Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Finding the Right Track

Nearly 15 years ago, Roger Ebert observed that "The Big Sleep," which premiered on this date in 1946, was "about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results."

Considering the movie's rather tortuous tale, that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

In the interest of entertainment, movies and TV shows usually spare audiences the more mundane details of a criminal investigation — and ordinary viewers probably would be amazed at just how many insignificant details there can be.

I never participated directly in such an investigation, but, when I was a newspaper reporter covering the police beat, I knew several of the city and county investigators and I know how many undramatic dead ends and red herrings they often had to pursue before they finally found themselves on the right track — if they ever did.

Investigators, after all, are human. They make mistakes, and they can find themselves on the wrong track very easily, especially when there is pressure on them to solve a high–profile case quickly.

I guess the process for investigating criminal activity — like the processes for making laws and sausages — isn't very glamorous. It is messy. It can get pretty ugly at times.

Anyway, I suppose the gauzy, almost dreamlike opening of "The Big Sleep," with the shadowy figures of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and the blurry–then focused–then blurry again title and names of the cast members, should have been an early indication of what audiences could expect.

Well, perhaps not. Little was clear in "The Big Sleep" even after one watched it all the way through. Besides, the same technique was used in "The Maltese Falcon" just five years earlier — and it was a hit. (Bogart himself said "The Maltese Falcon" was a masterpiece.)

"The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon" had a lot in common. They were both film noirs, and both were adaptations of novels by noted writers. A significant difference between the two, however, was that "The Maltese Falcon" was pretty straight forward in its resolution, and "The Big Sleep" was not.

I guess a certain amount of ambiguity was unavoidable. When the movie's screenwriters were making their adaptation for the screen, they ran into a number of problems — not the least of which was the fact that the writers could not tell if a character had been killed by someone else — or himself.

All that was really clear was that he was dead.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the writers wired the author, Raymond Chandler, with their question, but he couldn't shed any light on it.

The screenwriters encountered other problems adapting the book in a way that would conform to the requirements of the Motion Picture Production Code — also known as the Hays Code — which was the set of guidelines that determined whether a film was acceptable.

Movie studios and all the people who worked for them were, understandably, eager to remain in the Hays Office's good graces — but sometimes that was easier said than done.

And there definitely were elements of Chandler's story that were problems for screenwriters.

Originally, the character of Carmen (played by Martha Vickers in the movie) was the killer, but then the character of her sister Vivian (Bacall) would have been an accessory to murder, which would have been contrary to the Code. Consequently, the story was rewritten for the screen to cast suspicion on another character, a small–time criminal played by John Ridgely.

In the process, the writers created considerable uncertainty about who the killer really was — uncertainty that persists to this day.

The book also presented some sexual issues with which the writers had to deal.
  • One character in the book sold pornography (which was affiliated in those days with organized crime) and was homosexual to boot.

    For the screen, the pornography part could only be mentioned indirectly. Sexual orientation wasn't mentioned at all.
  • In the original book, Carmen was nude in one character's home and in another character's bed. That wouldn't do, either. She had to remain completely clothed, and her promiscuity could only be mentioned indirectly as well.

    (A memorable line from early in the movie had Bogart telling Carmen's father that she "tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.")
The timing of the movie's release posed other problems. Filming was completed around the end of World War II, but the studios of the day, fearing that interest in war movies would start to wane, decided to strike while the iron was hot and dumped their films with war themes into the marketplace all at once, delaying the release of less time–sensitive movies like "The Big Sleep." Thus, "The Big Sleep" was not released until this day in 1946 — even though it was ready in 1945. Well, "ready" really isn't the right word, is it? I mean, with the additional time, the screenwriters might have thought of more plausible rewrites and scenes could have been re–shot, perhaps ridding the movie of much of its ambiguity. At the very least, there were issues of timeliness that made the movie seem dated even in 1946 — some of the wartime dialogue could have been changed (i.e., references to rationing), and some scenes could have been re–shot so the sets could be more contemporary (with photos of Harry Truman, who had been president for more than a year, instead of FDR on office desks and walls). But the extra time was not used that way, and the movie that was released in 1946 was the same one that was completed in 1945. Timeliness was not the priority for "The Big Sleep" in 1946 that it had been for all the war pictures that were in the theaters in 1945. The Bogart–Bacall relationship was promoted rather heavily after being more or less introduced to the public two years earlier in "To Have and Have Not." The two were married by the time "The Big Sleep" was released, and the studio eagerly embraced the public's apparent acceptance of the union. As you can see in the poster at the left, the Bogie–Bacall angle was emphasized in the movie's promotion 65 years ago. Little was said about the author of the original story. It was Chandler's first novel — and a pretty good one at that (in 2005, TIME named it one of the 100 best novels of all time). Bogart was a quarter–century older than Bacall (who is still alive), and, in some circles, Bogart was seen as more of a mentor and Bacall was seen as an eager young student than as traditional spouses. I don't know what the truth was about their relationship, but it lasted until Bogart's death in 1957, and they made two more movies together, "Dark Passage" and "Key Largo."
Clearly, it was a partnership that worked.