With its two different stories artificially stitched into one, confusing plot threads, various semi-solved murders and numerous speaking parts, The Big Sleep could have been one big soupy mess. But thanks to the witty script and sizzling chemistry between the two leads Bogart and Bacall, this film is a cracklin' good time.
Private detective Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, has never faced as formidable a foe as divorcee Vivian Routledge, played with feline grace by Lauren Bacall. Protective of her sickly father and just plain sick-and-twisted sister Carmen, Vivian is cool as she tries to lead Marlowe astray. She's also unflinching in the face of murder, which occurs quite a few times and isn't always convincingly solved by the script.
Naturally, Marlowe doesn't fall for Vivian's bluff, even as they fall for each other despite (because of?) their tough personalities. Although Marlowe has been played by a variety of actors, Bogart's Marlowe is the toughest of all, the one whom you truly believe has touched the bottom and survived. But this Marlowe hasn't survived unscathed--he'll do whatever it takes. It's not for nothing that when the second body is retrieved that Marlowe's cop friend asks if Marlowe did the deed.
While Bogart is convincing as a tough guy, he's less so as the chick magnet the filmmakers want him to be. He's propositioned by several women, not counting Vivian's nymphomaniac sister Carmen. And yet his strongest relationships, other than with Vivian, are with the Sternwood patriarch and Harry Jones. Although Marlowe's encounter with Harry is very brief, he later coldly kills two men to avenge Harry's death. And while Marlowe's and Vivian's relationship is on the surface a heterosexual one, Vivian's toughness and coolness are hallmarks of the masculine archetype that Marlowe is identified with, identifies with, is attracted to.
The film also stumbles with its artificially conjoined script. Originally based on two different Raymond Chandler stories, the dizzying, breathless pace of the film attempts to hide the disjuncture between these two stories. It almost succeeds.
Completed in 1945, The Big Sleep was shelved for over a year while being retooled to give Bacall a more prominent role. Her agent believed he was in a desperate fight for her career after her second movie flopped. He asked for her to be given more "insolent" lines in her scenes with Bogart. Who is more insolent is a matter for debate. But what isn't debatable is that building on their natural chemistry (Bogart and Bacall had gotten married in the meantime) makes the film sparkle.