Saturday, January 18, 2014

THE BIG SLEEP and the power of dialogue

So the cat and I are geeking out over the double-sided BIG SLEEP reward DVD. I ordered it as positive reinforcement for completing a tough round of edits on +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) . Yes, I'm still tweaking the book before sending it out to agents, but that's not why we're here.

On one side of this magnificent disc: the previously unreleased 1945 version of THE BIG SLEEP, complete with a marginally comprehensible murder-mystery plot, and a certain quantity of insolent, double-entendre-laden, sexy dialogue that I will here designate as X.

On the other side: the tighter but weirder 1946 version. Key expository scene deleted. Plot totally impossible to follow, but there's about (X+20% of X) more brilliant, insolent, double-entendre-driven dialogue. 1946 is at least five times better than 1945. Why?

I say it's the dialogue. Warner Brothers hauled out the screenwriters (amazing how little credit they get for the transformation in the DVD's documentary) and told them to build some more edgy, who's-in-charge-of-this-flirtation scenes for Bogey and Bacall. They did, and the added scenes are stellar. By adding them, Warner changed THE BIG SLEEP from a vaguely dissatisfying whodunit into a movie about a dame. Here's the cool part. It didn't matter that the plot became utterly impossible to follow in the second cut of the film. The second cut is the masterpiece, because now we know what Bogey's really after: that tough, troubled, provocative dame.

Lauren Bacall: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they're front-runners or come from behind... I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free....

Humphrey Bogart: You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.

Lauren Bacall: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

I don't know what the censors made of that in 1946, but I say it's proof of the power of the writer. If you establish and sustain a good love interest and get the lines right, you can overcome impossible obstacles -- like intricate, unfixed plot traps. (Sure, it also helps to have Howard Hawks directing two screen legends at the top of their game, but you get my point.)
The final version's screenplay is credited to William Faulkner (!), Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. I don't know who wrote the scene below, but it's magnificent.


Side note: Another interesting thing about the 1946 cut is that it is, unlike the 1945 version, a postwar American film noir, perhaps the very first in that genre. It's darker, more ambiguous, less troubled about good guys and leading ladies who are incompletely good than films made in the decade leading up to 1945.