Capital Celluloid 2021 — Day 114: Tue Sep 7

The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946): BFI Southbank, NFT3, 8.45pm

This 35mm presentation is also being screened at BFI Southbank on September 19th and October 4th. You can find all the details here.

Monthly Film Bulletin review:
One of the most gratifying reflections on the virtually impenetrable web of duplicity and murder that constitutes the plot of The Big Sleep is that, from Howard Hawks’ point of view, it really doesn’t matter who killed Owen Taylor. What does matter – and this despite the superb, spare evocation of desolation, rainy nights and an all-pervasive sense of genuine evil – is the illusion of suspense that the film so brilliantly sustains. However many times one sees the film and comes away baffled by exactly who did what to whom, it still regularly leaves one with the exhilarating feeling that perhaps next time all will indeed be satisfactorily resolved. (Notwithstanding the scriptwriters’ famous bafflement over the fate of Owen Taylor, the plot, which is clearly divided in two, can in fact be explained in a logical, if ultimately rather tortured fashion.) The film’s strength, as Hawks himself observed, derived in large part form a structure of self-contained, set-piece episodes, almost all of which are memorable for a different reason: the jungle meeting between Marlowe and General Sternwood; the sustained ’horse-racing’ conversation between Marlowe and Vivian at Mars’ club; the poisoning of Harry Jones seen through frosted glass; the confusion, worthy almost of the Marx Brothers, when more and more guns are produced at Joe Brody’s apartment. Quite outside the plot itself, the film turns on the way Hawks juxtaposes his male and female characters. There are a superabundance of vivacious women: the librarian; the cigarette girl and the waitress at Mars’ club; Agnes; Mona; Carmen (despite her instability) and, of course, Vivian Rutledge herself. The Hawksian women – tough, individual, opinionated – are all doers; in contrast, with the exception of Eddie Mars, the seedy gallery of male crooks are on the whole so entangled in the webs of their own intrigues and ambitions that they can only react to events. Although it was not seen as such by many of its early reviewers, The Big Sleep is also, of course, a witty, literate entertainment and one that has endured in the popular imagination not only for the famous Bogart-Bacall exchanges (loaded as they were in 1946 – and indeed as they remain today – with a delicious, explicitly, sexual charge), but also in a film that has ironically very little to do with the spirit of Chandler’s rather moralistic first novel, for the carefully placed Chandlerisms, the apposite, self-protective wisecracks and the tart summaries of character (“I assume”, Sternwood remarks of his daughters, “they have all the usual vices”). The plethora of killings now seems on the whole less horrific than it once did, while the film’s tone of escalating absurdity in a genuinely dark world grows if anything even more sprightly as the years go by.
John Pym

Here (and above) is the trailer. 

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