Twin Movies Separated at Birth -
THE BIG SLEEP
The UCLA Archive's restoration of Howard Hawks' pre-release version of the
Bogart classic finally hits DVD.
In 1997, quite a splash was made on the classic film scene when The UCLA Archive
premiered The Big Sleep, not the 1946 classic, but an earlier, totally different
version unseen since 1945. This favorite film noir, with Humphrey Bogart playing
Raymond Chandler's detective Phillip Marlowe, had a truly unique production history. As
reported by the film's restorer Robert Gitt, it was finished early in '45 but shelved.
Warners instead concentrated on releasing its backlog of war-related films, which they
feared wouldn't attract audiences after the anticipated armistice. 1
This gave the studio time to second-guess The Big Sleep, especially in regard to
Lauren Bacall. Her agent strongly recommended that new material be written and shot to
give Bacall some more sultry dialogue scenes, the kind that had made her so popular in To
Have and Have Not. As Mr. Turan points out, a serious Bacall had not done well in
Confidential Agent, and the studio brought Bogart, Bacall and director Howard Hawks
back, almost a year later, for a week's worth of retakes to spice up their characters' relationship.
The result was the finishing of two completely legitimate but radically different
versions of the same movie. The first version was shown almost exclusively to troops
overseas, just before the end of the war. It was then shelved and largely forgotten all these
many years. The second, with an increased emphasis on Bacall, was the version released to
the public in 1946, the one we have all seen. When the eighteen new minutes of Lauren Bacall
went in, a lot of 'plot' oriented material came out, including one nine-minute scene in a
District Attorney's office that had served as a clarifying recap of confusing plot events and
Next to the racy Bogart/Bacall dialogue, the most discussed The Big Sleep topic
is its confusing plot, which, it was claimed, never made any sense. This has often been linked
to confusion on the set, or purposeful disinterest on Hawks' part. UCLA's restoration straightens
all this out - the original movie is of course complicated, but perfectly decipherable. 2
Besides painstakingly including both versions on the DVD, Warners has included the terrific
comparison short subject hosted by Robert Gitt which accompanied the first museum showings. It's not
a slick docu, just a thoughtful scene-by scene comparison and explanation of the whys and hows of
the two versions. Without the usual studio fluff, marketing hype or editorial opinionizing,
Gitt lays out the shots and the facts and lets the viewer take it all in as prime research. The
editing and relooping done to elevate the Bacall factor is astonishing, and a lesson in editorial
power. The comparison short subject is eye-opening film teaching of the first order.
When the restoration was finished in 1997, only a few revival and museum screening crowds were given
the opportunity to see it. MGM Home Entertainment, then in charge of the pre-1950 Warners catalog
through its owner, Turner, released the 1945 prerelease version by itself in an expensive
3-cassette Bogart-themed vhs boxed set, that didn't even identify the version therein. The first
opportunity for most of us to compare the versions came with several unheralded screenings on
Cable TV's Turner Classic Movies channel, which showed the rare 1945 version followed by the
Robert Gitt comparison short subject. Since its announcement viewers have been clamoring for
a more accessible release (it's been a constant reqest in Savant mail) and Warner's has finally
come through where MGM would not. Warners had already been adventurous with its DVD release of
twin English and domestic American versions of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train,
an interesting pair to study but not half as fascinating as comparing the two very
divergent Big Sleeps.
Now that the pre-1950 WB library back has returned to the stable at the Warners corral, perhaps
it will result in even more excellent and historically fascinating restorations like
this one. In the heyday of Hollywood Star Power ran the show even more than it does now. It was
common for studios to toss out all other considerations when the protection of the Star Asset was at
stake. The DVD of The Big Sleep goes a long way toward making the mysteries
of Hollywood production, a little less mysterious.
1 An interesting detail. It isn't well known, but
the weekly grind of combat-themed movies dried up quickly in 1945 (only
to return in a few years). John Ford apparently had a heck of a time getting MGM to make They
Were Expendable, and Goldwyn / Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives was thought to
be commercial suicide by many in the industry.
2 According to Hollywood Myth, Hawks
phoned Big Sleep author Raymond Chandler right from the set to find out who was supposed to
have killed the chauffeur
character who went off the Malibu pier in a sedan. Chandler is reported to have given
an answer, then taken it back, and then admitted he wasn't sure. Call me up in the
middle of the night and I certainly am not going to be able to remember something I
wrote five years before. Since this apocryphal confusion happened during the original filming,
it had nothing particular to do with the two versions.
Text © Copyright 1998, 2000 Glenn Erickson.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson