Unlike “The Maltese Falcon,” 1946’s “The Big Sleep” is deliberately imperfect, with convoluted plotting around gambling debts, drugs and pornographers alluded to in oblique, censor-abiding ways, and a number of strong, seductive women out for detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart). It’s not a detective movie designed with a resolution in mind — new characters with new motivations drop in seemingly every other scene, expanding the plot while giving Marlowe new threats. Smoky interiors and smoggy LA streets make up the physical layout of the movie and the psychological layout of the viewer.
As the story goes, nobody behind the scenes of the movie understood the story. In the process of adapting Raymond Chandler’s grimy, complex detective story, director Howard Hawks told his writers “not to change a word,” per Eric Lax and A.M. Sperber’s book, “Bogart.” Still, his penchant for incorporating improvisation and script rewrites led to the movie shifting to something incomprehensible, anchored only by Bogart’s expertly played sense of confusion. The actor tugged on his ear with every new piece of information Marlowe received, a tic designed by him and Hawks to endear him to the audience.
Investigating the blackmail attempt on the flirtatious socialite and “wild child” Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), Marlowe is led deep into a rabbit hole, steered in many directions by her sister Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) and a vast array of other characters. To capitalize on the chemistry between Bogart and his future wife, Bacall, the film had reshoots that essentially just let the two flirt with each other some more, and important priority for the movie.