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THE ORANGE SCREEN

Mysteries of 'The Big Sleep'

Heavily reworked original release, with its plot inconsistencies, is chosen for UCI screening.

December 04, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Probably the best-known remark about the famously scrambled plot of "The Big Sleep" belongs to Raymond Chandler, author of the novel on which the 1946 movie was based. Asked who killed the Sternwoods' chauffeur, a key murder left unsolved at the movie's end, Chandler replied: "I don't know."

Neither the director (Howard Hawks) nor the screenwriters (William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who adapted alternate chapters from the novel; Jules Furthman, who did rewrites and provided some of the best Bogart-Bacall wisecracks; and Philip Epstein, who wrote added scenes and inserted the sexiest double-entendres) ever did figure it out.

But that suits Philip Nowlen just fine.

"If you look at the [unreleased] director's cut--the way Hawks first shot the movie, which was relatively faithful to the book--it's coherent but very dull," he says. "The sequence of events makes more sense, but it's not a good movie. It's a ho-hum film noir."

Nowlen, who chose "The Big Sleep" for Saturday's screening at the UC Irvine Film and Video Center, prefers the original Warner Bros. release (which is being shown) to the director's cut, which was discovered and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and screened last summer at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar.

"What's interesting," says Nowlen, the UCI assistant executive vice chancellor for continuing education, "is that after they finished making the picture, they decided to reshoot scenes and add new ones to give Lauren Bacall more [screen time], and while they were at it, they cut stuff out and messed around with the sequence of events. That left things up in the air, but the result was more interesting.

"What's really interesting, though, in the director's cut, is why the Bogart character stays on the case," Nowlen adds, "because halfway through that version, that's the only mystery left. Although the Warner Bros. release has a kind of accidental quality to it, there's always more to see in it. So the accidents turned out to be astonishingly good."

The Bogart character, of course, is the famous shamus Philip Marlowe, a private eye for all hard-boiled occasions. And "The Big Sleep" is nothing if not hard-boiled.

Besides Marlowe, the chief characters are the insolent daughters of the millionaire who has hired him get rid of a blackmailer: One is a thumb-sucking, heavily drugged, maybe nymphomaniac (Martha Vickers) and the other a tough-talking divorcee with a gambling habit (Bacall).

When "The Big Sleep" was released in the summer of 1946, about 18 months after completion, film reviewer James Agee called it "a violent, smoky cocktail shaken together from most of the printable misdemeanors and some that aren't." Agee liked the picture, though it "puts you, along with the cast, into a state of semi-amnesia."

Agee's description of the picture's convolutions didn't leave much room for improvement: "Action and reaction drum with something of the nonsensical solace of hard rain on a tin roof," he wrote.

But in a seminal 1957 essay touting Hawks and other "long-neglected action directors," San Diego-based film critic and painter Manny Farber gave it a try, noting that "The Big Sleep," like the rest of Hawks' best work, has "the swallowed-up intricacy of a good soft-shoe dance." Farber reserved his most potent metaphors for what he most disliked: establishment darlings such as Fred Zinneman and John Huston, whose best works ("solemn goiters") were preferred over those of Hawks, Raoul Walsh and William Wellman.

Looking back, Farber contends that Hollywood committed a travesty by giving the 1946 best-picture Oscar to William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives"--which he terms "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz"--when it could have given it to a picture such as "The Big Sleep." It screens Saturday in the UC Irvine Film and Video Center, humanities instructional building, Room 100, near West Peltason Drive and Pereira Road. 7 p.m. $4-$6. (714) 824-7418.

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Imagine what Farber would have made of Cecil B. DeMille and his final film, "The Ten Commandments," which won the 1956 best-picture Oscar.

"DeMille actually made 'The Ten Commandments' three times before that one--in 1914, 1918 and 1931," says Ron Thronson, dean of Chapman's School of Communications Arts, who is teaching a graduate seminar on DeMille's work. "The first one is nothing at all like the second. It starts as a biblical story and cuts to a modern story about people breaking the 10 commandments. The bad guy's mother has a church fall on her, literally, because the right materials weren't used to build it. It's very melodramatic."

The second version "is probably the biggest of all DeMille's movies," Thronson notes. "At 3 1/2 hours, it's certainly the longest." The 1956 version has the most impressive special effects.

Wednesdayat Chapman University's Argyros Forum, Room 208, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. 7 p.m. Free. (714) 744-7018.

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