The Big Sleep is one of the progenitors of Film Noir along with The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Third Man. The Big Sleep is the great Detective novel adaptation, bringing to life Raymond Chandler’s immortal character Philip Marlowe.
Philip Marlowe is played by Humphrey Bogart but has a personality diametrically opposed to Sam Spade. Whereas Sam Spade is mean, Philip Marlowe is charming. Whereas Sam Spade is gritty, Philip Marlowe is genteel. Whereas Sam Spade is self-interested, Philip Marlowe wants justice. Watching the two movies back-to-back gives you a sense of Film Noir’s two different types of protagonist embodied by the same actor.
The plot of The Big Sleep is confusing to causal viewers and isn’t going to make any more sense if you pay attention. Why? Because there are plot holes large enough you can drive your car through. Famously, the creators of the movie contacted Raymond Chandler to ask who killed a certain character in the movie only for the author to admit he had no idea.
Really, the heart of The Big Sleep is its atmosphere and mood. Humphrey Bogart's character moves from scene to scene with the tension never breaking. Chandler’s Law is a famous line by said author where he said, whenever the plot slows down, have a man enter the room with a gun. That is fully in force here with plenty of scenes where our hero is threatened out of nowhere.
Ostensibly the plot involves the attempt by an unknown party to blackmail an old millionaire with two beautiful but ‘wild’ daughters. The plot takes numerous twists and turns with the blackmail element fading under an increasingly high body count. Philip Marlowe manages the plot with surprisingly aplomb, not only dealing with the increasingly Byzantine plot but romance not one but two ladies.
The Big Sleep, in his own way, a prototype for the later James Bond films. There is a bevy of beautiful women scattered throughout the story, all attracted to Humphrey Bogart’s character. While the movie is relatively tame by modern standards, it pushed the envelope considerably for its time with sexual innuendo and outfits designed to show the attractiveness of its cast.
Chief amongst these lovely ladies is Lauren Bachall’s character of Mrs. Rutledge. The sexual and intellectual equal of Philip Marlowe. She is not a Damsel in Distress but playing the game every bit as well as our hero, often running her own schemes counter to his plans.
Really, you wouldn't be mistaken if you said the chief reason to see this movie is Boggart and Bachall's sizzling chemistry. It's rare, even today, for movies to give the love interest lead every bit as much to do as the male protagonist. Bachall not only manages to entertain in the scenes she does get, her character is a central part of the intrigue going on.
I'm also fond of Marlowe's foil, Eddie Mars, who is a character who seems above board but is involved in virtually everything corrupt in the city. Figuring out just whose side he's on is a big part of the movie's appeal. The answer doesn't come until the very end.
In conclusion, The Big Sleep is an excellent story with plenty of things going for it. I recommend it to all fans of Film Noir. The story isn't quite as memorable or tightly written as The Maltese Falcon but that is hardly a condemnation. There's a reason Raymond Chandler's works remain the bedrock on which Hardboiled fiction is written.