The Big Sleep (1946):  Who killed the chauffeur?

Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Opening credits from The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) opening banner

In every romance novel, there’s a moment when all hope seems lost. 

For Bogie and Bacall, that time was the shooting of The Big Sleep.

Bogart’s wife Mayo sensed the threat Bacall posed and promised to stop drinking.  Bogart felt he owed his marriage one more try and broke things off with Bacall.  He moved in and out of his house with Mayo, leaving Bacall sick with despair as he yo-yoed between the two women.

The months he spent trying to give up Bacall were among the most wretched of his life.

Wracked with guilt and believing that leaving Mayo was a dereliction of duty (his first two divorces were mutual), Bogart went on a drinking binge that left him unable to film for days. 

Meanwhile, Howard Hawks and the screenwriters were having a hell of a time adapting Raymond Chandler’s complicated detective novel.  The restraints of the production code were impossible to meet with a story about a pornography ring and a nymphomaniac.  They wrote as they filmed, tearing out scenes and trying to condense Chandler’s plot into a two hour film.  Actors waited while Hawks rewrote scenes in the morning that were rehearsed and filmed the same afternoon.

And nobody—not even Raymond Chandler—knew who the hell killed the chauffeur.

When script girl Meta Carpenter noted this was, “a dangerous way to make a motion picture,” it was a hell of an understatement.

Weeks late and over budget, Hawks somehow brought The Big Sleep in for a landing in January 1945, but Warner Brothers prioritized releasing all their war films before World War II ended and the audience lost interest. 

While the original cut of The Big Sleep gathered dust, Bogart made his decision.  He could not walk away from the promise of a happy life with Betty Bacall.  He divorced Mayo, leaving her a generous settlement and in the care of her mother.  Mayo would die only six years later at 47 from the ill effects of a lifetime of excessive drinking.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Big Sleep (1946)
On the set of The Big Sleep

Knowing it was time to fold, Howard Hawks sold Bacall’s contract to Warner Brothers.

Yet a year later when Warner Brothers decided to release the film, all involved knew that it needed more of the Bogart-Bacall sizzle.  Penny pinching Jack Warner uncharacteristically (and shrewdly, it turned out) authorized additional work on the film.

So the band got back together and shot fifteen minutes of classic Bogart and Bacall footage, including a scene loaded with sexual dialogue in which they compare one another to race horses.

You’ve got a touch of class,” Bogart (as Marlowe) tells her.  “But I don’t know how far you can go.”

A lot depends on who’s in the saddle,” she retorts with a grin.

To make room for the additional scenes, they cut thirteen minutes of exposition, and any chance that anyone could ever follow the plot of the film.

With such a chaotic backstory, The Big Sleep has no business being a classic.

But it is, proving the Bogie-Bacall chemistry from To Have and Have Not was no fluke.

Though he’s been played by many men (including Liam Neeson in the upcoming 2023 release Marlowe), ear tugging Humphrey Bogart will always be the quintessential Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep opens with General Sternwood hiring the private investigator to stop a bookseller named Arthur Geiger from blackmailing his younger daughter Carmen over unpaid gambling debts. 

Overnight, the case escalates—Marlowe breaks into Geiger’s house and finds Carmen out of her mind on drugs with an empty camera and Geiger’s body at her feet.  Marlowe takes Carmen home, makes time for some quick, sexy repartee with her sister Vivian (Bacall), then returns to the scene of the crime and finds Geiger’s body missing.

Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep (1946)

Oh, and Sternwood’s chauffeur was found dead when his limo crashed into the river.

Marlowe discovers what was in the camera when Vivian brings a new blackmail note demanding $5,000 for the negatives of compromising photographs of Carmen taken the night before.

It’s a thorny case, but Marlowe is up to the job.  Soon he’s tangling with Geiger’s gangster landlord Eddie Mars, Sternwood’s previous blackmailer Joe Brody, and Lash Canino who…well, I can’t exactly remember his role.

The Big Sleep’s thrills come from Marlowe figuring out the crime, even if we can’t. 

It’s a delicious film noir that has more sex and humor than hard boiled cynicism.  Every woman in the picture wants Marlowe, from Carmen who tried to, as Marlowe puts it, “sit on my lap while I was standing up” to the mousy bookseller played by a young Dorothy Malone.  She sheds her glasses, lets down her hair, and helps Marlowe wait out a rainy afternoon stakeout.

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep
Dorothy Malone, Humphrey Bogart

Even a female cab driver tells him he can call if he needs to use her again.

“Day and night?” Marlowe asks.

“Night’s better,” she says.  “I work during the day.”

Humphrey Bogart and Joy Barlow in the The Big Sleep (1946)
Bogart, Joy Barlow

Sure, the plot is impossible to follow.  But so what?

Bogart is double-crossed, beaten, and tied-up.  He throws punches, tosses around double entendres with beautiful women, smokes cigarettes, solves the case, and gets Bacall in the end.

Nobody cares who killed the chauffeur.

Lauren Bacall as Vivian and Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • McCarthy, Todd.  Howard Hawks:  The Grey Fox of Hollywood.  1997.
Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

4 thoughts on “The Big Sleep (1946):  Who killed the chauffeur?

  1. I found it educational to compare this to the 1978 version, which features your lampshade star Jimmy Stewart. By 1978, you have have all the violence, nudity and porn refereces, and it’s actually closer to the original story. But some things are better suggested than seen; the ’78 version is a travesty, and this one is still smoking hot….

  2. Pingback: Dark Passage (1947): Happiness Against All Odds - Melanie Novak

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