The Big Sleep (1946 Film)

Director's Influence on The Big Sleep (1946 Film)

In an article about the film in The New Yorker, Richard Brody makes the case that the film noir genre, of which The Big Sleep is one of the most famous examples, is more about style than anything else. For this reason, Brody says, Howard Hawks was perfectly fit for the task of filming the famous Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. Brody writes, "It [film noir] is, above all, a style, and Hollywood’s greatest stylist, Howard Hawks, made one of the greatest films in the genre, The Big Sleep." Hawks was known for his expert film directing and had a reputation as an actor's director. In fact, he often limited the number of shots in a scene specifically to maintain the continuity of the scene between his actors. Hawks was also known for his versatility; in his long career, he expertly directed crime movies, Westerns, screwball comedies, and romances. In fact, it is his ability to blend elements of many different genres that makes The Big Sleep so appealing.

The demands of the studio, as well as Hawks's desire to play up the chemistry between his two leads (the real-life couple Bogie and Bacall) made the production schedule for The Big Sleep somewhat complicated. In fact, the film was released twice, first in 1945, then again in 1946, to account for these changes. Hawks reshot and added to the original cut of the film to more explicitly illuminate Lauren Bacall's star power and to emphasize her scintillating on-screen chemistry with Humphrey Bogart. These re-cuts came at the expense of some of the film's clarity (which was a big cost, given how convoluted Raymond Candler's story already was), but the re-tooling was a hit with audiences. Brody writes of the re-cut: "Filming mainly in sequence, Hawks lends the tale of looming menace and impenetrable mystery a loose, jazzy tone—one that emerges all the more sharply in the revised version. There, Hawks replaces some earnest police business with several new scenes of erotic banter between Bogart and Bacall." While audiences might scratch their heads about how certain plot threads resolve, they are hardly starved for romantic intrigue. Howard Hawks was unsentimental about his work, willingly sacrificing plot for on-screen magic. Indeed, Hawks was a stylist as much as a storyteller, and the film is all the more iconic for the added scene, in which the two well-matched leading actors engage in a baldly suggestive discussion of horse racing.

What resulted was a film that critic Tim Robey of The Telegraph called "...the best scripted, best directed, best acted, and least comprehensible film noir ever made." Hawks was a master director, a student of old Hollywood from silent films up through talkies, and he knew that the best stories were not always the most logically told. Robey characterizes Hawks' liberties: "further damage was done to the plot by Hawks, who recut it and replaced explanatory scenes with 'fun' ones after a frosty audience reaction. In the version we've got now, the two endings are one and the same; light and dark coexist, gorgeously, in every frame." Indeed, the end result is "gorgeous," a filmic marvel that elucidates the tropes of noir and redefined on-screen romance indelibly.