Saturday, August 20, 2011

Film Noir, Part Three

Here is a post that I originally wrote on the Internet Movie Database:

Still from the trailer for ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946)
Stylistically speaking, The Big Sleep (1946) is not the most exemplary film noir. The best noir films seethe with hard, stark shadows and heroes (or anti-heroes) feverishly unraveling under ominous circumstances. And The Big Sleep is missing this kind of visual and narrative delirium. The cinematography, compared to other film noirs, is relatively even-toned, and the lead character is too self-assured, and too reassuring to the viewer, to allow the story to spiral into uncertainty.  In fact, Foster Hirsch, author of the book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, considers The Big Sleep to be the most overrated film noir.

However, The Big Sleep boasts something that no other film noir can: the ultimate film-noir actor — Humphrey Bogart — playing the ultimate film-noir character — quintessential hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. And this distinction more than makes up for any stylistic shortcomings. 

I wish that Bogart had done more films as Raymond Chandler’s creation. Wouldn’t it have been terrific if Warner Brothers had shortly afterwards adapted Chandler’s The High Window (a.k.a. The Brasher Doubloon) and The Lady in the Lake with Bogart playing Marlowe, instead of the adaptations that were ultimately made with other actors by other studios? In such a case, maybe Robert Montgomery’s noble experiment of a Hollywood movie seen almost entirely from a subjective camera — which his Lady in the Lake (1947) was — could have been based on a less canonical hard-boiled book. (But Dick Powell’s turn as Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet [1944] is so good that I wouldn’t want to erase it from the history books.) 

Some might say that Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, also played by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941), was the more definitive film-noir private eye and wish that Bogart had done more movies as that character instead. But Spade only appeared in that one novel, while Marlowe appeared in a series of novels by Chandler. 

Since the actor’s death in 1957, Humphrey Bogart has become an icon, a true star of the cinema whose image and mannerisms are indelibly ingrained in our popular consciousness — so much so that the American Film Institute named him the greatest male screen legend of all time.  Bogart has come to define the postwar Hollywood hard-boiled hero as much as John Wayne has come to define the western-movie hero.  Even now, when a mystery movie depicts a streetwise sleuth, that character — however tangentially, however unconsciously, and often deliberately — evokes Bogart.  And yet, he played fewer investigators in his varied career than his popular image would suggest.  


I can’t help wondering what it would have been like if Bogart’s filmography did more to live up to that image of the definitive hard-boiled private eye.  And I think that our popular conception of this kind of fictional figure owes more to the character of Philip Marlowe than it does to Sam Spade, whose name is usually invoked in summoning up this kind of detective.  For these reasons, I think that a handful of big-budget films with this archetypal actor as this archetypal character would do better justice to the standings of both Bogart and Marlowe in our popular culture and our collective unconscious.  



The trailer for ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946)

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