Criterion Prediction #114: The Big Sleep, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Big Sleep
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, John Ridgely
Synopsis: Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is enlisted by General Sternwood to resolve a matter regarding some gambling debts. However, Marlowe’s pulled deeper into a plot of murder and blackmail as the mystery unfurls.
Critique: I have all the love in the world for classic film noir—The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity—but I always find myself leaning more toward the scrappy, B-noir films like The Hitchhiker, Detour, and The Big Combo. Sure, The Big Sleep is among the many great titles that define the genre but it stands apart from the herd because it feels like the hyperactive expletive of its counterparts.
The Big Sleep is timeless in a broad, classic movie kind of way but it’s infinitely rewatchable because it’s impossible to remember every player and each beat and how it all adds up.
The Big Sleep is the best example of what you get when a movie goes for broke and moves with such vigorous momentum, disregarding trajectory or force. Hawks flatters the crime genre by playing it fast and loose, and the idea that any of these plot points or character are merely spinning plates that could fall over and shatter ramp up the spontaneity of this colorful underworld he’s exploring.
Hawks is a singular type of director because his work has an unguarded, natural feeling; he knows when to tighten his grip, as well as when he should let it go. Wherever this creative intuition comes from is anyone’s guess, chalk that up to the enigmatic element of the artistic endeavor – it’s this instinct that makes his movies so damn enjoyable.
At this point, it’s well known that no one, not even Raymond Chandler, knows who killed Sternwood’s chauffeur and this bit of trivia is a fitting testament to the snappy architecture that seems to have been a playful contagion through the cast and crew. We see Humphrey Bogart’s performance range from hang-dog loner when he’s prodding people for information to impish prankster as he apes his way through a bookstore playing a nerd. It’s the epitome of that classic Bogie charm, and he’s oozing with it throughout.
The Big Sleep is synonymous with the legendary romance between Bogie and Bacall; the film was commissioned by the studio after they struck gold with To Have and Have Not. Warner knew they had something special and lightning struck twice with The Big Sleep. Not only did it surpass its predecessor, it became a staple in film history.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: As of now, Criterion has some of the best from maverick director Howard Hawks; the zaniness with His Girl Friday, the high flying adventure with Only Angels Have Wings and the quintessential western with Red River. The addition of his film noir classic (that’s also a classic of film noir) would perfectly round out the director’s varied oeuvre, and let’s face it; we’re talking about The Big Sleep, need we say more?
On a serious note, the growing number of classic noir featured in The Criterion Collection is impossible to ignore. In the past couple years we’ve been treated to The Breaking Point, They Live by Night, Mildred Pierce, and The Asphalt Jungle. It feels like we’re being spoiled.
And lately it feels like there’s an open door relationship with Warner Bros. so the reality of a movie like The Big Sleep getting the Criterion treatment is a prospect worth anticipating.