Philip Marlow (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective. He is called to the home of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood is an old man with two rather wild daughters. His oldest is Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). The youngest and most troublesome is Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). The General’s trouble is with the younger daughter. The General has received a blackmail note concerning gambling debts that Carmen owes to a bookseller named Arthur Geiger.
Before he leaves, Vivian asks to see him. She suspects that her father’s real reason to hire Marlow is to find a man named Sean Regan. He is a friend and protégé of the General who abruptly left a month ago. Vivian implies that the problem is bigger than just gambling debts. She suggests that casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) is involved as well as Regan.
Marlowe goes looking for Geiger. He tails him from his shop to his house. As soon as he gets there Carmen shows up. After some time he hears a woman scream and a gun shot. He rushes inside to find Carmen drugged up and Geiger on the floor dead. There is an empty camera pointed at the bed. He gets Carmen out of there. He goes back to the house and finds the body is missing.
Back at home Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) shows up to tell him that the Sternwood’s current chauffer, Owen, was found dead in the family limo. The car went off the Lido Pier into the water.
The next day Vivian tells Marlowe that they got a blackmail note about some scandalous pictures involving Carmen. Marlow surmises they are from the film that had been in the empty camera. Carmen tells Marlowe that a guy named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) killed Geiger. When Marlowe gets to Brody’s apartment Vivian and Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) are there. Agnes worked for Geiger and is now in league with Brody to blackmail the Sternwoods. Carmen shows up with a gun looking for the pictures. Marlowe sends both Vivian and Carmen home with the gambling evidence. While trying to get information from Brody the doorbell buzzes. When Brody opens it he is shot. Marlowe chases the killer and apprehends Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty), Sternwood’s former chauffer. He forces Lundgren back to Geiger’s house where they find Geiger’s dead body in his bed. Marlowe calls the police.
Once Lundgren is deposited to the police Marlow destroys the pictures. Vivian pays Marlowe off plus a bonus. Case closed. Except to Marlowe. There’s still the question where is Regan and does he fit anywhere into all this? Marlowe can’t let that detail go. He knows there is a lot more to the story. And there is. More blackmail, more murder and lots more mayhem. “The Big Sleep” was released in 1946 and was directed and produced by Howard Hawks. It is based on the story by Raymond Chandler with music by Max Steiner. The Hays Code was enacted in 1934. Censors had a field day with Raymond Chandler’s novel. In the novel Geiger sells pornography, which at the time was illegal, is associated with organized crime and is in a gay relationship with Lundgren. The pornography aspect could only be alluded to and the homosexuality ignored totally. The book also describes a few nude scenes that had to be altered. You can read it, but you can’t see it.
The plot to the film is quite intricate. It is supposed to be one of the most confusing story lines in cinema. Just about everyone is either a murderer, a blackmailer or just a liar. The problem is sorting out which ones are murderers, which ones are blackmailers, which ones are liars and which ones are any combination of the above. Whether or not you can follow all the characters and their foibles is only part of the fascination of the film. The on screen and off screen love affair between Bogart and Bacall is the biggest draw. The confusion with all the plot twists and misdirection is a little baffling to almost everyone. Even the various synopses of the movie vary to one degree or another. None of that changes the wonderful noir experience of the film. Whether you can follow the plot or not the ride is everything. Murder, blackmail, pornography, drugs, cover-up, a femme fatale or two, a hard-boiled detective, alcohol, cigarettes and fog. What more do you need. Certainly not a plot.
During the scriptwriting Faulkner and Brackett couldn't figure out from the novel who murdered a particular character. They phoned Chandler, who angrily told them the answer was right there in the book. The two basically shrugged and returned to their work. Chandler soon phoned to say that he looked at the book himself and couldn't figure out who killed the character either. He left it up to them to decide.
There are a couple versions of the film. The original film was 116 minutes long. Changes and cuts were done, to basically play up the Bogie/Bacall angle, and the film was released in 1946. It ended up coming in at 114 minutes long. The original 116 minute film done in 1945 that had not been previously released was found in the UCLA Film and Television Archive and finally released in 1997. Hugh Hefner raised the money needed to pay for the restoration. The original 1945 version is referred to as the “Hawks film noir” version. The 1946 version is referred to as the Warner Brothers “movie star” version.
When Bogart read the script he thought some lines were too genteel for the character. He assumed Leigh Brackett wrote them because she was a woman. When he asked her to do some re-writes she told him they were William Faulkner's lines. She then made the dialogue even more hard-boiled and tough. After that Bogart nicknamed her "Butch."