Warner Archive has released yet another pair of essentials on Blu-ray: the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall classics The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). These films capture the famous twosome at their best, and with casts of supporting actors so colorful that they are constantly in danger of being upstaged. Both discs have a sharp, clean picture; where image is concerned, these are two of the most successful of the studio's recent Blu-ray releases.
The Big Sleep is notorious for having such a complex plot that even Raymond Chandler, author of the source novel, didn't know who did what in his richly corrupt noir. Where the movie is concerned, it certainly didn't help that a couple of scenes that could have clarified the action were cut from the final film.
I've watched this noir for years though, and I find that I care less about those details with each viewing. This is a film not so much to understand, but to experience. When dialogue inspires prickles of pleasure as it does here, you're more focused on the moment and less concerned with deciphering the big picture.
The Big Sleep is drenched in sex. It's steamy and seedy with unchecked desires. Even hound dog-faced private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) finds himself the target of constant, hungry female attention.
It begins literally in heat, as private eye Marlowe meets with his new client, General Sternwood in a sweltering greenhouse. Propped up in a wheelchair, he is a dying man who is resigned to experiencing pleasure by proxy. He is played by Charles Waldron, a mesmerizing actor who would soon die himself. This scene sets up the amoral tone of the film, where the pursuit of pleasure is destructive, but irresistible. Sternwood complains that the flesh of orchids is too much like that of humans and compares himself to a baby spider, living on heat. You can almost smell the rot, and it is strangely alluring.
While the banter between Bogie and Bacall is one of the supreme delights of this movie, and movies in general, they are nearly overcome by a fascinating supporting cast. In addition to Waldron, there's nineteen-year-old Dorothy Malone as a boldly erotic bookstore employee; Elijah Cook Jr. in a quiet performance that is both sinister and sympathetic and Martha Vickers, who nearly steals it all as the General's thumb-sucking nymphomaniac daughter Carmen.
Special features include the 1945 pre-release version of the film, a comparison of the 1945 and 1946 edits, a trailer and an introduction by film preservationist Robert Gitt.
Key Largo is a sharper-eyed film than The Big Sleep. Instead of drifting through an erotic, gritty dream, it builds upon the more recognizable frustrations of real life. There are the human losses of World War II, the pain of racism, struggles with addiction and the fear of being lonely and aimless.
Though Bogart had a tough guy image, here is one of many cases he was actually cast as a pacifist, more interested in defusing a dangerous situation, and only resorting to violence as a last resort. He is Frank McCloud, an ex-GI checking in on Nora Temple (Bacall) and James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the widow and father of a former war buddy, at their Key Largo hotel. The weary veteran seems uncertain of what to do with his life, but determined to approach his remaining days with honor and compassion. His dreams of peace are stalled when gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), his dipsomaniac moll Gaye (Claire Trevor) and a band of hoods take over the off-season hotel as they wait to complete a smuggling operation by sea.
Rocco is an odd character; he's terrifying, but the people around him seem to see through the bluster, at least a bit. He's big and beefy, and clearly willing to use his gun, but McCloud easily talks him out of an act of violence, and Papa Temple and Nora take turns attacking him, too angry and violated to be intimidated by this self-absorbed bully. Even his fellow hoods sometimes seem unimpressed with the mobster, either because they've seen it all, or they don't value their lives enough to care.
The pathetic, but tender Gaye is the only one who seems truly frightened of Rocco, and it's because he reinforces her own fears that she is worthless. Trevor is most deserving of the Academy Award she won for this role. Her heartbreak is visceral; she knows she's made too many wrong turns and she still cares. She's not yet hardened enough to stop wishing she could go back in time.
John Huston's direction is sharp and tense, but also oddly sentimental. He is just as likely to pull close to a tender moment as he is a moment of peril. That mix of emotions heightens the suspense; just as your heart swells for someone, there is a moment of danger, and it is more terrifying because you have been given a reason to care.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.