How do I love thee, "The Big Sleep"? Let me count the ways:
1. I love thee because thou are, for lack of a better term, a screwball noir. That may oversimplify it a bit, but "The Big Sleep" is, without question, one of the breeziest movies you'll ever see about blackmail, drug abuse, murder and, worst of all, the smoking of unfiltered Chesterfields.
The tone of "The Big Sleep" is attributable to two things -- the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the fact that director Howard Hawks thinks nothing about stopping the plot dead in its tracks in order to showcase the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
2. I love thee also because thoust women are more interesting -- and arguably smarter -- than the men in this movie.
I mean, look at the male representation -- Marlowe's client, Colonel Sternwood, is downright incapacitated, impotent in more ways than one. He can't do anything that doesn't involve a sauna. "I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider," he tells Marlowe. Then there's Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), world's worst blackmailer, who gets a slug in the gut just for answering a lousy door buzzer. And then there's hapless Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), who gets talked into taking a tall drink of poison because he's protecting a tall drink of water named Agnes.
Meanwhile, look at the women! There are so many that Philip Marlowe practically trips over them, from Martha Vickers as the unbalanced Carmen Sternwood to Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk with come-hither eyes, a sexy pout and two paper cups for that bottle of pretty good rye Marlowe carries in his jacket pocket.
And don't even mention the female cabby who gives Marlowe her card.
Then there's the smartest one of all -- Bacall as Vivian Sternwood. She's not only as smart as Marlowe, she's as tough as he is. That doesn't mean she throws her weight around; neither does Marlowe. But she's there to help him outwit the movie's most dangerous bad guys, and Marlowe respects her for it. When he tells her afterward "You looked good, awful good," it's a declaration of love as heartfelt as a Donne sonnet.
3. I love thee for thou go-to-hell storyline that leaves plot strands hanging like unconditioned hair. We all know that "The Big Sleep" doesn't make total sense -- Hollywood historians have been telling us that for decades. For instance, nobody has been able to figure out who killed Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, whose body was found in the family Packard in the water off Lido Pier. And, of course, it doesn't really matter -- even the script's loose ends were tied up as neatly as ribbons on a Christmas package, "The Big Sleep" would still be known more for its atmosphere and its quirks than its plot.
4. And finally, "The Big Sleep," I love thee because, at heart, you are a deeply romantic story in that way only cynical movies can be. You are the story of a Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses. You are the story of a slightly rumpled knight in blue serge who works for $25 a day and expenses -- one who displays emotion with a pull on the ear and a wince of a smile. One who fearlessly confronts bad guys who are taller than he is, with no effort made to hide the height difference.
Raymond Chandler described Philip Marlowe thusly: "As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it's going out of style." As played by Bogart, more than ably supported by the woman who was his best co-star in the movies as well as in real life, he's a hero for the ages.
And yea, verily, that is the truth.