The Big Sleep

Could Howard Hawks's mid-'40s detective thriller be the greatest Hollywood movie ever made? Quite possibly so, although this die-hard Hawks devotee judges the derby a photo finish amid frisky competition from the director's own Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Rio Bravo—all of which, like The Big Sleep, are not films of their designated genres so much as love stories in faint disguise. "You don't like to be rated," says Lauren Bacall's coltish Vivian Sternwood to Humphrey Bogart's private dick in a leisurely scene about halfway through, twirling her unlit cigarette like a horsewhip. "You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch—and then come home free." Likewise, Hawks allows his mystery to unfold at its own pace, and even to remain playfully unresolved. "I'm learning more about characters and how to let them handle the plot," he once remarked, "rather than let the plot move them." So what does it matter who killed Owen Taylor when there's all this endearing repartee swirling around, not just between Bogie and Bacall (and their characters) but between the detective and a gorgeously brainy bookseller (Dorothy Malone), a winsome cab driver (Joy Barlowe), a thumb-sucking nymphet (Martha Vickers), a justly sour gangster's moll (Sonia Darrin), and a diminutive gumshoe (Elisha Cook Jr.)—as well as between Hawks and the viewer. Expressing affection for every quick-witted character who crosses its frame, The Big Sleep is nothing less than a work of art, a philosophy of life and love, and the definition of bliss. It comes with me to the desert island.