The Big Sleep

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep.
(© 1946 Turner Entertainment Co. All rights reserved.)

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   A. R.   F E R G U S O N

The Big Sleep is one of the best detective genre films Hollywood ever produced. Working from source material by Raymond Chandler, screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman stuck closely to the plot of the book. The Big Sleep introduced hard-boiled shamus Philip Marlowe and follows his attempt to solve a seamy case of blackmail and murder. The role perfectly suited Humphrey Bogart's tough guy persona. His costar Lauren Bacall delivers a seductively silky performance. The snappy dialogue throughout the film is unparalleled. However, somewhere in the process, the narrative of the film was lost. With the recent discovery and DVD release of a 1945 prerelease version alongside the familiar 1946 version, the reason for this narrative confusion becomes clearer.

The film came about as a result of the success of To Have and Have Not. That film launched the career of Lauren Bacall and further solidified Bogart's. Warner Bros. was anxious to repeat its box office triumph, so with much of the same creative team in place, they acquired the rights to Raymond Chandler's first novel The Big Sleep.

The film began shooting in October 1944 and was completed early in 1945 but wasn't released until mid-1946. The reason for this delay was two-fold. First, World War II was ending and the studio's main push was to release all of its war-themed films. The other reason concerns Lauren Bacall, her agent Charles K. Feldman, and studio head Jack Warner.

DVD cover artwork for The Big Sleep.
[click photo for larger version]

In the interim between the release of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Bacall had starred in Confidential Agent. Critical reaction to the film was harsh, especially against Bacall and her limitations as an actress. Feldman felt that with the pending release of his client's next film, The Big Sleep, something had to be done to save her faltering career. He wrote to Jack Warner urging him to do retakes. It was his hope that such scenes would be more in keeping with the "insolent and provocative nature" that had made his client such a hit in To Have and Have Not. To Feldman's surprise, Warner wrote back stating he had such changes already in mind. So in January 1946, Hawks, Bogart, Bacall, and a few key actors filmed several retakes.

The Big Sleep follows the investigation of hard-boiled shamus Philip Marlowe (Bogart) into the gambling debts of rich socialite Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) and her eventual blackmailing by small-time crook Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). Carmen's older sister Vivian (Bacall) also likes to gamble and is indebted to vice king Eddie Mars (John Ridgeley). Also vying for a piece of the action are Brody's partners Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty) and Agnes' boyfriend Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.).

There is also a subplot quest for General Sternwood's confidant Sean Regan, the disappearance and discovery of Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen or Patricia Clark, depending on the version), and the fate of chauffeur Owen Taylor. Legend has it that this plot point drove both Hawks and Bogart to ask Chandler how the character had died. Chandler replied that he didn't know either!

The first difference between the two versions occurs in reel 3 about 25 minutes into the film. After Marlowe discovers the body of Giger, the 1945 version contains a longer version of Marlowe searching the house. Once he finds the set of keys and the code book, he bundles Carmen up and drives her home. In the 1945 version, there is a shot of both of Marlowe and Carmen in the car (this scene does not appear in the 1946 version). When he arrives at the Sternwood mansion the first major retake was inserted. In the 1945 version, it rains heavily. Marlowe talks to Norris the Butler while standing outside. In the 1946 version, Marlowe speaks to Norris briefly before Vivian appears and they have a scene together.

stills from
The Big Sleep

[click photos for larger versions]

Reel 7 of the 1945 version of the film contains a scene at the the District Attorney's office that provides a recap of the movie's events. The scene occurs just after Marlowe apprehends Lundgren for the shooting of Brody. Marlowe is taken to the DA's office by his pal Chief Inspector Bernie Ohlhs (Regis Toomey). The key events of the movie are perfectly encapsulated in this scene. Deleting this scene from the 1946 film contributes to the narrative confusion.

What follows is the infamous veil scene. The following day, Marlowe returns to his office and is confronted by Vivian wearing a veil. Their conversation lacks gusto; the chemistry from previous scenes is lost. This was the main scene that prompted Feldman to request the retakes and its deletion doesn't hurt the 1946 version. Both the DA's office and the veil scene were replaced with the famous bar scene between Bogart and Bacall which is one of the highlights of the 1946 version of The Big Sleep.

When Vivian leaves Eddie Mars' gambling house in reel 8, another retake was inserted. The scene where Marlowe rescues Vivian from a robbery exists in both the 1945 and the 1946 versions, but in the 1946 version, both Bogart and Bacall are more relaxed and the scene plays better. Reel 9 of the 1946 version has a scene between Marlowe and Carmen that is priceless; she sucks her thumb and attempts to bite Marlowe. The true manic and childish nature of Carmen is shown.

The final retake happens near the end of the film in reel 11. Marlowe has been captured and tied up by Eddie Mars. He wakes up to find himself in a room with Vivian and Mona Mars (played by Patricia Clark). In the 1945 version, the conversation between Marlowe and Mona is a fairly straightforward reading of lines. Vivian is poorly posed and on her knees beside Marlowe. In the 1946 retake, a different actress plays Mona (Peggy Knudsen) and their dialogue is charged with excitement. Also, Vivian now has better lighting and more close ups as she sits beside Marlowe. This retake is defintiely superior to the 1945 version.

Ultimately the changes made in 1946 did result in a better film. After all of these years, the sizzle between Bogart and Bacall still singes. However the deletion of a plot summarization scene at the District Attorney's office, helped to make the plot of The Big Sleep a convoluted muddle.

The DVD transfer of The Big Sleep is less than perfect. For many scenes the contrast is too dark in the upper left hand corner and too light on the lower right. The actual labeling of the DVD ranks among the worst. The versions are indicated by running times only and there is no way to discern which side should be up. And to make matters worse, the menu selections on each side are identical! The DVD features a documentary by Robert Gitt (Preservation Officer at UCLA Film and Television Archives) who details the differences between the two versions, production notes, scene access, language selection and a theatrical trailer.

The Big Sleep is now available on DVD from Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Home Video. This two-sided disc includes the 1946 theatrical version on Side A and the 1945 pre-release version on Side B. This DVD also features a documentary that compares the two version (featuring Robert Gitt of UCLA), production notes, and a theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $24.99.