Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich family. Before the complex case is over, he's seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love.
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No actor has embodied the spirit of the hardboiled private detective like Humphrey Bogart. It started in The Maltese Falcon (1941) under the tutelage of John Huston and was cemented with his performance as Phillip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep (1946). Unlike The Maltese Falcon, which has not been remade since 1941, The Big Sleep and the other books Marlowe appeared in have been produced since Bogart appeared in the original. The performances of some talented leads as Phillip Marlowe are just sad compared to what Bogie delivers in the original. Bogie could be mean, tough and a drunkard, but he could also be sentimental and romantic when the time was right. These are qualities that Phillip Marlowe has in the novels written by Raymond Chandler. They are the qualities that separate Bogie from the other actors like Robert Mitchum and Robert Montgomery who have also played Marlowe.
There are two versions of the movie. The first one is a director’s cut that was rediscovered in the 1990s and was restored. It now appears with the original theatrical release on Warner Brothers latest DV of the movie. The movie that was originally released to the public features Lauren Bacall’s character more. Bacall was a star at the time and it would not be right for the studio that was promoting Bogart and Bacall as a dynamic duo to have a movie in which Martha Vickers gives a better performance. So thus the re-cut.
One of the biggest complaints about The Big Sleep is that it is hard to follow. There is the famous story about the actors being on the set trying to figure out how one of the characters was killed. Howard Hawks decided it was best if Raymond Chandler was called and asked how the man who is pulled out of the Pacific Ocean died. Chandler replied that he had no idea. You see none of that stuff really matters. What matters is the ride that we as an audience are taken on by Bogie and Bacall.
The basic story involves Bogie as Phillip Marlowe, hired by the wealthy General Sternwood to check out a blackmail ploy against one of his two daughters. Sternwood seems like a nice man, but he is old and crippled. His two daughters, Vivian, played by Bacall, and Carmen, played by Vickers, are too wild. Carmen just happens to lack the sense that her older sister does and ends up in some bad situations, like owing money for “gambling” debts. Marlowe accepts the case to see why a Mr. A.G. Geiger is blackmailing the family through the smokescreen of gambling debts.
After some investigation Marlowe finds out Geiger, who owns a bookstore, is actually running a pornography business. Of course this being Production Code age Hollywood only allusions to this business could be made, which adds to the fogginess of the movie’s storyline. The novel is much better when it comes to a coherent storyline.
Anyway, Geiger gets bumped off by someone named Joe Brody. Brody gets bumped off by a young man who seems to come out of nowhere. In the novel, this man happens to be Geiger’s boy lover, which of course couldn’t be hinted at here in the movie. All through this Marlowe pursues a romance with Vivian.
Anyway, Vivian is fairly close to a man who runs a local gambling joint named Eddie Mars. Mars had a wife and Vivian had a husband. Mars’ wife ran off and Vivian’s husband did as well. It is believed that the two are somewhere together. Vivian’s husband was also a good friend of the General’s. Everyone believes that Marlowe should find Vivian’s husband instead of worrying about the Geiger business. So he finally does. He ends up finding Mars’ wife, along with Vivian, at a garage owned by Mars. Marlowe has been beaten up by Eddie’s thugs, but Vivian is able to set him free. Marlowe gets free, meets Eddie and ends up being told by Vivian that she killed her husband. Marlowe doesn’t believe this and when Eddie is killed by bullets fired from the guns of his own thugs Marlowe says Eddie killed Vivian’s wife. With that we fade out.
Now the novel is much better at the end. Instead of it being Vivian who killed her husband, it was actually Carmen, who got mad at him when he wouldn’t sleep with her. Marlowe finds this out because Carmen almost shoots him when he does not want to sleep with her. In the end of both the movie and the novel, the truth is kept from the dying General Sternwood because the pain is deemed too great by Vivian.
If the above synopsis of the movie doesn’t make sense, that’s alright, read the book. Or if you don’t care about plot lines and want to be taken for a nice ride with one of Hollywood’s greatest couples, watch the movie and enjoy.