Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
America’s obsession with film noir continued throughout the 1940s. As the country entered World War II, studios adjusted to what moviegoers wanted to see. While musicals were indeed a much-needed form of distraction and entertainment, they were the exception. The typical selection at movie theaters tended towards darker types of films. Dramas, thrillers, noir, and war-themed movies reigned supreme at the cinema.
Leading up to the end of WWII in 1945, the studios sought to quickly release their backlog of war-related films. One of the most popular war dramas released at the time was 1944’s To Have and Have Not. The movie, a romantic drama involving young American wanderers urged to help the French Resistance during the war. In that film audiences were introduced to one of the great on and off-screen pairings of all-time.
Bogart was already well-known to the American public at the time, primarily for the 1942 romance flick Casablanca. His rugged good looks and tough guy charm won over moviegoers with every film he starred in. Bogart (or Bogey, as he was affectionately known) was cast in To Have and Have Not with an up and coming actress making her big screen debut, Lauren Bacall. The pair fell in love and were married by 1945. Bogey and Bacall went on to make many memorable films together, including noir classic The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep brought together two of the biggest actors in the world with one of the most heralded figures in literature. Acclaimed director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) looked to Raymond Chandler’s work for his follow-up to To Have and Have Not. Chandler’s 1939 novel chronicling detective Philip Marlowe required a skilled screenwriter for a proper film adaptation. Warner Brothers looked to novelist William Faulkner to pen the script for The Big Sleep. Faulkner was an immensely successful author, with famous works including The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Hawks befriended the writer when he made his way to Hollywood in 1932 after falling on hard times financially. The duo worked on several films together well into the late 1940s.
Despite being well-known for its puzzling plot, The Big Sleep is regarded as an essential film noir. In the film, Detective Philip Marlowe (played by Bogart) searches for a young man named Sean Regan who has mysteriously disappeared. A common story in noir, but in The Big Sleep it almost hardly matters. The smart, clever dialogue and compelling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall make the movie a must-see. Although we do find out who killed Regan, it’s the process of the investigation that’s the most fascinating, not the result.
After viewing a rough cut of the film, Bacall’s agent called Warner to have changes to the film made. The final theatrical version exploits the Bogey and Bacall chemistry by making it the primary relationship of the movie. Supporting performances were either cut down (such as Martha Vickers’ character) or some were eliminated completely. The studio had to alter several aspects of the original story to fit the rules of the Motion Picture Production Code. Originally, Chandler’s novel had more overt sexual themes that did not conform to the Hays Code. The original 1945 version of The Big Sleep was previously only available on rare 16mm prints until it received a restoration in 1996 by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Warner Brothers studio chief Jack Warner gave director Howard Hawks $50,000 to buy the rights to Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep. Hawks purchased the rights for $5,000 and kept the rest for himself.
Look closely and viewers can see that many of the cars in the movie have a “B” sticker in the lower-right corner of their windshields. These stickers were widely used during World War II for wartime gasoline rationing. “B” stickers meant the vehicle was entitled to only eight gallons of gasoline a week.
The Big Sleep is the second of four films that Bogart and Bacall made together. They followed this film with Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). The pair were together for 12 years before Humphrey Bogart’s death in 1957.
What’s your favorite film noir? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.