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.

-PD

Across the Pacific [1942)

Spies, spies; every where, Nor any secret to glean.  Je t’aime… moi non plus

“Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither.”  Ah, Dalí.  Only a man who enjoyed roasted grapefruits as an appetizer would have the twisted wit to turn Western logic upon its head.

Coleridge.  Gainsbourg.  Bogart.  Indeed, the albatross was heavy round the necks of all at this time…not least for John Huston.  We begin with détournement and continue with dérive.

Dear Mr. Huston didn’t even get the chance to complete this film before having his work taken over by Vincent Sherman.  This was truly an age of war.  Hot war.

The original film premise was to depict a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor…until the Japanese actually did just that.  Oops!  And so it was rewritten to focus on the Panama Canal Zone.  A sabotage incident (which would have likewise sparked off American mass involvement) is the linchpin of our drama.

Sydney Greenstreet once again plays a slippery character (and what is more, referred to again as “the fat man”).  It wouldn’t be too long before Greenstreet’s soubriquet was transposed onto the plutonium bomb which destroyed Nagasaki.  This was no coincidence.

After arriving in Panama Bogart continues his work for Army intelligence by meeting with A.V. Smith (Charles Halton).  On Smith’s desk, conspicuously in plain view, is a calendar and the date:  Dec. 6, 1941.  Time is of the essence.

Bogart’s character is named Rick.  His pal Lee Tung Foo is called Sam.  Sound familiar?

Yes, just two months after Across the Pacific, Casablanca would be released with Bogart as another Rick and Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player.  Greenstreet had been “the Fat Man” the previous year in The Maltese Falcon (also directed by Huston).  That film had likewise starred Mary Astor who appears in Across the Pacific as Alberta Marlow.  Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ masterful version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).  It all gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?  Let’s just call it the fog of noir, shall we?

To keep accounts straight…we should remember that Casablanca was directed not by Huston, but by Michael Curtiz.

Reentering the atmosphere of film criticism proper…this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not the juggernaut that some Bogart outings came to be.  It is perhaps most of interest as the precipice which our star occupied just before Casablanca.  Though it is less known than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (among many other Bogie films), it is well-worth watching.

 

-PD