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.