(Air Date: Week Of 2/5/97)
When "The Big Sleep" hit theaters in 1946, Lauren Bacall had had one hit, one miss and her career was badly off track. What the audience didn't know at the time, was that the version they were seeing was the result of careful, pre-release, reworking to improve her part, masterminded by Bacall's agent, Charles K. Feldman. The guy had clout in Hollywood, even with the likes of studio head Jack Warner. And he had timing. Sleep itself was completed in Januray of 1945, but with WWII winding down, Warner Brothers was pushing up the release of their remaining war films before they became out of date. Sleep had been shelved until peace broke out. In the meantime, letters flew fast and furious between Feldman and Warner, plotting the restart of production. All this, plus direct comparisons between the original and the changes that were made, are the stuff of a short documentary that follows the newly restored, 1945 version. It's a great primer on the sort of machinations that went on (and go on) behind the scenes.
The plot remains the same. Philip Marlowe wades into the mire of corruption that is the Sternwood Family. But the character of Vivian is stronger, more interesting. Some changes are subtle - camera angles are improved or lines dubbed to ensure continuity. Some are more radical. Scenes are cut, re-edited or re-shot. Entirely new ones with Bacall were added. Feldman wanted to recapture the insolent quality she had played in "To Have and Have Not." It's no coincidence, I think, that in the first added scene, Marlowe calls Vivian just that, insolent.
One re-shoot resulted from Feldman intensely disliking a particular scene in Marlow's office where Bacall wears a veiled hat. He was right. Even on Bacall, it looked dorky. The scene was re-written and set in night club. The payoff is that, not only does Bacall lose the veil and gain the gold lame, dialogue was added that gave filmdom one of the most memorable scenes ever. I STILL wonder how it got past the censors. In it, Marlowe and Vivian size each other up in the biblical sense, using horseracing as the metaphor. It's only slightly less suggestive than that infamous scene from "Basic Instinct" where Sharon Stone re-crossed her legs.
If you 're not near a theater running it, Turner Classic Movies will be premiering the 1945 version on April 10, 1997 at 10 pm, right after running the 1946 version at 8.
Which version is better? Well, the earlier version is, as one film historian put it, slighly less incomprehensible. The later one, on the other hand, has the Vivien that saved Bacall's career. A better question is, "Which do you prefer?"
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