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" The Big Sleep " as Pulp Fiction for the Thinking Man

Howard Hawks, director of such favorite movies as "His Girl Friday" and "Bringing Up Baby" is reported to have defined a good movie as "three great scenes and no bad scenes." The final theatrical release of his film "The Big Sleep" includes reshoots which give us one of the film's great scenes, and is said to have had cuts which eliminated some of the bad ones. The point seems well taken, because "The Big Sleep" is considered by many one of the great American films.

The movie was filmed prior to Lauren Becall's starmaking performance in "To Have and Have Not", but hadn't been released; since the war was drawing to an end, "The Big Sleep" had been shelved while Warner Bros. released a backlog of war related films before interest waned. But when it came time to release the film, it didn't seem a strong enough star vehicle for Becall's new celebrity. Among others, a suggestive new "horse racing" scene was added, although it made little sense within the context of the story.

Bacall: "...speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they're front-runners or come from behind... I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free...."

Bogart: "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go."

Bacall: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

Knowing the scene was shot nearly two years later than the rest of the film, it does seem to stand out. It seems to be shot in a more classic style. The lighting is brighter and there are fewer shadows. In this scene we don't see the paranoia and cynisism characteristic of its film noir genre, and characteristic of the rest of the film. While it could easily be argued as one of Hawks' required "three great scenes", and "The Big Sleep" wouldn't have been the same without it, the scene could easily belong to another film as well as another genre.

One of the principle reasons for the new scene could have been Bogart and Becall's chemistry in "To Have and Have Not", which was released in 1944. The entire film seems to have been reworked, capitalizing on the stars' real-life marriage and their knack for insolent interplay. The result, according to reviewer Tim Dirks of, "included some of the toughest, most sexually-electric, innuendo-filled dialogue in film history".

The film is based on Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel of the same name. The film shares many of the same characters, and basic plot points, but leaves its references to pornography, homosexual relationships, and drugs to the audience's imagination. Even the femme fatale undergoes the change of a surname, and her husband in the novel is her dad's friend in the movie; a married woman becoming romantically involved with the film's hero would be adultry, and this, along with the pornography, homosexuality, and drugs, were against "The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)".

The book features Chandler's signature style of bare, sparce, ironic sentences, a signature many subsequent authors have tried to forge. James Topham of said "Philip Marlowe became the image of what every man wanted to be" and "the man every woman wanted to love". "The Big Sleep" was Chandler's first novel, but its language wasn't that of the pulp fiction said to have given it birth. It's a tough, cynical language, but with a touch of poetry; Marlowe's consideration of death (the "big sleep" of the title) echoes Hamlet's "To sleep, perchance to dream- ay, there's the rub." "Hamlet" (III, i, 65-68):

"You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was."

Chandler's descriptions paint vivid characters using a minimum of words:

"Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has anymore moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had."

Often, plot and characterization are rocketed forward in the span of a few sentences:

"I was wearing my powder-blue suit... I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

"The Big Sleep" gave its readers the excitement of pulp fiction, but James Topham called it "pulp fiction for the thinking man".

So although the plot of the book and the plot of the film are both notoriously convoluted roads, "The Big Sleep" is still a journey worthwhile. The book has an unsolved murder (Chandler said even he didn't know who killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor), and some plot points in the film seem senseless, but its a story about the investigation of crime; it isn't so much about the solution.

Much like life, it's more about what happens along the way.

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