A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Two of the names mentioned most often in Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" (1946) are Owen Taylor and Sean Regan. One is the chauffeur for the wealthy Sternwood family. The other is an Irishman hired by old Gen. Sternwood "to do his drinking for him." Neither is ever seen alive; Regan has disappeared mysteriously before the movie begins, and Taylor's body is hauled from the Pacific after his Packard runs off a pier. Were they murdered? And does it even matter, since there are five other murders in the film?
One of the best-known of all Hollywood anecdotes involves the movie's confusing plot, based on the equally confusing novel by Raymond Chandler. Lauren Bacall recalls in her autobiography, "One day Bogie came on the set and said to Howard, 'Who pushed Taylor off the pier?' Everything stopped." As A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax write in "Bogart," "Hawks sent Chandler a telegram asking whether the Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was murdered or a suicide. 'Dammit I didn't know either,' " Chandler recalled. And Chandler later wrote to his publisher, "The girl who played the nymphy sister (Martha Vickers) was so good she shattered Miss Bacall completely. So they cut the picture in such a way that all her best scenes were left out except one. The result made nonsense and Howard Hawks threatened to sue... After long argument, as I hear it, he went back and did a lot of re-shooting."
It is typical of this most puzzling of films that no one agrees even on why it is so puzzling. Yet that has never affected "The Big Sleep's" enduring popularity, because the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.
The process follows private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he finds his way through the jungle of gamblers, pornographers, killers and blackmailers who have attached themselves to the rich old general (Charles Waldron) and his two randy daughters (Bacall and Vickers). Some bad guys get killed and others get arrested, and we don't much care--because the real result is that Bogart and Lauren Bacall end up in each other's arms. "The Big Sleep" is a lust story with a plot about a lot of other things.