The Big Sleep [1946)

If you’ve seen Mulholland Drive, you know the pleasure which being confused can bring.  Where is that confounded plot?  Yes, that is exactly what can happen here if you are not paying strict attention.  This film is notorious for being convoluted.  Perhaps the assertion is unfair.  Unlike Finnegans Wake, there is actually a plot (complete with characters) here, yet you must hold on tight to come out with any specific sense of what has just transpired.

In some ways The Big Sleep is similar to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in that both films seem to be buoyed along primarily by their mood and tone.  Whether it was specifically the doing of Faulkner (one of three screenwriters here) or not, the dialogue is perhaps the best ever written.  Inextricable from the razor-sharp repartee are the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  An underappreciated addition to this grand concoction of Howard Hawks is the contribution of Martha Vickers.  This was perhaps the only significant film role of her acting career (which also included television), but it is one for the ages!

Bogart, for his part, is stellar in his versatility.  His “undercover” stint at Geiger’s book shop is hilarious!  Dorothy Malone has a short-yet-incendiary part as the proprietress of Acme Bookstore.  She would go on to win an Oscar for best supporting actress by way of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956).  Even as late as 1992 she was making an impact on the film world (in Basic Instinct).

But it is Bogart who gives one of his greatest performances as the truth-seeking, street-smart Philip Marlowe.  Passion drives Marlowe to “soldier on” just as much as justice.  Bogart is the supreme example of insubordination gone right.  His fierce independence is infused into the character of Marlowe to stunning effect.  Bogart won’t quit.  Howard Hawks makes the whole thing seem real by having Marlowe shake with fear near the climax.  All we needed was a glimpse of his humanity to truly appreciate the insouciant superman we’ve been following.


To Have and Have Not [1944)

Was you ever stung by a dead bee?  Their sting can’t possibly be as piquant as 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in this classic.  Humphrey Bogart would agree.  It was Bacall’s first film and the beginning of a “beautiful friendship.”  Their on-screen charisma here is both impossibly cute and sweltering (the latter due to Bacall’s sultry acting).

Walter Brennan can’t stop talking about dead bees (or stop talking in general).  His performance is magnificent.  The sub-plot involving Brennan’s character Eddie and Bogart’s Capt. Morgan (rum, anyone?) is truly touching.  Bogart plays the tough-yet-compassionate friend to the old alcoholic Eddie.  It is an underdog story and we are glad to see someone looking after the unfortunate Eddie.  It is significant that the novel upon which this film is loosely based was written by Hemingway, yet Eddie seems to bear a slight resemblance to Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  To round out the American literature lesson, William Faulkner is credited as one of the two screenwriters.

Of additional note (no pun intended) is the acting, singing, and playing of Hoagy Carmichael.  There are such fantastic musical moments herein.  One wonders whether Tom Waits was inspired by the songs from this film (and by Carmichael in general).  We must also remember that Ian Fleming envisioned 007 as looking like Carmichael.  His presence in this film adds immensely to the whole.

The direction of Howard Hawks is stunning, though deftly “invisible.”  We believe the events are actually happening.  Though it is Hollywood through and through, there might be a case made for Hawks’ own neorealism at this time when Rossellini was about to release the seminal  Roma città aperta (the epitome of cinematic veritas). 


Key Largo [1948)

By 1948, John Huston had honed his craft.  This may not be as highly-esteemed a movie as The Maltese Falcon, but it has several dimensions more depth.  The whole thing is a situation (meant in the philosophical sense). It reminds me most of Hitchcock’s minor masterpiece Lifeboat.  There is also a bit of Rope in this film which never leaves the Hotel Largo once all the major players are inside (save for the end which, like Lifeboat, takes us into the wine-dark sea).

There is something of Frank Capra in the touching scene where Bogie relates the death of the hotel patron’s son in the recently-ended war (a bit like Meet John Doe in the whole tone of it).  Perhaps, however, a more accurate comparison is to the heart-wrenching tenor of Anatole Litvak’s Out of the Fog.  It is interesting how Huston sets up Bogart’s character to be a hero, but surprises await.

Edward G. Robinson’s emergence from the bathtub is such an iconic film moment…smoking that cigar, a glass of brandy (perhaps) on the tub’s edge…a man worried about nothing…slipping into his silk bathrobe.  Robinson is fantastic as the cruel Johnny Rocco…most of all because Robinson’s depiction has such depth.  This is, after all, a man who we will shortly see is afraid of storms (to his credit, it is a proper hurricane).

This whole film is (for most of the movie) a very strange role for Bogart.  It is as if he were being thrust back into the days when he had to play second fiddle to actors like Robinson.  The beautiful Lauren Bacall loses faith in Bogart’s character as he not only seems to cower, but also contradicts the idealism of her father-in-law (the father of her dead husband…a genuine war hero).

It is no wonder Claire Trevor won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her work in this film.  When her alcoholic character is baited into singing a song from her long-gone heyday we are again gifted a one-of-a-kind film moment:  a pathetic has-been warbling out of pitch and just wanting a couple fingers of scotch.  It is, strangely enough, this point at which Bogart regains his cajones and pours the drink which Robinson would withhold on account of her shabby performance.  Bacall regains her faith and apologizes to Bogie.

I don’t want to spoil the ending.  [Now ain’t I nice?]  This is a must-see film and it only further adds to the Bogart legend which has been built upon his performances in more well-known films.  Sail on Bogie!