The Big Sleep (1944, 1946, and 1978 versions)
 from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

1946 version

Of all the movies considered to be all-time classics, the Bogart version of The Big Sleep is possibly the most downright awful.

Don't get me wrong. I love the film because of its great strengths.

  • Bogart is one of the most, maybe the single most charismatic character actor in the history of films, and detective Philip Marlowe is the role he was born to play. Bogart was Marlowe, albeit in a different profession. Many a Hollywood insider has a story about a party in which an underage ingénue threw herself at Bogie, and left with the screen idol, only to find herself driven to her parent's house. Whenever Bogie saw innocents being exploited or in situations out of their depth, he was there, a white knight with a code of morality from another century, another culture. The stories told about Bogie could just as easily have been told about Phillip Marlowe himself.
  • Bogart and Bacall, married by the time The Big Sleep was filmed, were a dream pairing, and the screenwriters created some daring, quotable dialogue. The two of them had that snappy 40's patter, framed within the "tough wise guy and the sassy dame" act, down to a science, and they knew it.

Bogart (evaluating Bacall as horse-flesh): "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go."
Bacall: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

  • The atmosphere is the essence of noir. There are immoral thugs, tough-talkin' dames, slick mobsters, weaselly informers, big art deco buildings, and gigantic sedans. Nearly every single character in the film, even Bacall, is lying at all times. This film set the standards by which noir would be measured.

All of those things are delightful, and if the film made even the slightest bit of sense, I would agree with the astronomically high rating at IMDb. But it doesn't.  Let's face it. They blew it. It really would be as good as people say, if only the filmmakers had simply pared the story down to some kind of comprehensible mystery. They could have had all of those plusses and a logical plot as well, but no-o-o-o-o.  As it is, I have read Chandler's novel, I have seen the 1944 Bogart version once, the 1946 Bogart version many times, and the 1978 Robert Mitchum version twice, and I still have no fucking idea what is going on in this film. There are so many characters that Tolstoy couldn't keep track of them. Many of them are only discussed, never seen, which makes it even harder to remember their place in the story. You need a flow pad, like a high school debate judge, to keep track of who is who. Frankly, you won't be able to figure it out even with a flow pad. The director, Howard Hawks, was trying to puzzle out the whole thing for himself and even he could not figure out who killed the family chauffeur. He placed a telegram to Raymond Chandler, who wrote the story. Chandler could not immediately answer the question, so he went back and thought about it for a while, consulted his notes, re-read some passages, and finally admitted that he had no idea.

That should give you some idea just how incomprehensible it is. It would be impossible to follow even if the investigation turned up legitimate progress, but the fact that all the other characters (even the Bacall character) lie to Bogart during his investigation makes the plot an impenetrable labyrinth. Ol' William Faulkner was a helluva novelist, but he could be clueless as a screenwriter (as he well knew).

There is an interesting story behind the film. It was actually filmed in 1944, and was ready to go 18 months before it ever hit the theaters (Fall, 1946), but Warner had a big backlog of war-themed dramas in the pipeline, and the studio management could see at the beginning of 1945 that the war was nearly over. They calculated that The Big Sleep, which existed in a timeless world separate from the war, could sit for a while until the other products were finished, released, and marketed.

During this hiatus, there was an unexpected development. Another Lauren Bacall film, Confidential Agent, was released and bombed badly. Bacall's performance was reviewed as "immature" "shrill" "woefully miscast" and "shallow". (In modern terms, it would be similar to Julia Stiles playing the head of the CIA's Paris operation in The Bourne Identity. Bacall was barely out of her teens and was cast as a sophisticate, with laughable results.) Bacall's agent knew that her career was in trouble, and knew that some scenes in the unreleased version of The Big Sleep would heighten her problems, particularly a scene in which she wore a preposterous veil. He suggested to Warner that they refilm some scenes to take advantage of Bacall's emerging confidence, that they make Bacall more prominent in other scenes by using more close-ups of her, and that they replace the veil scene entirely. The studio agreed, and made substantial changes, including calling the actors back to film some completely new scenes a year after the original shooting.

Bacall's agent had been correct. The new scenes were far superior for his client's reputation and for the film in general. The silly veil scene was replaced by the restaurant scene which I quoted above and which is now considered a classic.

The film's strengths became even stronger.

But one of the consequences of the re-cutting was that the plot became even more incomprehensible.  In the 1945 version, there was a scene about halfway through the movie in which Marlowe/Bogart gave a truthful statement to the D.A., thus explaining everything which had happened up until that point. For reasons not completely clear to me, that scene was cut, and two unfortunate actors were cut completely out of one of the most famous films in history! 

And the film's weakness became even weaker.

1978 version

I can't come up with any good reason why they should have re-made the classic Bogart movie, and relocated it in 1970s England. I like Bob Mitchum a lot, but he was 60-something and trying to walk in Bogie's shoes. On the other hand, to be fair, the re-make did improve upon the original in some ways:

  • The character of General Sternwood, Marlowe's client, had been merely a plot device in the original, but screen legend James Stewart brought depth and sympathy to the role by playing Sternwood as a proud, lonely old man pining for the one person he had truly loved - not a woman, nor his daughters, nor someone in his family, but an unassuming guy named Rusty Regan, the down-to-earth bodyguard who had first become the general's best friend, then his son-in-law. The old General was heartbroken that the seemingly incorruptible Rusty seemed to abandon both father and daughter inexplicably.
  • Other minor characters were played by much stronger, more interesting actors in the re-make. Richard Boone and Oliver Reed brought life to characters who seemed to have been made of cardboard in the original.
  • The remake excised the Dorothy Malone character, a bookstore owner who flirted and drank with Marlowe in a completely unnecessary scene while the cynical gumshoe staked out a rival bookstore. Viewed objectively, that was a good decision. Eliminating that scene served both common sense and plot economy. To tell you the truth, though, I missed it. The irrelevant badinage had made for some great dialogue, and the 1978 Marlowe certainly could have used a chance to lighten up a bit.
  • The plot of the remake actually did make sense. It still got confusing here and there, but it was tight enough so that the motivation of the characters was clear, and the main plot points followed from one another.
  • The 1940s version had taken Phillip Marlowe out of character in order to generate the box office allure of a Bogie/Bacall romance. Such a relationship would have gone contrary to the "real" Marlowe's high-minded principles. The 1978 Marlowe, true to the book and to himself, was not compromised by a love affair with the tainted elder Sternwood daughter. That kept the character's integrity intact but, unfortunately, without the sexual tension and ultimate love between these two characters, Charlotte became a minor character with virtually no purpose in the plot.
  • The 1978 film is completely faithful to the book's downbeat, philosophical ending. (I won't spell that out in this section. If you want the details, look below under "spoiler".)

Granted, the 1978 movie is more logical and coherent than the Bogart original, and has more consistent and clearly motivated behavior from the principals, but such consistency is overrated in an entertainment medium. The more recent version may make more sense, and may be truer to the book, but it is simply missing a lot of the style and all of the sass of the 40s rendering. Sure, the Bogart/Bacall flirting had not been true to the original storyline, and failed to maintain the internal integrity of the characters, but let's face it, that's really what made the 1946 version a classic. The remake, lacking anything to drive it to classic status, was simply a workmanlike detective story.


The Chandler story ends with Marlowe lost in thought. The reader had been surprised earlier by Marlowe's blasé attitude toward the fact that Rusty Regan's killer had been running around free, likely to kill again. In the final monologue, the world-weary Marlowe seemed equally unmoved by the fact that Regan's body would lie forever at the bottom of the family's swamp.

The book's interior monologue is repeated verbatim as voice-over narration in the 1978 film:

"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting ...

 ... and in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep."

Nudity Report

1940s version: none

1970s version: Candy Clark provides the full monty.

The Critics Vote


The People Vote ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, the 1978 film is a C. I love Chandler's cynical writing, and Robert Mitchum, and naked women, so I like this, but it is an average movie mostly aimed at detective film fans. Couple that with an uninspired, featureless, full screen DVD, and you have a disappointing offering. It is lacking in the special something that made the 1946 version a classic.

Based on this description, my guess at a proper score for the 1946 film is a reluctant B+. I have to admit that this a classic which I do not appreciate as much as most people do. I like many things about it, and I like those things very much, but it is just a sloppy, confusing plot. I seem to be just about alone with my reservations about the film, however, so I think it would be inappropriate for me to say "a genre-lover's C+" just on the basic of my one opinion. If you like classic films, chances are you'll join the great majority of film buffs (100% at Rotten Tomatoes) in virtually boundless admiration for the film. But me? I like it with reservations.

Return to the Movie House home page