“The Big Sleep” - Howard Hawks (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946) is a famous film noir directed by Howard Hawks – in fact some people think it is the greatest of all films noir [1,2,3,4,5,6].  It is based on famous detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), which featured Chandler’s favorite fictional protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe.  In Hawks’s film version here, Marlowe is played by Humphrey Bogart, and this was one of the factors that made this film noir so popular – it turned out to be one of Bogart’s more famous roles.  Another factor in the film’s popularity was the romantic pairing of Bogart (aged 44) with Lauren Bacall (aged 20), a combo that had already achieved significant traction with the public from Hawks’s earlier To Have and Have Not (1944).  “Bogie and Bacall” were coupled offscreen, too, and they got married during this period.

Despite the fame of this film, though, there are aspects of it that make the work problematical.  For one thing, the plot of The Big Sleep (both that of the film and the novel) is so convoluted that most viewers can’t keep track of it.  This is partly a consequence of Chandler’s practice of basing each of his novels on several of his earlier-published short stories, each of which had its own plot.  And anyway, plot was less important for Chandler than atmosphere and characterization.  It seems that he wanted more to create a sense of tension rather than to tell a story.  So the task was considerable for the esteemed screenwriters who worked on the film:
  • William Faulkner, a novelist and short story writer who won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature,
  • Leigh Brackett, who later scripted another famous film noir based on a Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), and
  • Jules Furthman, a prolific screenwriter whose vast repertoire includes the  scripting of seven of Josef von Sternberg’s films.
Not only did Faulkner, Brackett, and Furthman need to tone down the explicit sexuality (including homosexuality) in Chandler’s original account, they also had to understand and try to make some sense of Chandler’s tangled plot in the novel.  One notable example of this difficulty occurred during the shooting of the film when Bogart and Hawks wanted to know who committed one of the seven key murders in the film [5].  That is, was Sternwood’s chauffeur murdered or was it a suicide?  It bothered  Bogart and Hawks so much that Hawks sent a telegram to Chandler to find out.  But it turned out that Chandler didn’t know, either!  As I said, Chandler was mainly concerned with atmosphere, not facts about who did what.

The story, such as it is, of The Big Sleep begins with Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) being summoned to the mansion of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a wealthy invalid with two wanton young daughters – the lewd and self-indulgent  Carmen (Martha Vickers) and the divorced Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall).. Sternwood is concerned that Carmen is being threatened for the nonpayment of her gambling debts. Marlowe agrees to look into the matter.  

But things turn out to be not so simple as that.  Marlowe soon learns that Carmen was being blackmailed by her phony creditor, whom Marlowe soon finds murdered.  And Marlowe learns from Vivian that her younger sister Carmen has been blackmailed before by other mysterious gangsters and miscreants, who may or may not be involved in this current murder.  Throughout all the various violent events that come along and the corpses that pile up, Marlowe tries to figure out what is going on.  But he is always one step behind.  However, along the way, Marlowe and Vivian (who also turns out to be a victim of blackmailing) gradually develop an attachment for each other.

I won’t go over the plot details here, but I can say that in the end, things get somewhat resolved, although we do learn that Marlowe, Vivian, and Carmen each killed someone who was threatening them individually [2].  

So what is it that accounts for The Big Sleep’s popularity?  I don’t think it is the intricate plot, because the plot is too random and loose-ended.  Moreover, we don’t get much of a feeling for what motivates most of the events that transpire.  And I don’t think it is the “Bogie and Bacall” Mystique, either.  That relationship is very much in the background and never really occupies center stage.  

No, I think what accounts for The Big Sleep’s popularity is that the film is so heavily loaded with all the accoutrements of film noir stylistics.  There is a nonstop barrage of all the incidental elements that the aficionados of film noir look for and recognize when they encounter an instance of the genre – 
  • a dark, cynical, and obscure protagonist
  • attractive women with unclear pasts and ambiguous intentions
  • unexpected encounters with shady characters
  • unanticipated violence
  • cynical and innuendo-loaded wisecracks and dialogue
Thus film critic Roger Ebert loved the film precisely for these elements, as he remarked
Working from Chandler's original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: It's unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it's so wickedly clever. (Marlowe on the "nymphy" kid sister: "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.") Unlike modern crime movies which are loaded with action, "The Big Sleep" is heavy with dialogue--the characters talk and talk, just like in the Chandler novels; it's as if there's a competition to see who has the most verbal style.
But I don’t see things that way.  An outstanding film cannot be just all clever talk; it has to have a compelling narrative, and The Big Sleep doesn’t have that.  The story of this film is too loose-ended and contorted.  So although the film has some entertaining moments (I did like the brief, separate interactions Marlowe had with Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.)), this is certainly not a great film noir.
  1. Leonard Maltin (ed.), “The Big Sleep (1946)”, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, Plume, (2005), p. 47.  
  2. Tim Dirth. “The Big Sleep (1946)”, “Filmsite”, (n.d.).   
  3. Andrew Sarris, “Living the private-eye genre”, films in focus, The Village Voice” (8 November 1973).   
  4. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “I'd Like More”, The Big Sleep (1946), Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  5. Roger Ebert, “The Big Sleep”, Great Movies, RogerEbert.com, (22 June 1997).   
  6. Brian Cady, Margarita Landazuri, and Frank Miller, “The Big Sleep”, Turner Classic Movies, (17 February 2005).     

“1917” - Sam Mendes (2019)

1917 (2019) is a British war drama set in the brutal trenches during the First World War.  Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, the film has achieved wide popularity and was nominated for 10 Oscars (U.S. Academy Awards), winning three of them, including the one for Best Cinematography.  Indeed the cinematography is the most striking thing about this work, because the entire film has the appearance of consisting of just two camera shots.  It’s my understanding that films comprising only a single take have been made before, but 1917 must surely be the most successful execution of that concept/scheme.  

The story of 1917 concerns two British lance corporals, Will Schofield (played by George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are charged with a critical and dangerous overnight mission.  With communication lines down, the task for them is to cross over “no man’s land” in front of their trenches in order to deliver a crucial message to another British battalion that would enable the recipient of that message to avert a German slaughter of British troops and save 1,600 lives.  The message, from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), is specifically directed to an officer of the other British battalion, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), to call off an intended attack, because aerial reconnaissance has discovered that the German army has setup a trap and will annihilate the attacking forces.  

Blake is eager to carry out the dangerous assignment, because he wants to be a hero and because his brother is a member of the endangered battalion.  Schofield, however, is not enthusiastic at all.  He is a survivor of the devastating Battle of the Somme (300,000 deaths and over one million casualties) the year before, and he is familiar with the futility of war, but he agrees to go with Blake out of loyalty to his friend.  

The film begins on the evening of April 6th, 1917, and the film’s first shot, which lasts about an hour, starts by showing the lance corporals Blake and Schofield tranquilly snoozing under a tree in what appears to be a peaceful, pastoral setting.  We are soon to see that their environment is anything but peaceful.  They are awakened and informed about their dangerous assignment, and as the camera continues to track them, they are shown walking overt to and in the front-line war trenches looking for the place to cross over into no man’s land, which due, to a recent German retreat, is believed to be temporarily safe to move through.  

As the shot progresses, one becomes increasingly aware that this is one continuous take, but the camera movement is so carefully orchestrated and psychologically motivated that the continuity of the shot does not intrude on the viewer’s involvement in what happens (at least not for me).  (Actually, there are moments in the film where near-invisible camera cuts have likely been made, but the first hour of the film certainly looks like a single take.)  Some reviewers have found this single-take cinematography (by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins) to be gimmicky and artificial, and they have therefore panned the film (e.g. [1,2]).  But I, along with most reviewers (e.g.. [3,4]), found the visual flow of the film to be natural and compelling.  The camera moves, because it takes the watcher to a view that he or she is motivated to see.   
But this cinematography is more than just “natural”.  It establishes and maintains a moving aura of labyrinthine entanglement that visually evokes a dominating mood for the film.  The camera work makes one viscerally feel that Blake and Schofield find themselves in a relentless and continually evolving hell, which keeps presenting them with threatening surprises from which they must escape in order to carry out their crucial life-preserving mission.  So I would say this adroit cinematography constitutes the very soul of the film.

Further into this “first” shot we see Blake and Schofield in various bizarre and life-threatening situations out in no man’s land.  While the two of them are temporarily taking shelter in an abandoned farmhouse, they watch an aerial dogfight between a German plane and some Allied aircraft.  The German plane is shot down, and in flames it crashes into the farmhouse.  Blake and Schofield just barely get out of the way of the plane crash, and then they quickly manage to rescue the burned German pilot from his crashed plane.  But while Schofield is not looking, the pilot fatally stabs Blake.  Although Schofield shoots and kills the pilot, he is unable to save the life of his best friend, Blake.  This is a shock to the viewer, because less than half-way through the film, one of the two protagonists is now gone.  So Schofield now has to carry on alone.

After Schofield has more tense encounters, the film’s first shot finally comes to an end when he engages a German sniper in a gunfight that results in the death of the sniper and causes Schofield to lose consciousness.  
The “second” shot of the film begins later in the night, near dawn, when Schofield regains consciousness, and it continues with the same action-packed tenor as the first shot.  Schofield continues to have deadly encounters with the German combatants that he encounters.  At one point while fleeing his  pursuers, he jumps into a river and winds up getting swept over a high waterfall.  Eventually he manages to find and make his way to the British battalion under the command of Colonel Mackenzie that he has been seeking.  But precious time is running out, and Schofield still has to find Colonel Mackenzie’s trench and get him to call of his imminent attack.

Throughout this sinuous tale of Schofield’s struggles, we get a real, on-the-ground, feeling for what WWI trench warfare must have been like.  Although the story of 1917 is classed as fiction, it is based on tales that Sam Mendes heard when he was young from his grandfather about the latter’s experiences in WWI.  So Mendes apparently based this work on testimony that was as psychologically personal and authentic as he could find.  And the key feeling that prevails the work is one of entrapment.  It is  like an ongoing nightmare from which there seems to be no escape.  

There have been various esteemed cinematic efforts over the years, such as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), that seek to convey a basic truth about war – namely that “war is hell”.  And these anti-war films almost invariably evoke a sense of alienation, usually by directly showing characters who are alienated.  We see clearly direct evidence that those characters are alienated.  But 1917, thanks to  its brilliant camera work, goes further and provides an even greater sense of immediacy.  We, the viewers, have the same visual experiences that the portrayed characters have and feel our own personal sense of alienation.  We never really know much about Schofield as a person in this tale.  He is just an everyman who serves as a screen surrogate for the viewer so that he or she can have his or her own horrific experiences of life and combat in the trenches.

For these reasons I recommend that you see 1917 so that you can, like Schofield, also experience the existentially challenging feelings conjured up by its amazing camera work.

  1. Peter Sobczynski, “1917", RogerEbert.com, (25 December 2019).   
  2. Manohla Dargis,“‘1917’ Review: Paths of Technical Glory”, The New York Times, (24 December 2019).   
  3. Philip Concannon, “1917 orchestrates World War I as a one-shot action ride”, Sight and Sound, (13 January 2021).   
  4. Richard Whittaker, “1917", The Austin Chronicle, (10 January 2020).    

Sam Mendes

Films of Sam Mendes:
  • 1917 -  Sam Mendes (2019)