In September’s Classic Film Club we celebrate the beautiful and unique Lauren Bacall, who died last month and was a feted icon not least because of her wit (“Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”) and her critical sensibility. When her granddaughter dragged Bacall to one of the Twilight movies in recent years, saying that “it was the greatest vampire film ever made”, Bacall said, “After the film was over, I wanted to smack her across the head with my shoe.” … How many of us know that feeling!
Bacall’s death has been widely acknowledged as marking the passing of an era and perhaps, as “the 16 icons name-dropped in Madonna’s “Vogue” are now all dead”, our little Classic Film Club has become that bit more important.
In her third movie, The Big Sleep (1946), Bacall again starred opposite Humphrey Bogart. Public interest in the couple had begun with her first film, To Have and Have Not (1944), which introduced the 19 year old model to the 45 year old star; ‘celeb’ status had grown with their subsequent marriage and was now in full swing. This helped the film not least because it compensated for the fact that The Big Sleep is known for its impenetrably convoluted …
Private eye, Philip Marlowe (Bogart), is hired to resolve gambling debts owed to bookseller Arthur Geiger, by Carmen Sternwood, the younger daughter of General Sternwood, while older daughter, Vivian (Bacall), suspects her father’s true motive is to find his missing friend, Sean Regan.
At Geiger’s house Marlowe finds the bookseller dead, along with a drugged Carmen and a hidden camera. He takes Carmen home and goes back to the house, only to find the body gone, later learning that her driver (Owen Taylor) has been found dead.
Next morning Vivien comes to Marlowe’s office with compromising pictures of sister, Carmen, and a blackmail note. What follows leads on to Joe Brody, a gambler who previously blackmailed General Sternwood, then to small-time gangster and casino owner, Eddie Mars … and eventually to what Bosley Crowther, film critic of the New York Times called “a complex of blackmail and murder [that] soon becomes a web of utter bafflement.”
Nevertheless Time saw it as “wakeful fare for folks who don’t care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder”, insisting that “the plot’s crazily mystifying, nightmare blur is an asset, and only one of many.”
As one story goes, neither director Howard Hawks, nor the screenwriters knew during filming whether chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was supposed to have been murdered or killed himself. They sent a cable to author Raymond Chandler, who later told a friend in a letter: “They sent me a wire … asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.” Nevertheless, according to Time, director Howard Hawks, “even on the chaste screen…manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism and fornication.” So what’s not to like!
In fact challenging the censor became a deliberate ploy in a quick re-edit of the film that capitalized on the Bogart/Bacall screen chemistry: producer Jack Warner agreed to re-shoot some scenes and even create new ones – such as the sexually suggestive racehorse dialogue (scripted by an uncredited Julius Epstein).
Some things had to be played down, however: in the novel, Geiger sells pornography and is also a homosexual; Carmen is naked in Geiger’s house and again later in Marlowe’s bed. But to ensure approval by the Hays Office, the film presents her fully dressed and pornography is only alluded to with cryptic references to photographs of Carmen wearing a “Chinese dress” and sitting in a “Chinese chair”.
Geiger’s sexual orientation, meanwhile, goes unmentioned.
Film critic Roger Ebert later praised the script: “it’s unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it’s so wickedly clever … It is one of the great films noir, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler’s ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.”
THE BACALL FACTOR
Betty Joan Perske was born beautiful but never comfortable with her later stage name (preferring “Betty”, or “Baby” – Bogart’s nickname for her). She didn’t agree with changing her name and certainly didn’t think her face needed changing. Studio make up artists had shaved the hair-lines, plucked the eyebrows and straightened the teeth of so many stars (like Vivien Leigh and Rita Hayworth), but when they tried to do the same with Bacall she flatly refused.
In this she had the support of director Howard Hawks (whose wife discovered her modelling on the cover of Harper’s): “Howard had chosen me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth, and that’s the way they would stay,” she said.
A skilled make-up artist herself, Bacall often did her own screen face and always did her own hair, combing it into a deep side parting and pinning in her signature waves against her right cheek (Bogart once said, “She has a map of eastern Europe slung across her cheekbones”). She confronted middle and old age with a defiant lack of resistance rarely seen in Hollywood, refusing to give up her beloved cigarettes and famously saying: “I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”
The film’s wartime production context can be read in period dialogue, pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a woman taxi driver who says to Bogart: “I’m your girl.”Also wartime rationing influences the film: Marlowe’s car has a “B” gasoline rationing sticker in the lower passenger-side window, indicating he was essential to the war effort and therefore allowed 8 gallons of gasoline per week.
A remake with Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe was released in 1978 – the second movie in three years featuring Mitchum as Marlowe. Many have noted that, while more faithful to the novel due to lack of restrictions on what could be portrayed on screen, it was far less successful than the original 1946 version – surely due to Bogart and Bacall.