The Big Sleep: The Head-Scratching Film Noir

Listen, Angel, run and get a scriptwriter who can explain what's going on." Image: lksdjf
“Listen, Angel, go find a scriptwriter who can explain what’s going on.” Image: Doctor Macro

Dear Reader: As part of The Great Movie Debate Blogathon, we are going to argue against The Big Sleep.

Yup, you read that right. Against.

Now, we realize The Big Sleep is on everyone’s Top 10 List, and we respect that. It’s a legendary film noir with engaging characters, beautifully designed sets (from Carl Jules Weyl) and a luscious wardrobe (by Leah Rhodes). Add a cast that includes Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and hire William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner) to help with the script. How can it go wrong?

Well, it does go wrong, in our opinion, because this movie doesn’t make much sense.

We realize, dear Reader, that we may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, and that perhaps the first time you saw the movie you nodded and said, “This is perfectly logical.”

We would not be exaggerating if we told you we’ve seen this movie at least half a dozen times. The last time we viewed it, we had one hand working the Pause + Rewind buttons on the remote, while the other pounded furious notes into a laptop. Even with this approach, we were left with questions starting with “Why did…?” and “How come…?” Et cetera.

You’re likely curious about the plot if you’ve never seen this film. We’re not going to describe it because it’s more complex than filing your income tax. We will say, however, that there’s lots of skulking and double-crossing and shooting. There’s a bit of romance, too, as Bogart starts to fall in love with Bacall even though she may be Trouble.

The Big Sleep also has some of the best lines of any film noir; the dialogue is smart and quick. In one scene, Bogart refers to Bacall’s drink as “lunch out of a bottle”. In another scene, an elderly, dying man tells Bogart, “You’re looking, sir, at a very dull survivor of a very gaudy life.”

Terrific stuff, these lines, lifted directly from the Raymond Chandler novel on which this movie is based. (Chandler’s novel has so many great lines, you almost want to stuff them in your handbag to show off later.)

We recommend the reading the novel because, if you’re perpetually confused like us, you’ll want to know what’s really going on in this movie. And that makes us cry “foul”.

Bogart sneaks around corners in search of Answers. Image: kdjf
Bogart is desperate for Answers – much like the audience. Image: The University of Iowa

In our opinion, a movie’s script should be able to hold itself upright. It may have plot holes, which is forgivable, and we know sometimes novels don’t translate well to film. However, we feel the audience shouldn’t need the original book to get the subtleties of the movie’s plot. The Big Sleep tries to tell the novel’s story but can’t because of, you know, the Motion Pictures Production Code.

The Production Code (c.a. 1930-1967) was Hollywood’s way of keeping films morally neat and tidy. (One aspect of the Code we champion is that the bad guys always Get What’s Coming To Them.) If you’ve read The Big Sleep, the novel, you’re probably wondering how filmmakers in 1946 thought this material could squeeze into a Code-friendly movie. We’re wondering the same thing.

The Big Sleep, the novel, is a study in incongruity. Here is a book about some fairly distasteful crimes, but the writing is so beautiful it almost sings. This is why The Big Sleep, the 1946 movie, can never really reflect Chandler’s work. It can’t get into the specifics of the book and it doesn’t quite capture detective Phillip Marlowe’s haunted loneliness. We’re not saying this film shouldn’t have been made; we just feel the filmmakers had a near-impossible task.

Given all this, would we watch The Big Sleep again? Why yes – now that we know what the heck is going on.

The Big Sleep: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgley. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1946, B&W, 113 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT MOVIE DEBATE Blogathon hosted by The Cinematic Packrat and Citizen Screenings. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.




  1. I’ve always felt, like yourself, that The Big Sleep‘s reputation is grossly overinflated, precisely because of the incomprehensibility of its plot. The great Leigh Brackett was in on the script as well, but even she must obviously have struggled.

    The story goes that at one point Hawks and Faulkner phoned up Chandler to ask him who murdered the chauffeur and why, because they couldn’t work it out from the book. After a while Chandler admitted that he didn’t know either.


    • Ha! I had not heard that story about Hawks & Co phoning Chandler. That’s good.

      I almost hated to say anything bad about this movie because so many love it, but the last time I watched it, I said, “That’s it. I’m blowing this thing wide open!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I AGREE! FOUL!! This movie perfectly illustrates how Hawks felt about filmmaking to a degree. That is, that he preferred the pieces vs. the entire entry so conentrating on particular scenes and that amazing dialogue was more important than making the story come together. I love watching this for all the reasons you state. But, like you, I haven’t a clue what’s going on!! GREAT choice for the blogathon, Ruth. You hit the nail on the head with a supremely entertaining commentary. 🙂



    • Thanks, Aurora. Hawks certainly did know how to film a great scene, and there are lots of them in this film. I think one of my faves is Bogart visiting the old General in the orchid hot house. These two actors have great screen chemistry and I wish there were more scenes of them together.


  3. I think the reputation of the movie comes from the chemistry between Bogie and Bacall. Which is undeniable and fantastic and why I always enjoy watching it.

    True story: I had a professor in college who spent a long weekend watching the movie over and over again with his girlfriend. The two of them rewrote the events of the movie (including all the back story) in chronological order. It was pages and pages long. He read it out to our class.

    The story still didn’t make sense.

    This is one reason it took me so long to get around to reading Chandler, when I had been reading Cain and Hammett since high school days. And when I started reading his books, I couldn’t stop.


    • THAT is a great story about your professor. I admire the effort that went into that weekend project!

      Raymond Chandler is my new favourite writer. I LOVED this book and I’m already ordering more of his books from the library. He makes writing look so easy, no?

      Thanks for dropping by. )


  4. Heh. I think that vagueness and “what the what?” stuff makes it work in a weird way. It’s certainly not a film I’d recommend to people who want to pick it apart and figure every mystery out because you don’t even get a CLUE as to some stuff. I do think working around that bloody Code hits this hard because your “wink and a nod” meter needs to be in full working order to get some stuff thrown at you here.


    • You may be right about the vagueness factor and that may account for its enduring quality. As for the “wink and a nod” meter, you are 100% correct. You really have to be on top of your innuendo game when watching this flick!


  5. I admit that I’m a big fan of THE BIG SLEEP. The principal reason is that Bogart is miscast as Marlowe. I love Chandler’s books and Bogart is too rough around the edges for Marlowe. (He did make a good Sam Spade.) It’s an OK adaptation, but MURDER, MY SWEET is superior in every way. So, I agree with you on this debate!


  6. Definitely one of those where the style (and there’s a lot of it!) distracts from other elements – in this case THE PLOT. I’d never considered that this film doesn’t make much sense, as I was always seduced by the visuals, but now you mention it – what on earth is going on? I’d like to read the book but, as you observe, that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for understanding the movie. This one has certainly gone down in my estimation…


    • It’s a crazy film. I know people admire its style and dialogue – what’s not to love? – but I just cannot get past the muddled plot. So when this blogathon was announced, I jumped on the opportunity to publicly air my long-held frustration.


  7. The Big Sleep illustrates why film-making is not a paint-by-numbers affair. You can have every single element in place, totally top-notch, and end up with a boring as dirt final product. Sometimes mediocre elements come together and, against all logic, result in near-perfection. Then there’s a film like this one: on paper, it seems excellent. In reality, it is confusing and maddening…and, somehow, entirely watchable, enjoyable, and memorable. It manages to be both less than the sum of its parts and greater than it has a right to be. That’s cinema.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ruth, I adore the Howard Hawks film version of THE BIG SLEEP because it’s so out-there! To borrow a line from another of my favorite films noirs, THE MALTESE FALCON, “a sensible (story) would have put us all in the cooler…Its goofiness is what makes it good.” The film version is even more delightfully goofy and enjoyable, for my money! You did a swell job with post, my friend, as always! 😀


  9. You went off on a very enjoyable and witty rant there, Ruth! THE BIG SLEEP is famous for the “phoning up Chandler to find out who killed the chauffeur” story. Sure, it doesn’t all come together plot-wise, but when both the novel and movie are this good, full of so many juicy lines…well, it just doesn’t matter so much to me if there are a few holes here and there. You make an excellent point about the contortions Faulkner and Brackett have to make to merely imply the many unsavory elements of the novel’s story.

    Have you watched the pared-down pre-release version (one the flip-side of the DVD)? It’s pretty good in its own right, but the additional scenes filmed to take advantage of the 1000 kilowatt chemistry between Bogie and Bacall really add to the fizz of the final version.


  10. Ruth, I really admire your courage to go against the grain with your review of this movie. It is very refreshing! Since I am not one of the sharpest tools in the shed either (although I don’t agree that is true of you), I would definitely have to read the book first. Not being able to figure out “who done it” would drive me bonkers! I would find it difficult to just enjoy the scenes as I would always be trying to figure it out.


  11. Great entry! I know it took me forever and a half to get to this post but thanks for joining in. You really do need a pen and paper to take notes when watching this. Even though I defended it, I won’t lie when I say that I watched some scenes without any comprehension of what the frippen heck was going on in them.

    Oh, and somehow I totally missed the old man line you pointed out. Great piece of dialogue.


  12. I think watching it at 4am wasn’t the wisest choice for me… But blame our local TCM.
    I agree that the restrictions may have impaired the film’s potentials, and now I really need to read the book.
    By the way, who killed the chauffeur? LOL I think not even Raymond Chandler knew!
    Thanks for the kind comment!


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