Maybe a weekly series thing, in which I waffle about classics that I love. I haven't done anything good on films in an age, so maybe this will relight the fire. Nothing especially earth-shattering to see here, just plain old cinephilia. Join in the oldie love.
Vivian: Do you always think you can handle people like, uh, trained seals?
Philip Marlowe: Uh-huh. I usually get away with it too.
Vivian: How nice for you
Damn they don't make 'em like this anymore
I ask, cause I'm not sure
Do anybody make real shit anymore?
Yep, those are Kanye West lyrics. I like Kanye, his aggressive self-promotion can be almost endearing in it's ferocity, but I want to utilise his words in a rather different context. That is, in respect to the era of Classic Hollywood. I'm no great subscriber to false nostalgia - I wasn't alive in the 1940s and 50s and therefore am not qualified to make assumptions about whether films were better back then. I firmly believe that the craft of film is as thriving and vital as it was in the Hollywood heyday and that classics-of-the-future are being released every year. Yet, I'm itching to mutter "Damn, they don't make 'em like this anymore!" everytime I watch a film like The Big Sleep. Tonight I treated myself to a break from studying and study-related guilt by watching a two-header; Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC which has got me truly hooked this series and then Howard Hawks' 1946 classic film noir staple. Adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel by a triad of writers including William Faulkner and pairing up real life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with auteur Hawks at the helm, The Big Sleep is a team-up to rival The Philadelphia Story. Even on my second viewing, the plot makes little sense to me, perhaps even less so than the first time I watched it. On my primary viewing I really attempted to get my head around the double crossings and murders, this time I gave up and enjoyed the sexual tension, the dialogue and the cinematography.
"How can a man so ugly be so handsome?" Marta Toren famously wondered in Sirocco, and she had a point. Bogie is not a typical Hollywood leading man, he has neither the effortless charm of Grant nor the bumbling sweetess of Stewart. He was short and gruff, with a leathery face - but his shortcomings make him. In the film, his weathered demeanour and calm delivery contain a subtle charm, his little gestures taking centre-stage over any big setpieces. I look especially fondly on the childish habit of fidgeting with his ear during moments of pondering. He's a closet romantic, and he fizzles joyously with every woman he comes across, all of whom appear to fall in love with his Marlowe. The universe of The Big Sleep is one peppered with coy women who hold their own with him, trading quips laden with innuendo, from his leading lady Bacall and her sister (in a great performance from Martha Vickers) stretching to the bookstore clerk played by Dorothy Malone and even Joy Barlow's fleeting taxi-driver. It's a world so unlike the real, drab everyday one in which we inhabit that it's tempting to imagine that this is how people actually spoke back then. The rapport between Humphrey and everybody he encounters is a delight to listen to. It's genuinely funny, "She tried to sit on my lap when I was sitting down" and the actors really sell it. The famous "horse racing" scene was reshot and added in to heighten the chemistry between the leads and it's a treat. The innuendo is ladled on so strongly that it's hard to believe they got away with it at the time, and yet Bogie and Bacall run with it, their faces masks of innocence. Seeing Bogie and Bacall verbally sparring is a sight to behold. Yet the horse-racing scene is not my favourite scene between the pair. My choice is surprisingly dialogue free. Marlowe enters a casino, looking for information. He wanders around, spying in on various gambling rooms until he espies what appears to be a sort of living room with a small gathering of people, a piano and a familiar voice. Vivian Rutledge is singing "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" in a bawdy, humerous way and Bogie leans against the doorframe to watch her. She slowly becomes aware that he's watching her and turns to look straight at him. Most of their time spent onscreen is spent either bickering or kissing, but here she gives him a shy smile and a small salute, all the while continuing to sing. Bogie, in turn, returns her smile and salute. It's a sweet moment, touching in it's quietness. The lovers aren't zipping off zingers, they're just enjoying each other's gaze. Bacall doesn't have a half-bad voice either.
Part of The Big Sleep's allure is that it's not a genre picture. Sure, it's film noir. Yet there's a lot more going on than a simple private detective story (okay, maybe 'simple' is the wrong word to use). It's a romantic picture, thanks to the obvious chemistry between the leads. Indeed, the plot is so convoluted it's best viewed as a romance; instead of wondering how the hell Owen Taylor died, you'd be best wondering when exactly the pair are going to get it on. It's also a succesful comedy - the sometimes heavy subject matter is given a lightness and deftness of touch by Hawks and the characters are never too put upon or endangered to engage in some jokes. Going back to my initial point about not making 'em like they used to, it is difficult to imagine what The Big Sleep would look like nowadays. There may be an actor who could match Bogart's cool, but could they rival his ugliness and beaten-down weatheredness? Would the innuendo translate to a modern setting, treading the fine line between ridiculous and dirty? I can't see any studio greenlighting a script as unpenetratable and confusing as this nowadays. Even the cinematography, sumptous black and white, creeping shadows and silhouettes, couldn't transfer to 2007.
The Big Sleep is riddled with more charm than Eddie Mars' corpse is with bullets.