Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep is one of the most influential detective movies ever to come out of Hollywood, ranking with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, which also starred Humphrey Bogart. What makes the film's success astonishing is that it had a troubled post-production history, requiring extensive reshooting, and a script that, in its final version, is so filled with blind alleys and red herrings that no one was exactly sure what the movie was about. The original Raymond Chandler novel had one of that author's more impenetrable plots, with a series of murders that constitute more of a web than a chain, and included key details, involving drug use and pornography, that had to be soft-pedalled in the movie. In the final cut of the film and the final draft of the script, no one ever explains who killed chauffeur Owen Taylor, and it's almost impossible to tell why fully a third of the other killings in the movie took place. Moreover, if it is important to the viewer to know what Arthur Gwynn Geiger is selling out of his bookstore, one has to read the book to find out. Hawks breezed past all of these potential problems by letting the dialogue and the action spill out so fast that one barely had time to acknowledge, much less absorb, a new fact or plot element before the next one was upon the viewer. Where he did slow down was in the fiercely sexual repartee between Bogart's Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall's Mrs. Rutledge, one of the most blatant displays of pre-coital jousting in a mainstream Hollywood movie at that time. The irony, for a movie that was ahead of its time, is that it was nearly two years late getting out to the public, as it was pulled and reshot after initial screenings, increasing Bacall's role, among other changes. The result was a mystery that remained mysterious, but also a cutting-edge movie with a razor-sharp sexual edge. And it turned out that this mattered a lot more than finding out who killed Owen Taylor.
by Bruce Eder review