The Big Sleep ★★★★

Sight upgrade, which I more or less expected having assumed for years that I underrated it on my one previous watch (2004). The quintessential Hollywood detective movie, successfully transcending plot — so much more convincingly seedy, though just as addictive in its atmospherics, in Chandler’s novel — to create a seemingly three-dimensional world that we don’t particularly want to leave by film’s end. Bogart’s Marlowe is an irresistible characterization because of his unassuming modesty fused with awe-inspiring know-how. The great pleasures here are episodic but almost invariably rich, from his encounters with delightful bookstore flirt Dorothy Malone and cab driver Joy Barlow (a classic example of wartime context inadvertently making space for future feminist readings of a text like this) to the sheer perversity of his dealings with the underworld, and don’t forget racehorsing-anal sex metaphors slipped under the Code. Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers are both engaging and share thrilling chemistry with Bogart, as you’d expect. As for the man himself, part of his brilliance is he isn’t some macho image of perfection; he gets jumped, he gets played, he gets scared, but somehow we all still want to be him. The seductive excitement of watching him investigate and work through clues and dead ends (even as Hawks seems to lose the plot thread a few times; the novel is easier to follow, which is saying a lot because it too steeps you in confusion) is enough to make you want to change your career path; he doesn’t make it look easy. He just makes it look fun.. and, of course, mindbendingly sexy.

One thing hasn’t changed since I first saw this, though: the bookstore sequence overshadows everything else here for me. Malone’s performance is, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t mind if it spontaneously changed the entire direction of the story, even if it gains some of its power and depth (like Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance in The 39 Steps) from its brevity and dearth of resolution. It is sheer companionate magic, regardless; and in this movie — not in her others with Bogart — Bacall’s much more ordinary character actually seems a weak substitute for the wild times we might’ve had with Malone. God, the way she looks at him. I’d better end this now.

Nathan liked this review