The Big Sleep may well be the classiest and wittiest detective thriller ever to come out of Hollywood. Under the sure hand of Howard Hawks, who provides the requisite star gloss of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the film is full of witty and smart dialogue, concocted with the aid of such stellar writers as William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and the uncredited Philip Epstein.
In The Big Sleep, the plot is virtually irrelevant. The main kick is to see Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe investigating an assortment of shady characters in full film noir mode. But what is now considered one of the film noir gold standards and one of both Bogart’s and Hawks’s finest hours at one point had the chance of never seeing the light of day.
If it weren’t for the combination of the end of World War II and bad reviews for Bacall, The Big Sleep might just as well have been a lost film. Hawks completed the film in early 1945, but the film sat in the vaults at Warner Brothers for over a year as the studio rushed to release all of their World War II-themed films before the war ended. Meanwhile Bacall, after her spectacular debut in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, went on to star in Confidential Agent, an unmitigated critical and commercial disaster. At Charles K. Feldman’s (Bacall’s agent) insistence, Jack Warner prevailed upon Howard Hawks to reshoot The Big Sleep and add new scenes with Bogart and Bacall. Feldman wanted Bacall’s character to be as insolent toward Bogart as she was in To Have and Have Not. So, to make room for the new scenes, Hawks cut several exposition scenes that, as Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television archives has explained, ‘helps make the plot a bit less incomprehensible.’ Another change was replacing actress Pat Church (she plays the wife of reprobate gangster Eddie Mars in the film) with Peggy Knudsen, who read her lines with more sarcasm and contempt.
The result was all for the best. Several scenes in the 1945 version are terrible — particularly a scene featuring Bacall in a veil that makes her look like she has a bad case of the hives. In many exchanges in the earlier version, Bacall and Bogart sound tentative; in the 1946 re-shoot, they have much more fire and zip (the 1946 filmed discussion of horse racing between Bacall and Bogart has gone down in film history as a classic scene of high-level wit and innuendo). It is this love of character interaction at the expense of plot development that marks The Big Sleep as Hawks’s first attempt to devalue the importance of narrative.
It ended up working out so well for Hawks that this new 1946 version of the film gave him his seventh straight commercial success. Yes, questions about narrative inconsistencies and unanswered questions linger. For instance, there is the old Hollywood legend concerning who killed a never-seen chauffeur. As the story goes, neither Hawks nor any of his writers had a clue. When they contacted Raymond Chandler for an answer, Chandler couldn’t enlighten them either.
After The Big Sleep, Hawks consistently began to explore a present-tense world of characters sitting around talking — a style that reached its pinnacle in such films as Rio Bravo, Hatari! and at its most extreme, the western El Dorado. The beginning of Hawks’s creative shift can be charted in The Big Sleep, a major turning point in a long and fascinating directorial career.