Howard Hawks’ 1946 thriller, based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, is being re-relesed nationwide later this month. Bogart plays Phillip Marlowe, a private investigator called in by General Sternwood to deal with a case of blackmail. Sternwood’s two daughters are constantly getting into trouble, and it’s not the first time he’s had to bring in outside help. Bacall plays Vivian Rutledge, the elder of the two daughters, who is alternately trying to protect her sister, keep her father ignorant, and give Marlowe just enough information to satisfy him. Except Marlowe can’t stop once he’s on the trail of something; people keep dropping dead, and there’s a mystery to be solved.
The film’s main draw was the fact that it was Bogart and Bacall in a feature together, and the sexual chemistry between the two characters is the most memorable part of the film. Roger Ebert described the film as a ‘lust story with a plot about a lot of other things’ and it’s true that the rest of the plot fades into the background, and is simply less interesting than the interactions between Marlowe and Vivian. The intensity of the lead characters trumps the murder of minor characters. So perhaps having the big names that draw in the crowds actually works against them. Also, it appears the director and screenwriters knew that the Bogart and Bacall double act was the point of the movie, as they added in a scene that doesn’t further the plot in any way, in which the two characters discuss horse-riding – a scene abundant with innuendo, that for a film based on quick-witted dialogue, is pretty embarrassing.
Bogart cannot be faulted in his performance, he is smart, always one step ahead and very, very funny. His dry remarks and quick replies had the audience giggling, and he seems to have brought a very specific personality to the role. Phillip Marlowe is a man without ego, he’s likeable, and addicted to solving problems. He’s too much of a loose cannon to continue working for the police, and his draws his own line between right and wrong, which becomes apparent when he becomes attracted to Vivian; he becomes responsible for her. Saving her becomes more important than solving the mystery.
Bacall’s performance, however, felt slightly wooden. It may be that placing her with Bogart was simply overwhelming, or perhaps the fact that the two had been married for a year when this film was shot was complicated for her. It appeared any other actress could have fit into that role. Katherine Hepburn comes to mind as a good alternative. Vivian is a fairly unlikeable character, you never know where you stand with her. She’s changeable, angry, rude and an inconsistent liar. If she was perhaps smarter than her leading man, or more daring, something to make her appear worthy, or see what his attraction was, it would be a more obvious match. She does redeem herself, however, in the scene in which they reveal their love for one another. She sighs, half irritated with herself as they drive away from a situation in which they were almost killed. ‘I suppose I love you,’ she rolls her eyes. Here, was the heart of the character. It would have been nice to see some more development in this area.
The cinematography cannot be faulted, it is clear, and full of suspense without being overdone. It let the dialogue speak for itself, which with Bogart delivering lines the way he did, was the right choice. It’s also easy to underestimate just how funny the dialogue can be, and it provides welcome relief from trying to follow all the characters and who’s lying, who’s betrayed someone else, who the bad guy really is. It’s very easy for the viewer to feel like he’s not as smart as Marlowe, which helps build up a character who’s good at his job, but also makes us feel rather confused. The plot is complex and interweaving with lots of characters. Luckily, the dialogue lightens it up, allows us to follow along, take a break with a laugh.
So whilst the storyline is criss-crossing and fast moving, the dialogue is brilliant, quick-witted and funny. The actors do a great job of conveying the tone, which can be summed up as ‘something’s going on, but we’ll pretend everything is all right’. Every character in this film is a pretender, and Marlowe’s out to expose them. An enjoyable film, especially during the Christmas period. Just don’t go expecting Bogart and Bacall to be the equivalent of a Casablanca love affair. Expect fast-moving, fast-speaking, quick-quipping. And enjoy 114 minutes of a smart thriller, without a special effect in sight. Thrilling the good old-fashioned way, with a storyline and a smart-talking hero.