Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely
Director: Howard Hawks
Running Time: 114 mins
The Big Sleep is an American film about a private detective who is hired by a wealthy family to investigate a complex case of disappearance, corruption and murder. Along the way, he finds himself up against wiley, organised criminals, as well as a strong-willed woman whose role in the chain of events is deeper than it first seems.
This film has to be up there as one of the all-time classic film-noirs. Alongside the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard and many others, The Big Sleep is a great watch, and although I wouldn’t quite put it as my own favourite of film-noir, there’s no denying both how fun and genuinely gripping the film is, as well as featuring two absolutely legendary performances from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Now, whether you’re a seasoned fan of film-noir or a newbie to the genre, you’ll likely have a pretty solid impression of what the films are like. Venetian blinds, moody lighting, private detectives in trench coats and fedoras: all that shebang. However, as much as The Big Sleep sticks to the core principals of film-noir, there’s something about it that feels really quite refreshing, with a more fun, playful vibe than many of the genre’s most towering classics are often willing to be.
That’s not to say it’s much of a comedy, but alongside the thoroughly engaging crime and mystery that Humphrey Bogart’s private detective Philip Marlowe attempts to decipher, The Big Sleep has a really fun, flirtatious side too.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s legendary on-screen chemistry is more than enough to make a film on its own, and the way the two’s relationship develops throughout the story is both engrossing and great fun to watch, but The Big Sleep’s more lightweight side goes beyond even the classy, charismatic rapport of Bogart and Bacall.
Bogart’s wise-cracking character makes for more than a few laughs across the story, breaking the ice of what are normally very steely film-noir confrontations and investigations on a number of occasions. His witty repartee with Bacall, too, is very entertaining in the film’s latter stages, while some of the more hyperbolic scenarios that the detective finds himself in as he follows the leads on his case are the icing on the cake of a film-noir that’s perhaps more about pure entertainment than classic genre tension.
With that said, as much fun as a lot of The Big Sleep proves to be, it still doesn’t forget to tell a good, often thoroughly gripping story. On the one hand, it is a little complex and intricate (a byword for muddled in this case), something that left me feeling like I was chasing the plot to really get to grips with what was going on in the early stages.
On the other hand, though, as Bogart earnestly attempts to get to the bottom of a bizarre case from which everyone seems to be getting rid of him, the rabbit holes he crawls into and offshoots of evidence he follows do give off a bit of that good old film-noir tension and intrigue, and as enjoyably playful as the film can be at times, it still has more than enough intrigue and gripping storytelling to keep you engrossing right the way through.
Narratively, it might not quite be a masterpiece, but as difficult as the film is to follow at times (particularly in the opening stages), The Big Sleep always manages to pull you back in, a consequence both of its intriguing mystery premise and sheer charisma that’s so difficult to turn away from.
In the end, The Big Sleep isn’t the steely, moody film-noir that The Maltese Falcon is, yet nor is it the high-stakes romance of Casablanca. Instead, it finds a thoroughly entertaining and refreshing middleground that isn’t afraid to take a more playful and often flirtatious approach to a towering genre, all the while retaining the core elements of a really great film-noir movie, as well as two dynamite lead performances from a legendary on-screen duo. So, that’s why I’m giving it a 7.8 overall.