‘The Big Sleep’: Seventy Years Since Howard Hawks’ Electrifying Film Noir Masterpiece

After the romance-adventure film To Have and Have Not under the directorial guidance of the great Howard Hawks achieved considerable box office success, firstly due to the palpable chemistry between its lead stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and accompanied by very useful and free advertisement by the tabloids, who had a picnic out of the relationship between the up-and-coming Bacall and married superstar Bogart, Warner Bros. knew what kind of a promising product they had in their hands, realizing the potential of all future projects with these two faces on their promotional posters. Hawks then suggested adapting The Big Sleep, the hardboiled crime novel written by Raymond Chandler, who became an interesting figure in the Hollywood circles after the success of Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s film he co-wrote. The Big Sleep, which Chandler developed on the basis of his two stories (‘Killer in the Rain’ and ‘The Curtain’) published in the pulp magazine Black Mask a decade earlier, seemed as a perfect opportunity for Hawks and the studio to cash in on their Bogart-Bacall check. Hawks needed a capable screenwriter who would translate Chandler’s words and the convoluted, chaotic plot of the novel to the big screen. Besides the legendary William Faulkner, who joined the project and who would four years later get his Nobel Prize for literature, a chance was given to a young female science fiction writer called Leigh Brackett. When Hawks read her crime novel ‘No Good from a Corpse,’ he immediately asked his assistant to get in touch with this man. Impressed by the resolute woman who “wrote like a man,” Hawks would later work with Brackett on such classics as Rio Bravo, Hatari!, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Brackett, however, looked back at her collaboration with Faulkner with astonishment and humor. She was petrified at the thought of working with a writer of such stature, but was soon surprised by his modus operandi: he simply split the book into two parts, took his half and went to work alone in his room. When their combined effort resulted in a film too long to shoot, magazine-writer-turned-screenwriter Jules Furthman was hired to edit the material and cut it down to acceptable length.

Even though the film was shot mostly in 1944 and finished in early 1945, it had its premiere in the summer of 1946. Warner Bros. put it on a shelf so they could promote their other, war-themed projects which were timing-sensitive. It’s interesting to note that a careful eye can spot the film was made much earlier; for instance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pictures are all over the walls. In the meantime, however, a film called Confidential Agent came out, met with harsh criticism regarding Bacall’s performance. Also, test screenings showed that, even though people thought The Big Sleep was a good film, they felt it lacked the expected chemistry between Bacall and Bogart due to their limited on-screen time together. It’s easy to see why Hawks gave in under Bacall’s agent’s pressure to shoot some additional material. The agent knew Bacall needed a strong performance to get back into the critics’ mercy, and Hawks agreed a stronger emphasis should be put on the relationship between his two lead movie stars, hiring Julius J. Epstein of Casablanca to write the new scenes. The 1946 cut of the film presented at the premiere blew the audience away, but not without a price: upon seeing the older version, Chandler commented how American model and actress Martha Vickers, who played Bacall’s character’s sister, completely outshone her more famous colleague. In the final cut, Vickers’ role was somewhat marginalized to make room for the additional scenes. Hawks deserves a lot of credit for transforming Chandler’s edgy and provocative literary source into a film booming with controversial material. Hawks had to work within the limits of the severely crippling Hays Code and did wonders to keep the story and dialogue sharp and daring. Even under the burden of puritan censorship, The Big Sleep is filled with sexual tension and innuendo, and Hawks knows the best way to excite the audience is to give more or less subtle hints and leave the crucial, explicit material to their imagination.

While making The Big Sleep I found out for the first time that you don’t have to be too logical, you should just make good scenes. Faulkner and Leigh Bracket, a young girl who wrote like a man, wrote the entire script in eight days because they didn’t want to change anything. They said Chandler’s stuff was so good they wanted to leave it alone. —Howard Hawks

 
The Big Sleep is a complicated film with an overwhelming amount of plot points, information and blind alleys, which basically means it’s rather faithful to Chandler’s novel. Even though Bogart shot a scene where he explains in great detail what the hell exactly went on, Hawks chose not to use it, deciding it was more important for the audience to experience the process of finding the answers than simply the answers themselves. Without narration, the viewer was forced to explore the plot simultaneously with the protagonist, asking the same questions, which was a genius move because it makes the audience far more immersed in the film as they jump into Marlowe’s shoes and see the dark world around him through his eyes. The Big Sleep is also a film distinguished by some of the best writing ever done in the world of film, countless humorous and clever lines, exceptional atmosphere, the lead performers’ electrifying dynamics, Max Steiner’s fantastic music including the immortal theme, superb pacing that Hawks uses with the help of his esteemed editor Christian Nyby and the captivating play of light and shadow from the mind of expert cinematographer Sidney Hickox. This is a film rightfully considered one of the main representatives of American 1940s filmmaking, a full-blooded film noir with brilliant players both in front of and behind the camera, a true classic equally rewarding today as it was seventy years ago.

What we have here is a quite historic and rare screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman’s screenplay for The Big Sleep [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
The name Leigh Brackett, already surely familiar to every true fan of the literary genre of science fiction, is a name that should be celebrated by every film lover as well. Born exactly 101 years ago and often referred to as The Queen of Space Opera, she started writing and publishing her stories in various science ficiton pulp magazines at the beginning of the 1940s and soon established herself as one of the leading representatives of the space opera subgenre, but continued to work in various different genres with equal skill and success. Her 1944 novel ‘No Good from a Corpse,’ a hard-boiled mystery novel in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, not only introduced her to a wider audience, but steered her career towards the movie business, another field where she would become a prominent figure. Howard Hawks was so impressed by this novel that he asked his assistant to call “this guy Brackett.” In fact, this statement basically sums up the challenges and obstacles Brackett had to face on her way to becoming one of the most important writers of the century. She succeeded at distinguishing herself as a highly competent, original and strong voice in a field practically reserved for men, and in the early stages of her career she had to put up with a lot of skepticism and outright criticism for being a female writer of science fiction. Moreover, the nickname The Queen of Space Opera was mostly used as a degrading term, not a compliment: the subgenre she found most interesting and inspiring was then regarded as a lesser form of writing, some sort of an ugly child of science fiction and fantasy. But she stuck with it, defended it, becoming its champion and claiming science fiction should never be put into drawers and confined with labels.

She wrote that [The Big Sleep] like a man. She writes good.
—Howard Hawks, quoted in Hawks on Hawks

 
Her Hollywood dossier consists of a series of classics she either wrote and co-wrote: The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye, Hatari!, El Dorado, Rio Lobo and The Empire Strikes Back. For George Lucas’ Star Wars sequel she managed to write a first draft before losing her fight with cancer, and Lawrence Kasdan later took over and changed her material, but her role in the creation of probably the best Star Wars film can’t be ignored, as it was her who carved out the story with Lucas, and the biggest fans of her writing claim to easily notice her spirit and words in both the plot and the dialogues of the movie. But even before George Lucas pushed the genre of space opera into mainstream, Brackett had already been its champion and representative. The mentor to Ray Bradbury, a masterful storyteller of limitless imagination, exquisite writing skills and quite an impressive range, Leigh Brackett was ahead of her time just as she was ahead of most of her colleagues.

This interview by Steve Swires was conducted several years before her death and the post-humous release of The Empire Strikes Back, her final screen credit.

Your first screenplays were for The Vampire’s Ghost (1945), a “ten-day wonder” at Republic, and Crime Doctor’s Manhunt (1946), part of the Crime Doctor series at Columbia. You went from those B movies to The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks, in 1946. How did you manage so prestigious an advancement?
The “ten-day wonder” was because my agent, Hugh King, had been with Myron Selznick, my agency at that time, and he had gone over to Republic as story editor and had sort of managed to shoehorn me in because they were doing this horror film. They decided to cash in on the Universal monster school, and I had been doing science fiction, and to them it all looked the same—”bug-eyed monsters.” It made no difference. I did The Vampire’s Ghost there, and just out of the clear blue sky this other thing happened, purely on the strength of a hard-boiled mystery novel I had published. Howard Hawks read the book and liked it. He didn’t buy the book, for which I can’t blame him, but he liked the dialogue and I was put under contract to him.

You worked on the screenplay of The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. I wouldn’t say that you collaborated, but both of your names are in the credits as having written the script, along with Jules Furthman.
I went to the studio the first day absolutely appalled. I had been writing pulp stories for about three years, and here is William Faulkner, who was one of the great literary lights of the day, and how am I going to work with him? What have I got to offer, as it were? This was quickly resolved, because when I walked into the office, Faulkner came out of his office with the book The Big Sleep and he put it down and said: “I have worked out what we’re going to do. We will do alternate sections. I will do these chapters and you will do those chapters.” And that was the way it was done. He went back into his office and I didn’t see him again, so the collaboration was quite simple. I never saw what he did and he never saw what I did. We just turned our stuff in to Hawks.

Jules Furthman came into it considerably later, because Hawks had a great habit of shooting off the cuff. He had a fairly long script to begin with and he had no final script. He went into production with a “temporary.” He liked to get a scene going and let it run. He eventually wound up with far too much story left than he had time to do on film. Jules came in and I think he was on it for about three weeks, and he rewrote it, shortening the latter part of the script.

If you try to watch the film as a standard mystery, fitting all of the clues together to logically develop a hypothesis as to who the murderer might be, you find yourself continually frustrated by the narrative development.
I think everybody got very confused. It’s a confusing book if you sit down and tear it apart. When you read it from page to page, it moves so beautifully that you don’t care, but if you start tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, it comes unglued. Owen Taylor, I believe, was the name of the chauffeur. I was down on the set one day and Bogart came up and said, “Who killed Owen Taylor?” I said, “I don’t know.” We got hold of Faulkner and he said he didn’t know, so they sent a wire to Chandler. He sent another wire back and said: “I don’t know.” In the book it is never explained who killed Owen Taylor, so there we were.

In writing your portion of the screenplay, did you have any concept in mind of the role of the private eye as an archetypal hero?
I don’t think I dissected it that much. I was very much under the spell of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and I have written a few stories myself in that same vein. Something struck me. I liked it and I felt it, but I don’t think I really analyzed it as I might do now, but I was a lot younger then. I just sort of accepted it.

Are there contributions you made to the characterization of Philip Marlowe which are distinct from Hawks’?
I don’t know that I contributed too much to Marlowe, because I was taking directly from the book. This was the bible, and I wouldn’t dream of changing it. I think that the characterization of Marlowe as done by Bogart and directed by Hawks was entirely their own. On the other hand, I think Bogart was ideal and, as far as I was concerned, he was the greatest actor that ever happened. I adored him. Actually, it was a joy to watch him on the set because he was stage trained. On a Hawks film nobody gets their pages until five minutes before they’re going to shoot. Bogart would put on his horn-rims, go off in a corner, look at it, and then he’d come back on the set and they’d run through it a couple of times, and he’d have it right down, every bit of timing, and he’d go through about fourteen takes waiting for the other people to catch up to him.

I don’t like to say this, because it sounds presumptuous, but Hawks and I kind of tuned in on the same channel with regard to the characters, and I think this is probably one reason that I worked with him so long. He was able to get out of me what he wanted because I had somewhat the same attitude towards the characters as he did.

There is a revisionist effort popular with such critics as Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss to consider the work of the screenwriter in contrast to the auteur theory, which postulates the director as the author of the film. When you look back on the movies that you wrote for Hawks, do you see them as Leigh Brackett films or Howard Hawks films or as collaborations?
It’s a collaboration. The whole thing is a team effort. A writer cannot possibly, when he’s writing a film, do exactly what he wants to do as when he’s writing a novel. If I sit down to write a novel, I am God at my own typewriter, and there’s nobody in between. But if I’m doing a screenplay, it has to be a compromise because there are so many things outside a writer’s province. Hawks was also a producer, and he had so many things to think about that had nothing to do with the creative effort—with the story—like cost and budget and technical details that you must learn to integrate. You cannot possibly just go and say: “Well, I want to do it thus and such and so,” because presently they say: “Thanks very much and goodbye.” it just has to be that way.

You came out of the tradition of the pulp magazines, where you were allowed a degree of creative control. How did you react to having less control over your work in Hollywood?
I sort of went off into corners and wept a few times at things that made me very unhappy. I think the hardest thing about adapting to working with other people was that. Because I was a fiction writer primarily, and I was used to writing in a little room with the door shut, just myself and the type-writer—all of a sudden I’m sitting in this room with film people and I’ve got to talk ideas. God I froze. Everything I was about to say sounded so dreadful. It took me quite a few years to adapt and also to learn my craft, because I don’t think there’s anything better than screenwriting to teach you the construction of a story.

I was very poor on construction when I first began. If I could hit it right from the first word and go straight through, then it was great. If I didn’t, I ended up with half-finished stories in which I had written myself into a box canyon and couldn’t fight my way out. In film writing you get on overall conception of a story and then you go through these endless story conferences. Hawks used to walk in and he’d say: “I’ve been thinking…” My heart would go right down into my boots. Here we go: Start at the top of page one and go right through it again. But you still have to keep that concept. It’s like building a wall. You’ve got the blocks, and you’ve got the wall all planned, and then somebody says: “I think we’ll take this stone out of here and we’ll put it over there. And we’ll make this one a red one and that one a green one.” You’re still trying to keep the overall shape of the story, but you’re changing the details. It took me a long time, but I finally learned how to do it. It was exhausting.

One of the observations gleaned from an auteur-oriented examination of Hawk’s films is that certain sequences keep repeating themselves, being remade in different settings with different actors. For example, the scene in The Big Sleep where the gangster is in the house with Bogart and Bacall while his henchmen are waiting outside. Bogart throws him out and hawks cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets. That scene is reshot in El Dorado where John Wayne throws a cowboy out of a saloon and Hawks again cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets from the henchmen waiting outside. Your wrote the screenplay for El Dorado. Did you do that deliberately, or was that Hawks?
That was Hawks. I have been at swords’ points with him many a time because I don’t like doing a thing over again, and he does. I remember one day he and John Wayne and I were sitting in the office, and he said we’ll do such and such a thing. I said: “But Howard, you did it in Rio Bravo. You don’t want to do this over again.” He said: “Why not?” And John Wayne, all six feet four of him, looked down and said: “If it was good once it’ll be just as good again.” I know when I’m outgunned, so I did it. But I just don’t like repeating myself. However, I’m wrong about half the time. —Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber

 

LEIGH BRACKETT: WRITER OF TWO WORLDS

A rare conversation Brackett had in 1974 with Starlog Magazine, four years before her death. In this captivating piece, Brackett discusses her beginnings as a writer and a successful Hollywood screenwriter, her collaboration with William Faulkner on the script for The Big Sleep, working with Howard Hawks, as well as huge movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. This copy of the magazine also includes a beautifully detailed account on how she and her husband, renowned science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, met and fell in love. It’s a delightful read and we encourage you to give it a chance. Don’t only read the interview, read Leigh Brackett’s scripts as well. An inspiring woman who opened numerous doors for others and a great writer who used to sit in front of a typewriter and let the story develop itself.

Film critic Tony Macklin visited Leigh Brackett in 1975 for an interview that took place at her farm house in Kinsman, Ohio, where she lived together with her husband and fellow sci-fi writer Edward Hamilton. Courtesy of Daniel Martin Eckhart.

 
And a related gem—here’s Tony Macklin’s interview with the Howard Hawks, the guy who really gave Leigh Brackett the chance to bring her skills to some of today’s classic films, such as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. Courtesy of Daniel Martin Eckhart.

 
“Someone will spot this article and think—hey, there’s a great biopic in here—and I’ll be the first to agree. Fascinating times in Hollywood, larger than life stars—an elder man (Hawks) and an upcoming woman writer (Brackett) who would work together on classics like The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and more. And enduring friendship in a cut-throat town. Do we have bad guys in this stories—oh yeah, there’s a few up for grabs!” —Leigh Brackett and Howard Hawks

Reopening the lid on The Big Sleep’s seedy, decaying, depressive vision of Los Angeles in the midst of the 1970s noir revival, James Monaco weighs the merits of this “fullest, richest and most resonant” private eye movie, and places it at the “nodal point in the tide that was Hollywood.” —Notes on The Big Sleep, 30 years after

The Big Sleep storyboards by Bill Herwig, a former Disney animator of the 1930s.

1947 French grande for The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, USA, 1946). Artist: Rocher Vacher.

Howard Hawks, one of the founders of the Directors Guild of America, had a long and varied career ranging from pioneering aerial films to screwball comedies and rugged Westerns. A collection of vintage shots shows him creating Hollywood history. Click here to download the a PDF of the Photo Essay.

“Of the directors who shuttled on and off the Warner lot in the ’30s and ’40s, Hawks had by far the greatest range. Comedies, melodramas, Westerns, even musicals—everything seemed to be his dish of tea. He had spectacular relationships with Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and, of course, John Wayne—among the many actors and actresses he worked with so effortlessly.” —The World According to Howard Hawks

Part of the documentary series The Men Who Made the Movies. Directed by film critic Richard Schickel. Narrated by legendary filmmaker Sydney Pollack.

 
These cynical and pessimistic films from the 1930s and ’40s touched a nerve in Americans. Historians link the genre’s overriding paranoia to Cold War-related angst over the nuclear threat and the Hollywood blacklist. In addition, a cinematographer John Bailey demonstrates the creation of noir lighting, which gave films their peculiar look and emphasized the themes of corruption and urban decay.

FILM NOIR: BRINGING DARKNESS TO LIGHT

Film Noir burrows into the mind; it’s disorienting, intriguing and enthralling. Noir brings us into a gritty underworld of lush morbidity, providing intimate peeks at scheming dames, mischievous misfits and flawed men—all caught in the wicked web of a twisted fate. Gary Leva’s Bringing Darkness to Light is the definitive Film Noir documentary, exploring the roots of the genre, its expressions and meanings, and its influence on world cinema. Lavishly illustrated with clips from great Noir classics, the film explores the genre through interviews with filmmakers, actors, and writers such as Christopher Nolan, Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Michael Madsen, Gordon Willis, William Goldman and James Ellroy. Directed by Gary Leva.

Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep © Warner Bros., Warner Archive Collection, Getty Images. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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