Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is one of the truly great Hollywood pictures: the Raymond Chandler novel is brought to the screen with panache and authority, and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is unsurpassed.
While the protagonist lovers are good guys and there is no femme-fatale, the movie has a strong noir aura. The darkly lit atmosphere and strong sexual tension shape our response to a grim and dissolute nether world where PI Philip Marlowe doggedly solves an enigma within a mystery, in a plot so convoluted not even the film-makers fully understood it.
The picture is essentially a love story where the lovers must overcome mutual distrust and risk all to escape a brutal nightmare of betrayal and death. The Big Sleep is a lot darker than the earlier Murder, My Sweet (aka Farwell, My Lovely – 1944). The Marlowe of The Big Sleep is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.
I find the actions of Marlowe in the final reel disturbing. He is almost a proto-Dirty Harry. Clearly shaken by the death by poisoning while he stood by of the small-time hood who leads Marlowe to the final showdown, Marlowe responds with vengeful brutality in the shootout with the goon, Canino, and then in the final scene when he confronts the crooked casino-operater, Eddie Mars.
While the killing of Canino at a stretch can be put down to self-defense, there is no moral justification apart from vengeance in the way Marlowe engineers the death of Eddie Mars – the killing is gratuitous and was not the only way out for Marlowe and Vivian. It is this final scene that marks The Big Sleep as a film noir. Marlowe has survived and got the girl – but at what cost?