More Like The Big Snoozefest
This is my contribution to Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-A-Thon at Scanners. I already sort of did one when I talked about Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland. You can find that one here. But why write another one? Because, as Jim says, "nobody doesn't like Howard Hawks... RIGHT?!?!" (any emphasis is entirely Jim's).
I must have seen The Big Sleep at least three times, trying to find out what is so good about it. After all, it's ranked #242 on They Shoot Pictures' List of the Top 1000 Films ever made, ranking above Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Living Dead, Fantasia, Network, and many others I hold in very high esteem. And so far I've come up empty handed. It doesn't work as a noir or as a romance. And I've tried to make it work. I've looked at praises for it to see what I'm missing. Or maybe it's what they're missing.
Looking at praise for it, I've noticed that most of it surrounds Bogie and Bacall. Watching them, I felt absolutely nothing. The "chemistry" between them is completely absent, which I lay both at the feet of the actors and the writers (William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman). While the racehorse dialogue is a highlight of the film, it pales next to Bacall's quip in To Have and Have Not about whistling (no, I have not seen the film, but everyone and their mother has seen the clip in AFI specials and the like). In fact, the romance is the first thing most people remember about the film, because the actual plot is so complicated. In this way, it is the direct predecessor for Michael Mann's Miami Vice, but where Mann takes time from his story to show us the beauty of the landscape and contemplate the nature of the relationships in the film, Hawks can't be too distracted from the plot long enough for us to digest what we've seen. Even the time we get with Bogie and Bacall alone is a mere fraction of the time spent trying to unravel the monstrous plot.
And what a plot it is. A mystery so complicated that Raymond Chandler himself never knew who killed the butler, and he wrote the damn novel. I can appreciate the attempts to buck noir conventions by centering on a legitimate romance and eliminating any femme fatale, but it eliminates the glee from the film. Most of the fun to be had in a noir film comes from seeing a twist coming and joyfully awaiting the results. Hawks plays it straight, though, making us wait patiently for Phillip Marlowe to eventually beat the bad guys and get the girl. Mary Astor may seem dated now as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, but at least she puts enough into her role to make it worth watching.
Speaking of the black bird, Humphrey Bogart's performance as Sam Spade puts his Phillip Marlowe to shame. Where Marlowe constantly plays it cool, not even letting the audience know there's a chink in his armor, Spade has a plan, but he's never more than one step ahead of anyone else in the film. This is best exemplified by Spade's first meeting with Kaspar Gutman. He eventually erupts in a torrent of anger, smashing his glass as he lays out his ultimatum to Gutman. After he storms out, we see his anger melt away as Spade laughs up a storm. But then Spade looks down at his hand trembling. In this one shot, we see that he was not only performing in front of Gutman, but also for himself, pretending that he isn't nearly as frightened of Gutman as he is. Marlowe never shows his weakness, and as so never rises above the few character traits given to him by Chandler and Hawks.
No, I guess I missed the boat. It took me three times to fully appreciate The Maltese Falcon, but three times have only hardened my resolve against The Big Sleep. If you can tell me what I'm missing, please let me know. Because I'd hate to be the one person who doesn't like Howard Hawks.