Fresh Clues to an Old Mystery | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

Fresh Clues to an Old Mystery 

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For all its reputation as a classic, and despite the greatness of Howard Hawks as a filmmaker, The Big Sleep has never quite belonged in the front rank of his work--at least not to the same degree as Scarface, Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, Red River, The Big Sky, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo, to cite my own list of favorites. Unlike To Have and Have Not (1944)--Hawks's previous collaboration with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, cinematographer Sid Hickox, and composer Max Steiner--it qualifies as neither a personal manifesto on social and sexual behavior nor an abstract meditation on jivey style and braggadocio set within a confined space, though it periodically reminds one that exercises of this kind are what Hawks did best. Most of the time, the film's energy and aplomb are devoted to getting through its labyrinthine gumshoe plot without stumbling--a notable feat in itself, but more a triumph of accommodation than of unbridled self-expression.

Ever since Hawks was discovered as an auteur by a couple of eccentric critics in the 50s--Manny Farber in the United States and Jacques Rivette in France--critical approaches to his work have been hamstrung by his own notion of himself as nothing more than a gentleman jock and journeyman hipster. His main idea of self-expression was figuring out who to hire, how to mold and coddle his employees, and how to have a certain amount of fun with them while holding his own with studio management. Resembling a bandleader-pianist like Basie or Ellington, he understood how to show his personnel to best advantage. Sometimes this was a matter of setting one player off against another, and sometimes it was simply knowing when to lay out, when to solo, and when to feed chords to another player. As Todd McCarthy confirms in his new 756-page biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Hawks didn't even bother to direct the musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But that no more diminishes his stature (or the movie's) than the recent revelation that Billy Strayhorn actually wrote a lot of Ellington's best tunes reduces the composer's greatness (or that of "Take the 'A' Train"). Ellington's best music and Hawks's best movies are both supremely about the joy of people living and working together, and our knowledge of the trade-offs--even in some cases rip-offs--involved in these subtle transactions only enhances our sense of the artist's style and taste. As Farber once put it, Hawks's "whole moviemaking system seems a secret preoccupation with linking, a connections business involving people, plots, and eight-inch hat brims," and it stands to reason that plenty of these connections took place offscreen as well as on.

To demonstrate this idea, take a good look at the two versions of The Big Sleep that history has left us with--the first released to U.S. troops overseas in August 1945, and the other, much better known one shown domestically a year later. The recently restored first version--playing this week at Facets Multimedia, along with a fascinating documentary postscript in which film archivist Robert Gitt shows why and how most of the changes were made--reveals not how a terrific movie got better or worse but how, for commercial reasons, it got transformed into another kind of terrific movie. It also helps show us how the second movie has been read or misread in terms of the self-expression of various artists: Hawks, Bogart, Bacall, Faulkner, Furthman, and Brackett.

For years it was widely assumed that the celebrated delicious dialogue of double entendres about racehorses between Bogart and Bacall in a plush bar--a scene found only in the second version--was written by Faulkner, although a few commentators opted for Furthman. Now we know it was written by the relatively unsung (and completely uncredited) Philip Epstein, who coscripted Casablanca. Long after the other three writers had left the project, Jack Warner hired Epstein to beef up the interplay between Bogart and Bacall and thereby improve Bacall's image, which had been tarnished by her miscast appearance in the poorly received Confidential Agent, which appeared before The Big Sleep and after To Have and Have Not. Her highly influential agent, Charles Feldman, urged Warner to revise The Big Sleep in order to repair the damage, and most of the reshooting and reediting--and, in at least one instance, redubbing--was carried out in strict accordance with his suggestions.

Complicating and occasionally enhancing these revisions was the fluctuating relationship between Bacall and Bogart, who'd fallen in love while shooting To Have and Have Not. During the initial shoot on The Big Sleep, Bogart was still married to someone else and fitfully trying to make that marriage work, and Hawks, who may have had designs of his own on Bacall, was mainly interested in keeping his two stars apart when they weren't working together. By the time the three of them regrouped to shoot the new scenes for the second version, Bogart and Bacall had become inseparable, and as a consequence Hawks's relationship with both had cooled.

Though many of the changes in the movie, like the racehorse dialogue, were clear improvements, much of the plot exposition was excised in the process, leading to a good deal of speculation over the next half-century about who actually killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor. Out of this grew the tall tale, spread by Hawks, that no one working on the picture knew the answer and that when Hawks wired Chandler to ask him, Chandler replied that he didn't know either. But in fact Faulkner and Brackett's script fully answered this question in the prerelease version, and when their explanation was removed, an already intricate mystery plot became impossible to follow in a few particulars.

Biographer McCarthy builds an interesting thesis out of a comparison of the two versions, which he says "reveals The Big Sleep as the indisputable turning point in its director's career. The first cut represents the culmination of Hawks's dedication to narrative, to classical storytelling principles, to the kind of logic that depends upon the intricate interweaving of dramatic threads. The revised, less linear cut sees him abandoning these long-held virtues for the sake of 'scenes,' scenes of often electrifying individual effect, but scenes that were weighted heavily in favor of character over plot and dramatic complexity. When Hawks saw that he could get away with this, it emboldened him to proceed further down this path for the remainder of his career, with results that were variable in terms of the intent and quality of his work."

McCarthy's hypothesis--arrived at after seeing Gitt's restoration of the prerelease version and during the final stages of writing his book, when the impulse to cry "Eureka!" must have been irresistible--is seductive but far from indisputable. After all, Hawks's next picture after The Big Sleep was the linear (if somewhat episodic) Red River, and a lot more classical storytelling was to come in pictures like I Was a Male War Bride, The Thing From Another World, The Big Sky, and Land of the Pharaohs. Eventually he arrived at a looser, less linear kind of moviemaking in pictures like Rio Bravo and Hatari--unless one concludes that he was already concentrating on "scenes" rather than story line in a comedy like the 1934 Twentieth Century, or that the relatively abrupt ending of Red River conforms to Hawks's second manner. But McCarthy certainly has a point in singling out the two versions of The Big Sleep as emblems of dialectical strands in Hawks's artistic personality--warring impulses that inform most of his career.

During the 60s, when Hawks's personality as well as his artistic credentials were still a matter of dispute, a lot of ink was wasted on the relative merits of his version of Chandler's The Big Sleep and John Huston's version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon--surely a case of apples and oranges. Back then I was inclined to come down on Hawks's side, but today, when the battle lines are drawn differently, I find too many supplementary factors at play to necessarily draw such a conclusion. Obviously Hammett's writing is superior to both Chandler's and Huston's script based on Hammett--not to mention a good deal of "classic" Hemingway. It's less obvious but still defensible that Hawks's The Big Sleep is superior to Chandler's novel (at least if one prefers adolescent stoicism to adolescent self-pity and overlooks Chandler's more extensive grasp of corruption). And clearly Huston is more faithful to his source than Hawks and his writers are to theirs. But I have to admit that I find the macho fatalism of both directors lacking in terms of a comprehensive moral vision. Huston's Sam Spade may be more of a misogynist than Hammett's, and Hawks's Philip Marlowe may be more of a moral elitist than Chandler's, but in each case the change marks a trait in the director that's the flip side of what makes him shine.

In The Big Sleep, one has to weigh Bogart's sexual gallantry and attractiveness to Lauren Bacall's character and the various flirty ingenues he encounters on his rounds--most notably Dorothy Malone's bookseller and Joy Barlowe's taxi driver--against the contempt he and the movie express toward Vivian's sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) and a schemer named Agnes (Sonia Darrin), both dismissed as irredeemable, inhuman rodents packed with sex appeal. The cozy clubhouse atmosphere Hawks conjures up with such allure and panache is always predicated on such nonnegotiable exclusions.

If these exclusions seem more problematic here than they do in To Have and Have Not and Rio Bravo, it's largely because The Big Sleep has less affection and compassion overall (apart from a certain tenderness toward the aforementioned ladies and a few stranded patsies, mainly General Sternwood and Elisha Cook Jr.'s unforgettable Harry Jones) and very little of the same esprit de corps, apart from Bacall's song at a casino. For me, this is the major limitation of both versions of The Big Sleep--the impulse to turn some people into objects and expel them from the human race, which seems more a failure of imagination than an enlightened moral position. (A similar but far uglier position dominates Hawks's last film, Rio Lobo, and related forms of callousness in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday prevent me from including them in my list of Hawks favorites.)

I never met Hawks exactly, but 25 summers ago, when the San Sebastian film festival, where he was serving as president of the jury, offered its guests a day trip to Pamplona to attend a bullfight, I spent portions of an afternoon as part of his entourage. (It was during the Franco period, when perks of this kind were common.) Like others in the group, I asked Hawks a couple of standard film-buff questions ("Is it true that Andy Williams dubbed part of Bacall's singing voice in To Have and Have Not?") and got the standard answers ("Yes, he did, and so did Hoagy Carmichael and several others, but it was Bacall's own voice in The Big Sleep"--a half-truth at best, because Bacall's own voice was eventually used in the final cut of To Have and Have Not as well.) The main impression I had of him was that he was what my older brother in Alabama would have called a good ol' boy--the sort of cocky, amiable jock who hung around locker rooms and spent his time recounting anecdotes of one-upmanship in which he was always right and everyone else was always wrong.

The threads of desperation laced through such a pose are of course endemic to such a personality. McCarthy reports in his introduction that Hawks "felt so insecure as a director on his first few pictures that he regularly had to pull his car over on his way to work in order to vomit." Yet if it weren't for such desperation, I doubt he'd be remembered as the great director he was: it's the darker, more nihilistic side of his cockiness--his perception of the void--that gives his best work its metaphysical weight. (Is there any filmmaker who conveys a sharper sense of naked fear?) We know from various sources that Hawks was contemptuous of people who committed suicide--Andrew Sarris has some very suggestive things to say on this subject in The American Cinema--but surely this was the kind of self-protective cover assumed by someone for whom suicide was at times a genuine temptation.

Indeed, both versions of The Big Sleep--a noir whose almost pervasive blackness and coldness is broken fitfully by little warm nests of camaraderie and friendly lust--conjure up an unstable universe where playfulness and profound uncertainty are kissing cousins. The release version makes better sport of the playfulness and some of the nests even cozier. And the earlier version more lucidly pursues a deductive train of thought through this uncertain world--not only when it comes to explaining the chauffeur's death, but also when Marlowe snoops around a cottage where a murder has just taken place (a wordless piece of pure moviemaking, lamentably trimmed in the release version, that's good enough to recall the opening of Rio Bravo). In fact, the prerelease version offers a much better example of Hollywood enchantment than any current release you're likely to find.


The Big Sleep
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman
With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Pat Clark, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Sonia Darrin, and Elisha Cook Jr.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still (Bogart and Bacall).

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