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"You Ought To Wean Her": The Big Sleep (1946)

Review Copyright Roger Zotti, 2000


After the success of To Have and Have Not (1944), Howard Hawks again teamed Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This time the film was The Big Sleep. Bogart was cast as private detective Philip Marlowe and Bacall as wealthy Vivian Sternwood.

Hawks hired three screenwriters--Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, and William Faulkner--to do the screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel.

Marlowe is hired by wealthy, ailing General Sternwood to investigate Carmen, the General's wild daughter, and her involvement with a blackmailing pornographer named Arthur Gwynne Geiger.

It doesn't take Marlowe long before he discovers Carmen is involved in numerous other sordid indiscretions.

We're first introduced to Carmen in the opening sequence, and she makes a lasting impression on both Marlowe and the viewer. At the lavish Sternwood residence Norris the butler greets Marlowe. After Norris departs to tell the general of the detective's arrival, a young woman makes her appearance.

Flirtatious banter ensues. Then she sucks her thumb and brazenly falls into a surprised Marlowe's arms.

Norris returns and Marlowe learns the young woman is Carmen Sternwood.

In the way only Bogart can deliver a smart-alecky line, he tells Norris on the way to see the General that "You ought to wean her. She looks old enough."

Carmen, played by Martha Vickers, is just one of several appealing female characters who make a pass at Marlowe. (Twenty- year-old Dorothy Malone, the Acme bookstore proprietress, plays one of his admirers.)

But of all Marlowe's wooers, Vickers' performance is the most mesmerizing, earning the comment from Chandler that she completely outplayed Bacall. In Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy agreed. Vickers played Carmen, he wrote, "like a lewd, lascivious child ever on the lookout for mischief to stir up..."

Sadly, Warner Bros. didn't realize Vickers' potential and her career never went anywhere. She died in 197l, at age 46.

For Bogie fans, The Big Sleepis a delight.

As Chandler said, Bogart's tough guy gestures, like tugging at his earlobe, hooking his thumbs over his belt, rolling his fist into his palm, and of course his cheeky dialogue, prove he didn't need a gun to be tough.

Remember, too, the film was released in 1946, and one wonders how the dialogue between Bogie and Bacall, the scene with Vickers, the film's subject matter itself, and the bookshop scene with Miss Malone got by the censors.

However he pulled it off, director Hawks deserves high praise.

Though The Big Sleep is a classic film noir, it's also a romance. There's the growing attraction between Marlowe and Vivian, while at the same time, taking place off-camera and giving the film added texture and nuance, is the romance between Bogie and Bacall.

Can't get enough of those golden oldies? Open the "Video Vault" for more flicks from yesteryear!

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