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The Big Sleep

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about the seminal hard-boiled detective film The Big Sleep. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep is adapted from the classic crime novel by Raymond Chandler

David Hast: Scott have you seen the big sleep?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen the big sleep and I have seen it many many times I love it.

DH: Oh yeah I mean it's not just it's not just the fact that it's directed by Howard Hawks it's based on a novel by Raymond Chandler which I've also read of course it's the introduction to Bogie and Bacall's you know their relationship and yeah fantastic movie.

DH: Well it's not. Totally the introduction to that because the first movie they were in was To Have and Have Not a couple years earlier.

SVW: Oh, I thought that came afterwards. Okay.

DH: No, To Have and Have Not is the one, 1944, the film adaptation of what many people consider to be Ernest Hemingway's worst novel. Howard Hawke certainly did. That's what he told Hemingway. And no, that's the movie that's famous for the scene where they're together and she says, you know how to whistle, don't you? She's 19 years old and you can see them falling in love on the screen. I mean, in the scenes, Bogart is completely stricken, struck by her. And, you know, Bogart was what 20 or at least 20, maybe 25 years older than Lauren Bacall. But it was a genuine deep romance and they fell in love in that movie.

SVW: And they were together the rest of their lives. Yeah. His life, because he died, he passed away before she did.

DH: Right. He died. Not that he was in his 50s still I think when he died of cancer.

SVW: Well, The Big Sleep is really important for two things in terms of Humphrey Bogart. He in 1941 he was in John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon where he played Sam Spade who is along with now in The Big Sleep with Philip Marlowe the two most important hard-boiled detectives.

DH: Uh huh, yeah. Yeah, I mean this is... starting with those movies, The Maltese Falcon and then The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is not a detective film, but is one of the ones. And High Sierra, Raoul Walsh, where he's a gangster. But those are the movies in the early 40s when Bogart made the transition from just playing a gangster to leading man and leading romantic man and often playing these detective characters.

SVW: And The Big Sleep had a great screenplay, William Faulkner, who also worked on the screenplay for To Have and Have Not. And he collaborated with Lee Brackett, who was known as a science fiction, one of the early women science fiction writers.

DH: Yeah. And the fact that Brackett's a woman is very important because we're talking about Howard Hawks today, right? And Hawks is known for, you know, what his stories are about, are often… the camaraderie between men, groups of men. But there's always, he's certainly no feminist, but he always has one really strong female character who's important in it. And I think Lee Brackett, as a writer on some of those movies, was putting the strength behind the female leads.

SVW: And yeah, you talk about some great strong female characters in his screwball comedy bringing up baby Katherine Hepburn Rosalyn Russell and his girl Friday Barbara Stanwyck and ball of fire I mean you don't have strong any stronger female characters than those.

DH: That's right, you know and And when we look at it, let's look at Hawks, you know The big picture about Hawks Howard Hawks was a guy who nowadays right is considered one of the greatest directors In of the Golden Age of Hollywood, you know top five maybe, you know, certainly top 10. But at the time, during the 40s and 50s, he was maybe a little bit overlooked just because he didn't have a distinct visual style, the critics didn't think he was a true auteur. But when you look back at him now, I looked at an IMDB before we did this, he only has 47 directing credits and a bunch of those are early, like either silent era or the very early sound era. If you start with like what's his first great masterpiece. It's Scarface in 1932 and he only has 35 credits after that. He directed 35 films starting with Scarface and I can't think of a director that has a higher percentage of masterpieces among those.

SVW: And the variety as well in terms of genres.

DH: Right Scarface was his shot at the gangster thing then as you mentioned he did several screwball comedies. All of them great movies, right? 20th Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Ball of Fire. He did some war pictures, Sergeant York, and some action romance pictures, like Only Angels Have Wings with Gary Cooper and, I'm sorry, not Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Again, another really strong female character. Then he did these film noir detective films. He did one sci-fi film, The Thing.

SVW: The thing from another world based on a John Campbell Jr. short story.

DH: Right, right.

SVW: And later remade into a modern masterpiece by John Carpenter.

DH: Yes, and you go on the internet and search Howard Hawks, John Carpenter, and you'll find videos of John Carpenter talking about how he worshiped Howard Hawks. And he met him when he was a film student and Hawks came to USC and he asked him about the thing at the time. And lo and behold, what, 20 years later, he made the, he remade that movie. And then Hawks also made five Westerns with John Wayne.

SVW: And in fact,

DH: some of them are great movies.

SVW: And when I first became, you know, into film, that's what I first learned about Howard Hawks was his Westerns.

DH: So Red River,

SVW: Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo.

DH: Yeah. And Red River and Rio Bravo are the masterpieces among those. Red River is the first. And it, John Wayne plays a pretty bad character in that, which is enjoyable to watch, the couple of times where John Wayne does that, like in this and The Searchers. And then Rio Bravo is just a wonderful buddy picture, comic, light, it's a really interesting movie with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, who can barely act, but still pulls it off.

SVW: Yeah, it's a western that's also a comedy.

DH: Yeah, yeah. And even a touch of a musical, you couldn't have this like teen star Ricky Nelson from the 50s and Dean Martin without having their them sing which they do in one scene.

SVW: And then also the sex comedies monkey business with Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers and gentlemen prefer blondes.

DH: But we should talk about what is it that makes Howard Hawks so great and why should people Rediscover Howard Hawks and watch all these great movies When we talked about screwball comedies, we talked about like his girl Friday. We talked about his incredible talent for doing very fast overlapping dialogue.

SVW: But he also has a very kind of an invisible style too, in terms of filming things.

DH: Yeah, he's not really interested in being showy with the camera. In a way, he's like the opposite of Hitchcock. If you're a film student and you want to understand technique in film, you just watch something like Hitchcock, you're not gonna learn it from Hawks because it's just very straightforward, almost formulaic, but his characters and his stories are so great, you just wanna keep watching.

SVW: Play Orson Well's famous quote Orson Well's to Peter Bogdanovich. He said Hawks is great prose and Ford, John Ford is poetry.

DH: Oh, that's really interesting. Yeah. I think that's a good way of looking at it. So Scott, do you have a favorite Howard Hawks film? I know you're a fan of his.

SVW: Yeah, I would say that it would be a combination of this film, The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and maybe The Thing From Another World. I mean, those would be the ones that really, I can remember seeing them as a kid. Before I actually even knew who Howard Hawks was, I saw those movies on TV back in the 1970s.

DH: Yeah, these are the kind of movies that would show over and over again on TV because they're so entertaining.

SVW: Also Red River is a great one of the great westerns.

DH: Yeah, The Big Sleep is just so much fun because it manages to be there. There are people who say it's the greatest film noir. You know, it's the greatest like detective noir film. Maybe some hardcore noir fans aren't going to agree with that. They're going to put a lot of others first, but you can't deny it's just totally engaging plot and characters.

SVW: Well, and even taking it out of the necessary, you know, the necessary, not necessarily the noir category, but the hard-boiled detective category, it is the greatest film probably alongside the Maltese Falcon.

DH: Yeah, yeah, that's a good way to put it. We shouldn't be looking at it as one of those kind of rough-edged film noirs, but more a detective film. Yeah. And it's Humphrey Bogart at the absolute peak of his powers. Lauren Bacall is just getting started. I mean, Bacall had a very long... career and she's still in her early 20s at that point. One of my favorites is Only Angels Have Wings.

SVW: Which I don't believe I've ever seen.

DH: Yeah, it's an odd film. It's about this group of pilots who deliver the mail down in South America led by Cary Grant. Again, it's one of these films. It's about camaraderie between men. And then a woman comes into the story, Jean Arthur who of course has to be just as tough as Cary Grant. And it's, I mean, you look at it now, there's people that wouldn't like it now because it almost looked fake. The special effects and the little models they used for the airplanes look really old, but it's just a great romance. And it's got that, you know, again, no matter how serious his films are, he always has this light touch to them.

SVW: And his final film was, I believe, was it Rio Lobo in 1970? Was that his final film?

DH: I haven't seen any of the later Westerns, although in researching for the show today, someone said that Rio Bravo, which is maybe his greatest Western, or Red River, they said that both El Dorado and Rio Lobo are essentially just remakes of it. They all have basically the same idea for the story, like a group of men who are completely outnumbered and have to defend some. Take the moral high ground and defend a town kind of thing.

SVW: Well Howard Hawks he was a one of the directors that when I when I got into film school he was always paired up with John Ford and as the epitome of the classic Hollywood directors.

DH: Yes I agree. Thank you Scott.

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David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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