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The Big Sleep (1946)

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Article 3

To Love and Love Not

A newly discovered version of 'The Big Sleep' reveals how a movie studio manufactured our desire for Lauren Bacall. Ironically, it also tests the affections of the film's biggest fans. 

by Rob Nelson

The Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 9, 1997 page 1E 

The friskiest innuendo in Hollywood history comes in the middle of "The Big Sleep," as Lauren Bacall tells Humphrey Bogart what she loves about him and . . . horse racing. "You don't like to be rated," Bacall says coltishly, twirling her unlit cigarette like a horsewhip. "You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch - and then come home free." 

Timeless though it may seem, this racy dialogue is nowhere to be found in the 1945 "prerelease version" of "The Big Sleep," recently discovered in a vault at the Warner Bros. studio, and opening Friday at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis for a one-week run. 

Containing 18 minutes of footage not included in the final, familiar version released in 1946, the early "Big Sleep" lay dormant for more than 50 years, owing to factors as intriguingly complicated as the mystery film's plot. The great Howard Hawks finished his director's cut in March 1945, but the imminent end of World War II - and an unforeseen threat to Bacall's budding career - compelled Warners to order 16 minutes of reshoots that would heighten the actress' star quality. 

In light of those adjustments, the film's final exchange between Bogie and Bacall - which concludes both versions of "The Big Sleep" - seems uncannily apropos. Pulling his sweetheart toward him, Bogart rhetorically asks, "What's wrong with you?" - to which Bacall answers, "Nothing you can't fix." 

Although reshooting movies to enhance their commercial appeal has become de rigueur in Hollywood ("The Devil's Own" and "The Saint" are two recent examples), it's never too likely that the final product will become a classic. Yet "The Big Sleep" provides both a case study of studio manipulation and a rare example of resulting success. 

In mid-1945, Warners hastily released the war-themed "Confidential Agent" to a flurry of bad reviews for its female lead, 20-year-old Bacall. Fearing an early end to a promising career, her agent, Charles K. Feldman, persuaded studio chief Jack Warner to remodel "The Big Sleep" after "To Have and Have Not," the giddy and salacious Hawks film that first paired Bogie and Bacall in 1944. 

Feldman's letter to Warner urged giving Bacall "at least three or four additional scenes with Bogart of the insolent and provocative nature that she had in 'To Have and Have Not.' Bear in mind, Jack, that if the girl receives the same type of reviews and criticisms on 'The Big Sleep' [as on 'Confidential Agent'], which she definitely will receive unless changes are made, you might lose one of your most important assets." 

The newlywed stars agreed to perform some sexy new material in 1946, provided Hawks did the shooting. In turn, the director reportedly insisted to Warner that "If they can't behave themselves, if they have to get mushy all the time, I'm not going to stick around and make scenes with them." Evidently Bogart and Bacall managed to save their flirting for Hawks' camera. 

In proposing cuts to Hawks, Feldman and Warner rightly figured that swapping a more somber scene of Bacall in a black veil with some lively "horseplay" would help enhance their star's allure. Still, the comparatively dark prerelease version hardly fails to indicate her sex appeal: Parked in a car with Bogie, Bacall responds to his kisses by purring, "I like that. I'd like more." As it happened, more was precisely what the studio had in mind. 

The movie has two faces 

Like Hitchcock's recently reincarnated "Vertigo," "The Big Sleep" is perfect for a "special edition," being a mystery whose added footage merely peels another layer of the onion. In one prerelease scene that hilariously articulates the film's essential ambiguity, a police captain barks at Bogart's detective Marlowe: "Whaddya expect, a motion picture of the killing?" 

In this way, those expecting a definitive "Big Sleep" may be surprised to find a version more akin to the B-side of a hit record than an extended remix. As evidenced by the controversial "director's cut" of "Blade Runner," the paradox of restorations is that the very film buffs most likely to appreciate them can be most at risk of feeling alienated. A sacred text doesn't lend easily to fiddling. 

Seemingly aware of this, film archivist Bob Gitt introduces the prerelease with an oncamera disclaimer: "This version isn't better, but it's different in extremely interesting ways." One of those ways, as we learn in the short documentary that follows the feature, is that the reshot "Big Sleep" used a more dowdily costumed actress in the part of Mrs. Eddie Mars. 

Clearly, the studio meant to give Bacall less competition in the glamour department. Yet Hawks' love of dynamic female characters allowed several others to survive the edit, including a gorgeously brainy bookseller (Dorothy Malone), a winsome cab driver (Joy Barlowe) and a justly sour gangster's moll (Sonia Darrin). 

Bogart's puckish Marlowe gives these gals such nicknames as "sugar," "sister," "angel" and "pal" - although some "Big Sleep" aficionados would say his most sweetly romantic line is spoken to Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), the diminutive gumshoe who dies drinking poison. "Well, ya did all right, Jonesy" is Marlowe's gentle, straightforward eulogy. 

Unsolved mysteries 

Although both versions of "The Big Sleep" are detective movies, neither cops the conventions of '40s-era film noir. There's no voice-over narration, no unhappy ending and no femme fatale - unless you count Carmen (Martha Vickers), the thumb-sucking, hair-twirling nymphet whom Marlowe resolves to "cure." 

Like Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday" and "Rio Bravo," "Sleep" is a love story in faint disguise - especially in the more playfully screwball version we've known up to now. It's an ironic rebuttal of the "auteur theory" - which holds the director's vision as paramount - that the studio-ordered "Big Sleep" would turn out to be the more Hawksian film. 

Favoring courtship over investigative procedure and male bonding, the modified "Big Sleep" simultaneously reflected the end of the war and its stars' new marriage. But in either version, the film is distinguished most by its impeccably snappy dialogue, adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel in a mere eight days by Hawks associate Jules Furthman, screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who coauthored "The Empire Strikes Back") and William Faulkner. 

"Bill Faulkner wanted a job" is how Hawks once explained the novelist's unlikely involvement. Still, one question remains: Which of these three wordsmiths jockeyed the classic "horse racing" scene? Gitt's documentary doesn't say. And although the director himself took credit for it in the 1970s, Hawks specialist David Thomson has claimed this brilliant filmmaker to be "a chronic liar and compartmentalizer" behind the scenes. 

Perhaps we'll never know who wrote that line about taking "a little breather in the back stretch." Likewise, neither version of "The Big Sleep" answers the question that allegedly stumped Chandler: Who killed the chauffeur? Alas, some mysteries are better left unsolved. 

Rob Nelson is film editor of City Pages.

1997 The Star Tribune

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