big sleep
The Big Sleep (1945)

© 2008 William Ahearn

There’s a reason that the 1946 version of “The Big Sleep” has such an incomprehensible plot. In fact, there are several reasons and typical of Hollywood, it’s a case study in too many hands juggling the broth.

The 1945 version of “The Big Sleep” is a really good detective film even if much of the sting of the story had been mutated and contradicts the intent of the novel. It has the requisite atmosphere of crime films of the time even if it lacks the wind and winding canyons of Chandler’s Los Angeles. There’s an odd non sequitur scene where Lauren Bacall sings – taking place in an illegal gambling casino and it comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere but it worked in “To Have And Have Not” so what the hell – yet it’s Bogart’s movie (we can see his approval of her performance). This version is about a detective trying to protect his client and falling for one of his daughters.

If you spend any time reading about how novels end up being movies, you will undoubtedly come across the story told about “The Big Sleep” and the confusion surrounding the death of the character Owen Taylor, the Sternwood family chauffeur. Who discovered the discrepancy seems to depend on who is telling the story. Whoever discovered the problem isn’t that important. What is important is that a telegram was sent to Raymond Chandler asking him “who killed the chauffeur?”

Chandler replied, “damned if I know.”

While many claim the story is apocryphal, Raymond Chandler refers to the telegram in a letter to Jamie Hamilton on March 21, 1949, that is published in The Raymond Chandler Papers by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane.

“I remember,” Chandler wrote to Hamilton, “several years ago when Howard Hawks was making [“The Big Sleep”], he and Bogart got into an argument as to whether one of the characters was murdered or committed suicide. They sent me a wire (there’s a joke about this too) asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either. Of course I got hooted at.” (Parentheses in original.)

There might be a reason that Chandler should know who killed the chauffeur – he being the author and all – but there’s no reason for Philip Marlowe to know. That’s one of the aspects of the Philip Marlowe books that I find so attractive. Marlowe isn’t concerned with morality and justice and every crime isn’t paid for. For $25 a day, plus expenses, Marlowe is only focused on the concerns of his client and if they skate on a killing, that’s just part of the job. The corruption that Chandler writes about is far different than that of other movie private detectives who catch the murderer that has baffled the dim-witted police.

What made the 1946 version of “The Big Sleep” so incomprehensible had nothing to do with Owen Taylor and everything to do with Lauren Bacall.

Bacall got extremely good reviews for her first film “To Have And Have Not” that also starred Bogart and was also directed by Howard Hawks and was rumored to be based on something Ernest Hemingway wrote. “The Big Sleep” was next but it sat on a shelf for over a year and Bacall’s third film “Confidential Agent” was released before “The Big Sleep.”

Film reviewers and critics savaged her performance in print. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times on November 3, 1945, wrote about “Confidential Agent”:

“As for Miss Bacall's performance as the helpful English girl—well, it comes close to being an unmitigated bore (and that from the lady who last year was setting the woods on fire!). […] The noise she makes in this picture is that of a bubble going ‘poof!’”

While I liked “Confidential Agent” – it’s a good adaptation of a Graham Greene novel and reportedly his favorite – Crowther pretty much sums up her performance. Charles K Feldman who was a powerful Hollywood agent who represented Howard Hawks as well as Lauren Bacall saw the 1945 version of “The Big Sleep” and implored Jack L Warner that scenes needed to be re-shot and new material added. In a letter to Warner, Feldman wrote,

“Give [Lauren Bacall] at least three or four additional scenes with Bogart of the insolent and provocative nature that she had in ‘To Have and Have Not.’ [. . .] Bear in mind, Jack, that if the girl receives the same type of reviews and criticisms on ‘The Big Sleep’ [as she received with ‘Confidential Agent’], which she definitely will receive unless changes are made, you might lose one of your most important assets.” He also suggested “and by all means re-do the veil scene.”

Howard Hawks re-shot the “veil” scene and about 15 minutes of additional material. Whole scenes and parts were cut and at least one role was recast (oddly, one of the most important in the novel) and Lauren Bacall was inserted into scenes where she hadn’t been before. The scene with the district attorney where Marlowe explains much of the plot was cut, leaving viewers to piece together what they could. What the film gained in Bogie and Bacall magic it lost in sense and continuity.

It could be argued that it lost all sense from the jump. Raymond Chandler wrote detective stories. He didn’t write love stories and he was very explicit about how they were opposing sensibilities. In a typically vociferous letter – this time addressed to James Sandoe and dated June 2, 1949 – Chandler makes his feelings clear. After trashing Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (one of my favorite books) and dumping on James M Cain (as a “synthetic stallion”), Chandler writes, “[t]he peculiar appropriateness of the detective or mystery story to our time is that it is incapable of love. The love story and the detective story cannot exist, not only in the same book – one might also say the same culture.”

And the closing of The Big Sleep makes that even clearer. The last lines of the novel read,

“On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of [her], and I never saw her again.”

The “her” here isn’t who you think it is if you’ve seen the film and not read the novel. And – I’m trying not to spoil anything here – if you understand what “she” did and was capable of doing, you will understand how Marlowe feels about women and about how he couldn’t take Carmen Sternwood or Vivian Regan (Rutledge in the film) seriously for a moment.

The corruption that Chandler was writing about in The Big Sleep wasn’t the typical graft and bribery of the powers that be. It was way more personal and it was obvious to anyone who paid attention that Chandler’s ending – in fact, Chandler’s story – would never make it past the censors.

In a letter to Jamie Hamilton in May 1946 and published in The Raymond Chandler Papers, Chandler – after praising Howard Hawks – wrote “There was also a wonderful scene that [Howard Hawks] and I planned together in talk.” Chandler describes a scene to take place at the end of the film in which Marlowe is trapped in Geiger’s house by Eddie Mars and his “lifetakers.”  The henchmen let Carmen Sternwood into the house. Marlowe knows that the first person to go out of the door will be cut down by gunfire and is torn about whether he should let the “worthless” Carmen be killed on not since after the shooting Mars and his pals will leave sparing Marlowe’s life for the time being. Carmen makes the decision herself – at least according to the version Chandler describes in the letter – and is killed.

“I don’t know,” Chandler wrote in the letter, “what happened to this scene. Perhaps the boys wouldn’t write it or couldn’t. [. . .] You never know in Hollywood.”

The “boys” didn’t but the “girl” did. Leigh Brackett was hired as a result of her hard-boiled novel No Good From a Corpse. Howard Hawks was so impressed with it he told his secretary to hire “this guy Brackett” to work on “The Big Sleep.” Brackett ended up writing the scene that Hawks and Chandler had discussed.

There was a small problem with the Production Code officials who had issues with the book and its reference to drug use and homosexuality and various other “unsavory” activities. According to Al Clark’s Raymond Chandler in Hollywood, the Production Code “would not tolerate a scene in which Marlowe is seen to cause Carmen’s death.” Hawks challenged them to supply a better one and the Production Code wrote the “closure” scene in which “Eddie Mars is the all-round guilty party and paying the price accordingly.”

“It was a lot more violent,” Hawks is quoted in the book, “it was everything I wanted.”

What changed from the 1945 version to the 1946 version is that “The Big Sleep” went from being a Humphrey Bogart detective film – much like “The Maltese Falcon” – and became part of what would become the Bogie and Bacall franchise. So much was deleted and changed and re-emphasized that it was easy to forget a dead chauffeur washing around in the surf off Lido pier.

William Ahearn