#187. The Big Sleep (1946)

This post is being written the day it goes up, replacing a draft I wrote several months ago. In that earlier essay I was trying real hard to discuss The Big Sleep in such a way as to suggest I’d understood a single fucking thing about the plot. But that was dishonest. Because I do not.

The movie’s very pretty and atmospheric and it’s fun to see that Bogart, playing a different one of Raymond Chandler’s signature detectives than he played in Maltese Falcon, gets to have some laughs here. He shares some better quips with Lauren Bacall and gets to impersonate a flamboyant book collector, which is funny. Some people get shot, and that’s exciting.

But I really don’t know what to say about the story, just off the toppa my head, except for the fact that I was confused by it — like, really confused. Abject confusion. It was like watching mimes do foreplay. Couldn’t tell if something was actually happening, or if we were leading up to something…

the big sleepAhdunno, man. It touches back to something I was talking about just yesterday, with It’s a Wonderful Life: I couldn’t understand the details of the quarrel Jimmy Stewart is having with the big villainous mogul guy, but I understood, through visual cues, that this was the good guy and that was the bad guy. In The Big Sleep I just kinda coasted from scene to scene and, noticing that the characters seemed more and more strained, duplicitous, worried, I got a sense that a story was unfolding. I started to realize who was a hero and who was an antagonist. It was almost like a pantomime. Like I’m not sure I’d understand the movie much less if I played it on mute.

But this is a question that’s come up a few times now: a work of art can be expressive or communicative or it can be both. This movie just feels expressive, like a portrait of a mood (dour, but wry; kinda cheeky) — a mood that does have a distinctly post-war vibe. This crazy nexus of violence and doublecrosses and secret agendas, salacious photos, fraud — you can’t keep track of it in the end; and the impression I get from the more assiduous history buffs I know is that WWII — even though an accessible and honest narrative can be made of it — is also laden with so many micro-narratives of struggles and under-the-table dealings, a thousand different characters of note in a hundred different theaters with even more entangled backstories, that untangling the whole mess of it is kind of impossible. You read about WWII so’s to just appreciate the scope of the thing. The story is too large for anybody to ever totally wrap their head around it.

Ebert says in his essay on the movie that the convoluted plot isn’t such a problem on account of the movie is more about the process of the investigation than it is about results. And I guess that’s fine too. He also goes into some detail about how the first cut apparently didn’t play so well in Bacall’s favor, so the studio demanded re-shoots that gave her character the “insolence” she’d had in To Have and Have Not (one of my favorites from the List so far).

big sleep 2
Here’s a still from some of those Bacall-centric re-shoots. It’s a great scene and, as Ebert points out, one of the few instances of studio interference generating a good result.

I saw this once before, in college, when my girlfriend at the time was in a film class and would come over with an armload of DVDs she’d put off til the last minute. I was nineteen at the time and, thinking that anything in black and white was more worldly and cerebral than I could comprehend, I didn’t pay much mind to the fact that I didn’t understand anything. I just kinda discerned the good guys from the villains and waited for goodness to triumph.

Seeing, now, that I still don’t understand it, that I’m still navigating the story on the basis of visual clues, is making me think about cinema overall in a different way. We talk a lot about the information that an image can communicate but…ahdunno how to articulate it just yet. I guess what I’m hooked on — which, again, is something I discussed in It’s a Wonderful Life — is the ballet of exposition and image, how they hand off responsibilities to one another, in order to give the viewer a rounded picture.


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