Several months ago I wrote about both the book and the movie versions of The Big Sleep. I noted that there was a 1945 version that was shown to the troops overseas and that certain scenes were deleted and some added later to up the romantic ante between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and then released in 1946. The 1945 version was seen by very few people, but was added as a bonus feature on the The Big Sleep DVD.
And it is universally accepted that the 1946 version is superior. It makes less sense, but who cares with such marvelous chemistry and atmosphere, and of course my sister and I totally agreed with the universe, nodding our heads wisely and saying “yes, so true,” as if we really knew what we were talking about.
Only to discover that we had no idea what we were talking about. Somehow, all these years, we had been watching the 1945 version, the inferior version, and emphatically agreeing with everyone that the chemistry was sizzling, the plot convoluted and obscure and the previous movie must have been more straightforward, but also with less sexual tension.
My first clue that something was wrong was when I heard there even were two versions. There was mention of a famous scene added in 1946, that takes places in a nightclub and where they talk about race horses in a conversation bursting with innuendo. I thought there must have been something wrong with my ability to detect innuendo, because I didn’t recall any such scene and asked my sister if she recalled any such scene. She said she didn’t. That should have tipped me off, and I was suspicious, but the DVD cover assured me that the copy we had was the standard 1946 version. It seemed mysterious, but I was not sufficiently curious to pursue the matter.
It was not until I got the DVD from the library that supposedly contained the bonus 1945 movie that everything became clear. We watched practically the whole bonus ’45 movie before we admitted that we had not seen anything new. There is also a documentary on the DVD that discusses the differences, so we watched that and realized that somebody had made a mistake. Somehow, all along, we had owned the 1945 version and had never seen the one everyone celebrated so much.
The DVD we owned is TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries, which contains The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Dial M For Murder (1954), The Big Sleep (1946….supposedly), and The Maltese Falcon (1941). What my sister and I want to know is if there are other people happily watching their The Big Sleep and not realizing that they have the wrong one, too.
So now that we’d deceived ourselves into liking the inferior one, we had to watch the newer one and my expectations were high. If I liked the ’45 version so much, surely the ’46 version, with it’s added scenes between Bogart and Bacall, must be amazing.
But I was doomed to disappointment. My mind had the rhythms of the old version too well ingrained in my head. The added scenes were nice, but seemed tossed in randomly for romantic effect, and I missed the other scenes that provided explanation. The new version felt herky-jerky because I knew what scenes were missing and so it had a cut and paste feel, which is not a feeling I would have had if I’d simply watched it first. Also, I felt that the added scenes changed the dynamic of the relationship between Bacall and Bogart.
Lauren Bacall’s character is much more mysterious in the older version, her motivations more ambiguous. It may be less overtly sexy, but heightens the game the two of them are playing, trying to outwit each other instead of the newer one where the point seems to be more about seeing how much witty repartee and sexual innuendo they can toss back and forth.
There is a scene when they are in the car together, which in the original one is a great romantic moment, when they first kiss and she reveals a vulnerability that was not there before. But the scene in the car is thrown away in the newer one because of the two added romantic scenes that come before. Suddenly the scene in the car feels like it was just another scene instead of the culmination of something.
I suppose if I’d seen the newer version first, I wouldn’t care for the older version. It’s all about expectations. When we are used to something and like it, we are disappointed when our expectations are not met. I have a theory that if we’d all been watching the original version of The Big Sleep we would be disappointed if we watched the newer one, despite the critic Roger Ebert’s opinion that Howard Hawks took out one bad scene and added one good scene and made a good picture a great picture. I’m going to disagree with him. He was probably used to the new one and was always disappointed when his favorite scene with the race horse conversation was absent.
The reason the movie was changed was at the instigation of Lauren Bacall’s agent. According to the documentary on the DVD about the differences between the two versions, the movie – after being shown to troops overseas – was shelved while the studios rushed to finish other war related movies that wouldn’t wear well when the war was over. While the movie sat, Lauren Bacall’s agent got to work. She had made two movies, so far: her spectacular debut in To Have and Have Not and a bomb with Charles Boyer called Confidential Agent. Her agent was concerned that another flop would finish her before she had even gotten started and he felt that if The Big Sleep was released as it was, it would ruin her career.
So he called the producer and they got the director and cast back together and shot some new scenes, favorable to Bacall. She got better lighting, better camera angles, more dialogue, more scenes and they diminished the role played by Martha Vickers as Bacall’s sister, which I think hurts the film. The movie certainly did its job; it was a great hit for Bacall and, according to the documentary, probably saved her career.
But if I had to chose which version to watch again, it would probably still be the older one. There was nothing glaringly wrong with Bacall’s role in that film as it is. There’s still the great chemistry and it’s a far more well balanced film for all the characters, without the two random romantic scenes that didn’t really do anything for me. It’s a better story, the stakes are higher, the ambiguity of character more intriguing.