Today in 1946: The Big Sleep Premieres

“Physically, I’m not tough. I may think tough. I would say I’m kinda tough and calloused inside. I could use a foot more in height and fifty more pounds and fifteen years off my age and then God help all you bastards.”

–Humphrey Bogart

The Big Sleep

Damn, but I love being subscribed to The Humphrey Bogart Estate on Facebook. Last night they posted this:

Today in 1946, a few days after Bogie planted his prints in the wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, The Big Sleep premiered, and the world got its first glance at what remains the best portrayal of Philip Marlowe on film.

Of all the great masculine icons of the golden age of film, and the crime film specifically, I admire Bogart the most. He somehow made acting like a man seem simultaneously effortless, impossible, inescapable and seizure-inducing. Watch his Spade and his Queeg back to back. You will need stitches afterwards.

Chase it with Fred C. Dobbs; you’ll need a trauma surgeon.

The Bogart Estate also posts this beautiful and heartbreaking picture of Bogie and Bacall, as the former imprints his mitts in the concrete jungle:


Bogie and Bacall

On camera, Bogart could be the hard-ass to end all hardasses, and frequently was. But what made him special to me was that in every crazed borderline-psychopath doomed villain-hero or mopey pile of regret stewing in his juices snapping, “Play it!” to his long-suffering friend, there was that smile in Paris, the joi de vivre that the icons of the era, like all men of my father’s and grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations, could experience profoundly…as long as they kept it inside. They could dream big and love large but they were required, by their maleness, to hide it the way they had to hide the fear.

Which is why it isn’t the hard-ass that matters to me about Bogie. That’s not what cooks along just under the boiling point within Humphrey Bogart’s genius. The Bogie gift, to me, isn’t just the violent and glorious male iconography rampant in that moment when Spade’s psychopathic grin breaks across his savage face just before he bitchslaps Joel Cairo, or even the wild eyes of Queeg as he paces fanatically from one side of the Caine’s bridge to the other. It’s that Parisian smile.

Because the way I see it, the Rick Blaine that handed over those exit visas wasn’t the bad-ass. It wasn’t the psycho. It was the smiling Blaine in Paris, who was thankful enough for beauty and life and love to give up, irrevocably, both what he had been given and what he had taken. Rick has the sack to take those visas from Ugarte and keep them from Strasser…but his bogeys are bigger still when he gives them to Lazlo.

Bogart “got” that. Did Mitchum or Sterling Hayden understand it? Maybe a little. I’m certain William Holden did. But it’s Bogart who could so vividly showcase the desperate, gaping, festering absence of a few days in Paris in Rick Blaine’s soul. And it’s Bogart who could give it back to us, as casually as handing over a couple of tickets to Lisbon.

Similarly, Queeg’s internal landscape of fear and insufficiency was more real to Bogart than to anyone except maybe Herman Wouk himself. The quavering piece of Fred C. Dobbs’s rotting soul that never let anyone put anything over on him wasn’t some shallow ass-clown of a punch line to Bogart. He was a very real scaredy-cat living underneath the man’s man, knowing at any moment the latter could crumble and the former could drag us all, tumbling, into fetid, stinking darkness.

In Rick Blaine, the man’s man triumphed because those moments in Paris had been beautiful enough to sustain him…once he let himself understand what they meant. In his Marlowe, as concretely as in Chandler’s characterization, it was the gimlet-greased wisecracks that made life tenable.

With Dobbs and Queeg, terrors ate them alive from the inside.

I think any male, born or chosen, can relate, if he’s had to maddog his fear and find a masculine identity that matters in a world where Major Strassers predominate and Lazlos and Elsas are far too few.

It’s not so much about being a man…it’s about mattering, because, okay, Ugarte may not matter in the long run, maybe not enough to stick your neck out for…but Lazlo and Elsa sure as hell do.

And if Rick Blaine blows it and Strasser gets his way…well then, God help all us bastards.

Bogie “got” that equation like no other icon of the golden age.

That’s why he matters.

Memento mori, sweetheart.


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