(Welcome to Knives In, a series about the movies to watch before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out arrives in theaters.)

Put on your murder-solving hat, because /Film has given me jurisdiction to dive deep into one film a day in preparation for the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which hits theaters next week. Each film relates to Johnson’s “whodunnit” in its own unique way, and each picture should hopefully be viewed prior to patrons watching the new movie on the big screen.

Today, we’ll be discussing the 1946 film The Big Sleep, and how the movie is a perfect companion piece to Johnson’s modern day murder mystery.

The Maltese Falcon seems like the more obvious choice, isn’t it? After all, that’s the first whodunit that springs to mind for most movie fans, and understandably so. You’ve got Humphrey Bogart as the Private Investigator on a mission to discover who killed his partner (and the elusive Floyd Thursby), the motive for murder boils down to money, and it’s even based on the Dashiell Hammett book of the same name – an author whom director Rian Johnson himself has gushed over in past profiles. And yet, this is not the Bogie crime thriller befitting of Johnson’s prowess. When it comes to morally clear, quick-witted crime scene stealers, the character of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep is more akin to Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc in Knives Out.

Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), The Big Sleep is based on the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel and reunites stars Bogart and Lauren Bacall for the first time since their onscreen romance in To Have and Have Not. In the film, Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to resolve his daughter Carmen’s (Martha Vickers) gambling debts and get rid of the man who is blackmailing his family before it damages their lives any further. In the midst of his employment, Marlowe becomes smitten with another member of the Sternwood family, Carmen’s recently divorced sister Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), and soon finds himself tangled in a web of murder, mayhem, and deceit. Unsure who to trust and making a habit of collecting guns, Marlowe does his best to stay alive as the case unspools, new twists and turns decorating each step of the path he cautiously treads into next.

Admittedly, it’s a little difficult to follow each and every plot point that occurs in The Big Sleep. As if screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were testing their viewers, a plethora of names and details are thrown at the audience in the opening scene, Detective Marlowe and General Sternwood rattling off titles and backstories so fast it almost feels like they’re egging on buyers in an auction. A large reason for the confusion is the Production Code Company that monitored movies during the very early days of Hollywood. In the novel, Carmen is a nymphomaniac, and Geiger, the man to whom she owes a great deal of money and who Marlowe attempts to visit, owns his own pornographic bookstore and deals in sex and drugs on the side. It’s also much clearer that Carmen has a drug problem, which is taken advantage of by Geiger, who snaps illicit photos of the young girl and then attempts to blackmail her for the negatives. The Production Code found most of these details appalling and far too sinister for the silver screen, meaning that Hawks not only had to cut out many scenes from the novel, but was also constantly rewriting the script as the film was in production.

As a result, the story onscreen comes across a bit choppy, lousy with holes as if the screenplay itself were caught in the crossfire of Hollywood’s naiveté. Producer Jack L. Warner worried that audiences might not be interested in a movie that they couldn’t follow, but Hawks was convinced that the plot points only played a supporting role to the real star story of the picture – the budding romance between Bogie and Bacall.

Luckily, Hawks was right on the money and the movie was a big hit, cementing the stars’ place in the pictures and furthering the director’s seemingly wild notion that audiences don’t care about details when it comes to a crime movie, they just want to enjoy the ride. The thrill isn’t in figuring out every piece of the puzzle, or fingering the baddie at the base of the corruption, but rather basking in the investigation. Giggling at Marlowe’s various double entendres as he flirts with various love interests, embracing a vicarious sense of power when the hard boiled detective won’t take no for an answer.

These are the staples of film noir as we know them today, and although the character type that made Bogie famous might have originated with his rash and heartless depiction of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, it was his turn as the morally sound and playful P.I. in The Big Sleep that truly captured America’s heart at a time when viewers were hungry for a hero, and an escape from the war that came to consume each second of their everyday lives. Humphrey Bogart’s depiction of Philip Marlowe didn’t just sell tickets, it forever changed the landscape of film, acting as a nodal point in the tide that was Hollywood, creating an echo of countless copycats for years to come.

If you think it’s entertaining hearing Bogie spout lines like “You’re the second guy I’ve met today who thinks a gat in the hand means the world by the tail”, wait until you hear Daniel Craig’s southern gentleman say the word “donut”. Although Knives Out director Rian Johnson has mentioned many times in interviews that his modern day neo noir is largely influenced by the many Agatha Christie novels he’s read over the years, the filmmaker clearly took a page out of Chandler’s book when it came time to write his crime thriller. For instance, both stories revolve around a rich family and make a point of creating a side commentary about the dangers of raising spoiled children in a gaudy lifestyle where they can easily buy their way out of trouble, and never face any real repercussions as a result of their chaos. General Sternwood tells Marlowe within the first ten minutes of The Big Sleep that his daughters “share the same corrupt blood”, and Christopher Plummer’s well-to-do Harlan Thrombey makes his feelings for his offspring known fairly early in Knives Out as well. Although Thrombey is murdered in the first scene, thus creating the whodunit for Detective Blanc to solve, various flashbacks show just how aware the wealthy author was of his children’s ugly need to suck at the teat of his fortune, as the heir of his myriad millions becomes just as much of a mystery as the murder itself.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is the character of the Private Investigator himself, a trope that characterizes film noir just as much as the unsolved crime or the underlying existentialist philosophy. As previously stated, while Sam Spade might be the go-to gumshoe detective for many moviegoers when trying to recall an influential black-and-white movie star, Bogart gives an entirely different performance in The Maltese Falcon than he does in The Big Sleep. Sam Spade is a bitter, soulless investigator who expects dames to cough up an exorbitant amount of cash for his services, and when they can’t pony up the dough, he expects them to pay in other, more vulgar ways. Spade barely breaks a sweat when he learns of his partner’s death – possibly because he’s been busy sleeping with the man’s wife – and struts around the majority of the movie with a cynical smile, delighting in roughing up hooligans and throwing lovers and law by the wayside the moment a situation becomes the least bit inconvenient for his laid back lifestyle.

Philip Marlowe is cut from a different cloth, however, still acting as a rogue investigator that operates outside of the police, but one who hasn’t quite been robbed of his humanity just yet. Marlowe flirts, but he doesn’t expect carnal relations in place of cold hard cash. Marlowe finds joy in the little things, like toying around with bookshop keeper Agnes Lozelle (Sonia Darrin) when she won’t let him see Geiger, flipping up his hat, lowering his sunglasses, and quizzing her on random first edition novels that in reality, don’t exist. He even finds it fun to play games with the police, abruptly stopping Vivian from incriminating herself by grabbing the phone out of her hands and treating the scenario as a slick prank, playing the fool, telling the officer on the other end of the line that he is not the police, then acting surprised when he learns that it was he who ‘accidentally’ dialed the fuzz.

Marlowe, like Blanc, takes his time solving the crime, enjoying every uncomfortable moment with a casual suspect, observing the family, occasionally unleashing a cascade of catty comments, but ultimately, acting in a heroic manner that saves the day. Although their accents couldn’t be any more different, both P.I.’s Marlowe and Blanc represent the good hearted civil servant in us all, the one that wants to solve the case and help those who are hurt overcome their hour of need, but also, those of us who just want to enjoy the ride.

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