Sunday, August 22, 2021

This Day in Film History (‘The Big Sleep,’ 2nd Bogie Private-Eye Classic, Opens)

Aug. 22, 1946—With The Big Sleep, which premiered in Atlantic City, NJ, Humphrey Bogart became identified for the second time on the big screen with an archetypal hard-boiled detective.

Five years before, Bogart had starred as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the John Huston movie often credited with launching in earnest film noir, a term created by French critics for a genre characterized by dark lighting, byzantine plots, skeptical heroes still capable of hoodwinking by alluring femme fatales, all set amid a violent, treacherous world.

Bogart’s portrayal of Spade—tough, wisecracking, intelligent while scoffing at intellectuals, with a surface cynicism concealing a strict moral code—had thrust him, once and for all, beyond the gangster straitjacket in which he found himself in his early years at Warner Brothers Studios.

Other actors have also portrayed The Big Sleep’s Philip Marlowe over the years (e.g., Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum). But Bogart may be associated with the role most indelibly.

The Big Sleep helped land “Bogie” for the fourth straight year among the nation’s top 10 money-making stars. But the film’s success was hardly preordained. At one point, the actor’s marital woes stemming from his tormented affair with leading lady Lauren Bacall threatened to turn the production into a disaster.

The film would run a gauntlet of production delays, cost overruns, a year-long shelving by Warner Brothers, and reshot scenes before it saw the light of day. It would probably not have turned out half so well but for the careful guidance of director-producer Howard Hawks (whose 125th birthday I commemorated with this blog post from three months ago).

The movie resulted from the desire by studio head Jack L. Warner for a follow-up to the initial Bogart-Bacall teaming, To Have and Have Not (1944), also directed by Hawks. Hawks’ production company used the $50,000 forwarded by Warner to purchase the rights to the first novel by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, for $5,000—then pocketed the difference.

Hawks recognized in this material the same quality that led Huston to adapt The Maltese Falcon: edgy characters, surprising plot twists, and crackling dialogue. By his own account, he advised the first two screenwriters assigned to the project, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, “Don’t monkey with the book—just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.”

That didn’t mean that changes wouldn’t be made from page to screen. Chandler had included several elements—nymphomania, nudity, homosexuality, pornography, and a main character’s complicity in a crime—that had to be either eliminated or softened to pass muster with the movie industry’s censorship authority, the Hays Office.

Moreover, as Faulkner and Brackett worked on the screenplay separately, Hawks needed to fit the two parts together seamlessly, and—as a producer whose deal with Warner Brothers allowed him to make more money if he cut expenses—he changed locales for others that entailed lower costs.

But these were not even the biggest obstacles associated with the film, which can be seen virtually step by step in the memos, letters and production reports collected in Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Brothers (1985).

After the first day of shooting, when Bogart had downed five or six drinks for lunch, his intake was cut back to one beer at that time of day. But that did nothing to curb his after-hours misbehavior.

On the morning after Christmas 1944, with Bogart not showing up for shooting, studio production manager T.C. Wright went to the star’s house, only to be told by Bogie’s estranged wife, Mayo Methot, that he had come in drunk and was still trying to sleep it off an hour and a half later.

That afternoon, by which time the star had finally straggled onto the set, Hawks drew aside Bogart—who had been mostly living away from home, uncertain about whether to reconcile with or divorce Methot—to administer some tough love. Not only was the situation with Bacall affecting Bogart’s performance, but his co-star’s, too, Hawks said.

Bogart, normally punctual and professional, was giving Warner Brothers fits with the absences and conferences required to deal with the situation—so much so that by December 29, the 64th day of shooting, the picture was already 30 days behind schedule, with corresponding costs incurred.

Hawks then did what he did best: improvise. Over the Christmas break, and in the lengthy daily delays caused by Bogart, he huddled with a third screenwriter, Jules Furthman, to figure out how to delete entire scenes and secondary sets. By the time it was over, he ended up only $15,000 over budget—a miracle, all things considered.

The plot of the novel had been so complicated that even Chandler couldn’t recall who was responsible for one murder when called about it by Faulkner and Brackett. But now, the behind-the-scenes goings-on took on their own craziness.

With the end of World War II in sight, Warner decided to move up the release dates of several movies revolving around the conflict lest they seemed out of date before their premieres (including another Bacall picture, Confidential Agent). Though The Big Sleep had been shown to troops overseas already, it could wait before being viewed stateside—for a whole year, as it turned out.

In the meantime, Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote Warner to complain that his client’s scenes needed to be beefed up. Although he had some specific scenes in mind that could be replaced (such as one where Bacall was veiled), he may well have been concerned that she would be upstaged by two other up-and-coming supporting female players, Dorothy Malone (as a flirtatious bookstore clerk) and Martha Vickers (as the Bacall character’s nyphomaniacal kid sister).

Hawks obliged, inspired by his affection for the ponies, creating dialogue revolving around horse racing with the same kind of racy Bogie-Bacall repartee that had made To Have and Have Not a sensation.

Throughout this piece, I’ve stressed the difficulties that Bogart created by his uncharacteristic lack of professionalism. But in justice to him, it also bears stating that he also contributed enormously to the ultimate success of The Big Sleep.

Hawks was in no doubt about that, observing, in an interview ultimately included in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors: “Without his [Bogart’s] help, I couldn’t have done what I did with Bacall. The average leading man would have got sick and tired of the rehearsal and the fussing around. Not very many actors would sit around and wait while a girl steals a scene. But he fell in love with the girl and the girl with him, and that made it easy.”

Chandler had a different, equally valid perspective on the actor’s quality: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Because he was in every scene and the action unfolded entirely through Marlowe’s eyes, Bogart’s performance had to carry the film.

With this intense focus on his leading man, Hawks set the template for Roman Polanski to follow nearly three decades later with his neo-noir classic, Chinatown, in which Jack Nicholson, like Bogart, appeared in every scene, becoming the audience’s surrogate in sorting through the multiple deceptions and red herrings of the plot.

Twenty years after The Big Sleep confirmed her hold on the public’s affections—and drew her close enough to her co-star that she married him—Bacall made an unmistakable reference to that film’s General Sternwood by appearing as another wheelchair-bound employer of a private detective in the 1966 Paul Newman neo-noir, Harper.

The first version of The Big Sleep had a logical explanation for its murders. But, while reshooting, Hawks made a discovery that would influence the remaining quarter-century of his career:

The plot, he told Bogdanovich, “didn’t matter at all. All we were trying to do was make every scene entertain. I can’t follow the story. I saw some of it on TV the other night and I’d listen to some of the things he [Bogart] would talk about and it had me thoroughly confused because I hadn’t seen it in twenty years.”

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