The Big Sleep
Howard Hawk (1946)
After a short string of disappointments, we return to a truly great movie. Wildly entertaining, The Big Sleep is also a smart movie about smart people who interact with each other in a stylized but basically plausible fashion. Beyond this, it doesn't have any particular point or message, but really the promotion of wit and banter as their own rewards is a worthy cause in its own right. Lord knows the kids I encounter on mass transit could use some witty role models in their lives.
The Big Sleep, however, is very much a movie for grownups. Hawk trusts us to catch the subtleties, and to understand that people who use violence or their own sexuality without intelligent restraint are pathetic, even if they are superficially glamourous. The sexuality with intelligent restraint, on the other hand, is, well, dead sexy. Check out the scene in the bookshop, where the woman behind the counter locks up early for the day in order to share a drink with the hero. They aren't going to remove a single garment -- there isn't time, and they are keeping a lookout. Instead, they are simply going to spend an hour in each other's company, each enjoying the conversation and frank admiration of the other. And if you don't think that's damn sexy, you are either a) very young, or b) missing out. That shit is HOT.
Shortly afterwards, the hero tails a bad guy in a taxi driven by a sharp, confident female cabbie. At the end of the ride, he praises her driving; she gives him her card and tells him to call her if he ever needs her again. "Night or day?" he asks. "Night is better," she says. "I work during the day." Yow!
Plot: Incomprehensible. There's a thicket of murders, blackmailing, people with questionable relationships to the wrong people's wives, shady casinos, and so on. Scenes that would have clarified it all were apparently cut from the movie, in favor of concentrating on the relationship between the two leads, played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
It was a good choice. The plot per se is just window dressing; at heart, the Big Sleep is simply a love story punctuated by violence. The real action is in watching the Bogart and Bacall characters recognize that they are kindred spirits, cynical but decent people who sparkle with intelligence and crave the intelligence of each other.
Visuals: Good to great use of black and white. Always something interesting going on the background. There's a short scene where the hero comes to a realization over coffee in a cafe. Just as the idea comes to him, a waitress in the background reaches up and turns on a light that, in the screen image, is right over his head. It is so subtle and natural that you could watch it a dozen times and not catch it. I wonder how many moments like that I missed.
Dialogue: Marvelous. Hardly a dull line in the whole picture.
Prognosis: A blast. Highly recommended for you brainy types who hang out in my comments section. If you watched it a long time ago and don't remember it as all that, I bet it will have grown on you.