacall with another actor; that film, Confidential Agent, was a total flop. The studio heads quietly panicked and took a second look at The Big Sleep to see if their faith in Bacall had been misplaced. It wasn’t, of course, but the studio quickly spotted that there weren’t anywhere near enough scenes with Marlowe and Vivian flirting. They decided to stack the deck in their favor by bringing the cast back in for some reshoots, unfortunately downplaying Martha Vickers’ part some in the process. (Her character still inspires one of the film’s best quips, however; a moment after the perpetually-randy Carmen literally throws herself at Marlowe, he remarks to someone that “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up!”)
The film has had some critics complain that the plot was too convoluted; again, I had no problems keeping up. There is one twist, however, that has had everyone stumped over the years. At one point, one of the Sternwood’s cars is pulled out of the ocean off the end of a pier, with one of their chauffeurs, Owen Taylor, dead inside. The fence around the pier shows that the car drove through it as well, and the police discover that the body has a nasty lump on his head – although it’s not clear if the accident caused it, especially since Taylor has already been caught up in the unfolding blackmail plot. But Marlowe leaves the police to investigate things with Taylor and continues to pursue the plot against the Sternwoods.
At some point, during filming, Bogart idly asked director Howard Hawks – just out of curiosity, what was the deal with Owen Taylor? Was his death an accident, or suicide? Or murder? Hawks thought, and had to admit he wasn’t sure. He asked the screenwriters – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman – and they realized they didn’t know. The question ended up driving everyone nuts, and finally someone sent a telegram with the question to Raymond Chandler himself. But – as Chandler later remarked to a friend – “Dammit, I didn’t know either!”