Each time you watch The Big Sleep it’s easy to be torn between thinking it’s a classic of the big screen, or simply sensationalist fluff, a shallow vehicle for off-screen couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
But Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel earns its classic status because of one quality that never dims. It contains some of the most memorable dialogue in big screen history.
In fact, dialogue isn’t just a function of The Big Sleep, it carries the entire movie. Moments of brilliance are contained in how scathing put-downs are delivered with such wry eloquence.
Roger Ebert summed it up best in The Great Movies:
“Unlike modern crime movies which are loaded with action, The Big Sleep is heavy with dialogue. The characters talk and talk, just like in the Chandler novels; it’s as if there’s a competition to see who has the most verbal style.”
Almost every scene is an isolated contest of verbal sparring. One of the best examples is when Bogart’s quintessential private eye Philip Marlowe first meets Bacall’s sultry, calculating damsel Vivian Rutledge/Sternwood.
Vivian coldly tells Marlowe his appearance resembles a mess. His response is a simple grunt followed by the marvellously smug retort: “I’m not too tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.”
But that is merely the first salvo in a sparkling verbal joust that lasts throughout the film’s 110-minute running time.
In the same scene, Vivian later snaps at Marlowe that she doesn’t like his manners. His conceited and prickly counter-thrust is pure verbal brilliance: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself, they’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”
That kind of crackling wordplay continually punctuates The Big Sleep, to elevate its genre-typical story to classic status.
Marlowe trudges through the seedy, venal backdrop of Hollywood’s society types and the grifters who try to fleece them. But although the plot is legendary for its jumbled confusion, it is essentially no different to any other private eye yarn.
A dishevelled detective, stubbornly clinging to a sense of honour, begins one seemingly innocuous case, which turns out to be connected to something much bigger.
Without the scorching speeches and verbal barbs, The Big Sleep could easily resemble any typical crime picture or even television series.
But with every familiar turn of the script, including murders piling up one after the other and inevitable double crosses, an instantly quotable line of dialogue lends gravitas to the proceedings.
A great example is when Marlowe is offered information for money by likeable runt Harry Jones, played by Elisha Cook Jr. In typically laconic, yet sneering fashion, Bogart’s Marlowe replies:
“This is getting funny. I’m supposed to pay you two C’s for telling me I’m looking for Regan. People have been telling me that for days.I don’t even pass out cigars anymore.”
Even when the story shifts vent slightly, to emphasize the very real chemistry between Marlowe and Vivian, the dialogue remains sly, playful and unforgettable:
Letting the dialogue carry his film was a masterstroke by Hawks. His unobtrusive direction made him comfortable in multiple genres, but was never better than here.
He gave his players a free hand. That freedom facilitated a magnificent central performance from Bogart. It also led to a stunning turn from Martha Vickers as Vivian’s buxom, sex-mad and unhinged little sister Carmen Sternwood.
In fact, every actor and actress involved looks like they’re having a great time spouting their lines.
By putting the triple-helmed screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner and Jules Furthman front and centre, Hawks delivered a film where the lust and violence are as flagrant as the brazen and witty repartee.
The Big Sleep endures as a classic created not by rich plot themes or directorial daring, but by the long stream of quotable lines running through it.