The Big Sleep (1946 Film)

The Big Sleep (1946 Film) Study Guide

The Big Sleep is a 1946 film noir directed by Howard Hawks, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's iconic hero-detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge. The Big Sleep is notable for its complicated plot, its use of many film noir conventions, and the undeniably star-making chemistry between "Bogie and Bacall," a couple whose romance extended into real life as well.

The film's plot is extremely complex. During filming, neither the screenwriters nor director Howard Hawks knew whether chauffeur Owen Taylor had died by his own hand or been murdered, so they sent a cable to Raymond Chandler to ask. Chandler later told a friend that he didn't know the answer either. The plot twists and turns in unexpected ways, and new characters are introduced consistently, thickening the plot to extreme degrees. By the time Philip Marlowe comes to learn the truth, we aren't completely sure what it is that he has figured out.

After the film was completed, it was not released until a backlog of war-related movies had come out; the studio feared the public might lose interest in war films as World War II came to a close, and The Big Sleep did not contain similarly "time sensitive" material. Even though it is not explicitly war-related, however, The Big Sleep contains many references to the war, as when dead bodies are called "red points," a reference to wartime rationing, and Marlowe's car bears a "B" gasoline rationing sticker in the passenger window which indicates that he was essential to the war effort and therefore allowed eight gallons of gasoline per week.

The film is also notable for having been greatly affected by the censorship stipulations of the Hays Code, which heavily restricted sexual themes. In the novel, Geiger sells pornography (which was then illegal) and is in a homosexual relationship with Carol Lundgren. References to homosexuality were prohibited by the Hays Code, so their relationship is simply a business relationship in the film. Additionally, Carmen's oversexed proclivities are simply hinted at in the film, never named explicitly.

The critical response to the film in 1946 was lackluster. Bosley Crowther, the primary film critic for The New York Times, wrote that it left the audience dissatisfied and confused. Other critics remarked that the story was just too baffling to make it a hit. However, modern critics have been kinder, and in 1997 the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and added it to the National Film Registry. A remake of the film was released in 1978 with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.