It would be nearly worthless if it weren't for its actors, mostly Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Howard Hawks keeps it moving with enough style that you don't really care about the plot, but even so Raymond Chandler's blatantly making it up as he goes along and you'd need diagrams from NASA to work out who's doing what to who.
I'll summarise what I remember. An entertaining old bastard hires Humphrey Bogart to help his daughter, who's in trouble with someone who may be a blackmailer. (His other daughter is Bacall.) Bogart finds a man dead in the house of the owner of a gambling place and there are photographs, but then the corpse disappears and another corpse is... wait, no, stop. This is about to get ridiculous. I actually wrote quite a big paragraph here, but deleted it again because it was unreadable. Basically you've got a bunch of people going missing, getting killed and/or being dodgy, some of whom we won't get straight in our heads because either we never meet them at all or else we first meet them about ninety minutes into the movie and promptly get them confused with someone else with a similar personality. Or am I wrong and those two really were the same person after all?
In other words, it's nonsense. It's not all Chandler's fault, but famously even he didn't know who'd committed one of the murders. Wikipedia says the story's "noted for its complexity" and "heavily influenced by classic Greek tragedy". Ahem. However on top of that, we've also got Hollywood taking a chainsaw to his story for the Hays Code. (a) The plot is meant to be based around pornography, which the movie changes into blackmail without saying who was blackmailing whom and for what. However Geiger still has his "rare bookshop", so don't ask me what's going on there. (b) Instead of nude photos, they have our wild girl sitting in a "Chinese chair", wearing a "Chinese dress". Uh-huh. She never gets naked into Bogart's bed either. (c) One particular character's supposed to be a murderer, but the Hays Code wouldn't allow that because of their relationship with the romantic lead (eh?) and so instead there's a suicide which the blackmailer exploited to... um... okay, I didn't understand that bit. (d) No murdered homosexuals.
This deserved to be unwatchable. However if you club your higher brain functions to death, it works really well. Any isolated five-minute chunk makes sense and is full of cool actors and memorable scenes. It also escalates well, going from "Bogart's in control" to "doesn't know what the hell is going on" up to "there's going to be blood". It's a romantic, bowdlerised version of the novel, but even so it's got atmosphere and tension. Its tough guys are tough.
That's all good, but what's special is that the dialogue is as brilliant as any you've ever seen. The best comparison points are Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, except with a "fist in your face" sensibility from the mouths of crooks and cynics. It's like poetry in its love of words and flamboyant language.
Then you've got the cast. I can't wait to see Humphrey Bogart's 1930s gangster movies. He's a proper actor, but also tough enough that it's a hoot seeing him go face to face with bad guys, even in a whitewashed movie like this. (You'll laugh your head off at "that working-over they gave you was about the best I've ever seen".) During the finale, he scared me! He's meant to be the hero! I need to see him playing a villain. Furthermore opposite him is Lauren Bacall, sizzling opposite him for the same reason that they were cooking in To Have and Have Not
. They fire the film up just like its predecessor, in particular rescuing the finale just when we've literally lost the plot. The movie turns to magic right at the end, entirely thanks to those two playing it to the hilt.
There were behind-the-scenes complications, though. I'm not even talking about the threat to life, limb and liver from Bogart still being married to Mayo Methot, although three months later he'd married Bacall instead. This film was completed in January 1945 and shown overseas to American servicemen, but then World War Two ended and Warners put it on ice for the sake of hurrying into cinemas a bunch of war films they had waiting. One of those was Confidential Agent (1945) and Bacall wasn't good in it. The critics took her apart and another such failure looked likely to kill her career, so Warners did reshoots on The Big Sleep to make it more like To Have and Have Not
. The scene where they talk filth under the flimsy cover of horses is the most famous of these additional scenes and... wow. Even for them, it's pyrotechnic. Interestingly a copy of the pre-release version was found in the late 1990s and the consensus appears to be that it makes more sense, but that the reshoots clearly improved the film. Incidentally a lot of it got reshot that shouldn't have had to be, because one of the original actresses was unavailable and Warners recast.
It's not just the Bogart and Bacall show, though. On the contrary, Raymond Chandler reported that Martha Vickers was so good that she was overshadowing Bacall and thus a lot of her scenes got cut in order to protect the star. Everyone's great to watch. I loved Bogart's relationship with Regis Toomey, which is refreshing in its use of the police. Elisha Cook Jr shows up late in the show, while Louis Jean Heydt and John Ridgely are scary and yet nothing compared with Bob Steele. The latter's Canino is an absolute monster, yet I still got the shivers when Bogie executed him. (That's the only word for it.)
There's one goofy way in which the film reflects pornography, though. Almost every woman finds Bogart irresistible on sight and ends up offering herself to him, like a porn film without the porn. That was ridiculous, although to be sexist for a moment they're also all gorgeous.
Other versions of this story are the 1978 Robert Mitchum remake
and (loosely) the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski
. I also don't think I've mentioned yet that this is a Philip Marlowe story. Well, it is. There are a few things here that made me blink, such the fact that the missing guy our hero admires is ex-IRA and the startling inferences to which Bogart occasionally leaps. However the important things are that the film looks and feels great, has dialogue you'll want to stand up and applaud and has a knockout cast in every way. Words can hardly describe the plot, though.