Howard Hawks’ film noir movie, The Big Sleep (1944), was bred from the uncertainty of wartime efforts. Shortly after WWII, the war to end all wars, the Russians begun to develop new nuclear weapons, causing a rift between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that would eventually lead to the Cold War. Many were asking the question about whether our society could even trust our neighbors let alone other countries. Film noir sought to persuade people to be more cautious in everyday life, even people that are close to us. In classic noir style, the hazy opening title sequence teases the audience with the use of cigarettes and cigarette smoke, tempting the viewer to copy the characters in the manner of self-indulgence. As Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) investigates a case he was assigned by a general, he unearths more crime and corruption.
The plot is very intensive and requires attention to the finest detail. Hawks rewards the viewer with knowledge and setting using fine detail in the foreground and background of shots. These come mostly with signs for stores, and other various postings on the city streets and buildings. It’s the little details that add finer touches to the final, 1946 cut. Hawks recut some of the movie to include more scenes between Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). Their subtle chemistry is undeniable and because they were falling in love off-screen, their presence on-screen became authentic.
Although Hawks has a very clear style, he lets the story speak for itself. For instance, the cuts seem smooth when transitioning from inside sets to outside sets (even though they were constructed in the studio). A door slamming, or a character’s foot/movement cadence initiated certain cuts. The musical score, composed by Max Steiner, builds tension using crescendos during key scenes; most notably when Marlowe is rummaging through Geiger’s house. After Marlowe hears the gunshots and piercing scream he finds a way in the house, but once in the house the music stops, sucking all the air out of the room.
Tension isn’t implied, but rather felt. The Big Sleep uses the first optical zoom, when the camera is focused on a tight close-up but then zooms inwards to reveal more details. Black and gray are dominant colors on the screen, rather than cut-and-paste black and white; this ambiance feels hazier, serving as a throwback to the cigarette smoke in the opening sequence. Many of the smaller moments led to the big reveals, ensuring that the entire plot leading to the final reveal was, indeed, significant. It’s the small details, the chemistry from the two leads, and the invisible direction from Hawks with the Steiner score, which elevates The Big Sleep from other genre movies within film noir.