Two silhouettes light up a cigarette, with their respective names “Humphrey Bogart” (playing Philip Marlowe) and “Lauren Bacall” (playing Vivian Rutledge) smoldering over them. After the figures inhale one puff, the camera dives down to an ashtray. The silhouettes’ hands briefly slip into the light to line up their cigarettes. Their fresh smoke comes off at the tips of them like miniature chimneys, while the credits continue scrolling.
This is the opening image of Howard Hawks’ 1946 film, THE BIG SLEEP, the title working as a euphemism for death. The film was initially made to hopefully recreate the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as seen in Hawk’s previous film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. After THE BIG SLEEP wrapped in mid-1945, studio executives felt like their chemistry could be better. They extended the release date until after World War II ended, and asked Hawks, Bogart, and Bacall to shoot some new scenes, and reshoot old ones to further amplify the romance sub-plot. Released in August of 1946, this is the version most cinephiles know today.
This reshoot attempted to undo the negative reviews Lauren Bacall received at the time for her performance in CONFIDENTIAL AGENT. Anyone who watches the documentary comparing scenes from the two versions can tell Bogart and Bacall deliver looser and more comfortable performances together. Because of this, Vivian Rutledge’s character seems more in control of the events surrounding her. When Marlowe delivers Carmen back to her house and interrupts all of Vivian’s questions (“I haven’t been here, you haven’t seen me, and she hasn’t been out of the house all evening”), she immediately understands the subtext.
She is, to go by the definition of a “Hawksian woman,” capable of engaging in conversation with her male peers—she stays unafraid of attaining her personal desires. She’s not exactly a femme fatale, as she doesn’t seduce Marlowe with any malicious intent like other “bad girls” in film noir do, nor is she the “good-girl-virgin-until-marriage” type, as she has some felonious relation to Joe Brody and Eddie Mars, and is very sexually provocative. One of the most notable additions to the 1946 version of the film was the notoriously coquettish racehorse scene, where Rutledge and Marlowe talk about experiences with horseracing within the subtext of sexual intercourse: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come-from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.” It’s evident Marlowe gets around, as shown by the scene with the book clerk and the taxi driver, but Rutledge has stumped him. He can’t figure out what makes her “run,” so to speak. She is mysterious to Marlowe and to the audience, but at the same time, is not wholly inaccessible.
It’s interesting to note that while the more widely known version has been criticized for its complicated narrative, the pre-release version contains additional plot-related scenes that probably could have dispelled the confusions in the final version. Hawks’ intention was to prevent the audience from being a step ahead of Philip Marlowe, and the “Hawksian woman” element of Rutledge’s character was toned down in the pre-release version. In this light, it is ironic that studio interference would help amplify the director’s style and wishes, rather than suppress them.
THE BIG SLEEP, while being made during the denouement of World War II, was released during its aftermath. These were very dark times, as everyone celebrated the soldiers’ return home, there was the unnerving feeling of “what now?” creeping up in the minds of Americans. Some people were guilt-ridden, and others were just confused and aimless. Basically, not many people knew what to do, and couldn’t figure out what was going on around them. In that sense, I think a movie where many people claim they can’t figure out what is going on, is a bolder artistic statement than we often give it credit. By the end of the film, Marlowe manages to save Rutledge from any police investigation, despite him knowing she was involved in the case. Could this be seen as an attempt to stir up hope in the U.S after seeing we have a lot of recovery ahead of us? After the storm has settled, it’s clear there’s a lot of cleaning up to do. Marlowe stands by with a gun towards the door and his hand gripping Rutledge’s arm. “What’s wrong with you?” Marlowe asks. “Nothing you can’t fix.” Rutledge replies.
THE BIG SLEEP is still considered a classic in the noir genre, almost seventy years later, and while it’s criticized for its confusing plot, the objectives are to sweep you up in its clever dialogue, promiscuity, and chemistry between Bacall and Bogie. The uncertainty the film induces can even put the viewer in an emotional time capsule to feel how many Americans felt during the conclusion of World War II. When you have all those other qualities, tell me, isn’t demanding a discernible plot a little needy?