Bogey and Bacall, baby! But better than that we have a story by Raymond Chandler that he himself helped adapt for the screen. Chandler wrote The Big Sleep as his first full novel and it featured his most famous creation: the private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler had spent a number of years honing his writing with short detective stories for the pulps, so when he published this novel, he started with an absolute gem.
Bogart is Marlowe, a detective called in by an immensely wealthy retired general named Sternwood. The old man is concerned because he is being dunned for gambling debts accrued by the younger of his two grown-up daughters. Marlowe is asked to intervene and put a stop to it, and the general pointedly says that the how he leaves entirely in Marlowe’s hands. His only stipulation is that Marlowe doesn’t commit him to paying the debts; General Sternwood doesn’t want to be known as a soft touch.
Bacall is the divorced elder sister who starts out pushy and insistent about learning why Marlowe has been hired, but loses interest when she learns it’s not to track down her father’s former right-hand man. General Sternwood had told Marlowe that had this man Reagan not disappeared, he’d have left the gambling debts in his hands instead of needing to call Marlowe. Despite her efforts at subtlety, she only manages to arouse Marlowe’s passing interest, though it’s not what he’s being paid to look into. What seems simple on the surface turns out to be less so, since as soon as Marlowe starts digging into the tale of blackmail people start turning up dead in his path and the mystery deepens and broadens to encompass a lot more than just a few gambling debts.
The story is a delight even if some parts can be a bit confusing. (One apocryphal tale has it that Chandler himself wasn’t able to answer the other screenwriters when they asked who exactly committed one of the murders and why.) But we’re watching for different reasons than an air-tight puzzle that we can solve along with the detective. One is the noir-style atmosphere that suffuses the film as Marlowe weeds out the truth no one asked him to find from the seamy underworld of Los Angeles.
Another not insignificant attraction is the brilliant, witty dialogue that Chandler, Faulkner, and Leigh Brackett put in the mouths of their characters. The early scene between Bogey’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Vivian Sternwood where she sneers that she doesn’t like Marlowe’s manners allows him one of the most devastating ripostes ever put to film.
Which leads us neatly to the third major attraction of the film: the connection between Bogart and Bacall (husband and wife!) is simply electric. Their banter is, of course, written for them, but they elevate it even further with their delivery. Like many good movies, this sweeps you along on a rollercoaster so you don’t have time to notice the seams which, if we’re honest, do show through in places.
It’s a credit to Chandler and the screenwriters that the characters, big and small, feel as real as they do. From Joe Brody to the girl in the bookstore across the street to Elisha Cook Jr. as the tough but unlucky Harry Jones, they all capture our belief and hold it well. They’re individuals, not carbon copies or cardboard cut-outs. The movie isn’t a noir (don’t be fooled), but it is a classic crime thriller and mystery caper and director Howard Hawks best film.