BFI Classics: The Big Sleep

Author: David Thomson

Thomson’s essay on The Big Sleep is by far the most engagingly written and least “purely academic” publication in the BFI series I’ve read so far. For some tastes his style may veer too close to too clever at times, but I for one was charmed: the essay was as enjoyable to read as the film was to watch. Thomson’s been writing, and writing well and in-depth, about films for years now, but it’s obvious that this project isn’t just another job.

His enthusiasm for The Big Sleep comes across in a way that’s impossible to resist. If any other writer had casually dropped the fact that they’d befriended Howard Hawks’ widow it might have come across as a bit gauche – but coming from Thomson it just makes you lean in closer for what’s coming next. And man, does he deliver.

This is not just a hagiographic bit of waffle about Thomson’s favourite film. He brings a critical eye to Hawks’ treatment of women, his less than savoury personality traits and chastises Hawks for not giving his then-wife, Nancy ‘Slim’ Hawks, greater credit for her influence on Bacall’s image and dialogue. Then he rips into the differences between the book and the film and the characterisation of Marlowe in each. The kicker comes when he makes a great argument for The Big Sleep as the original ‘post-modern, camp, satirical view of movies being about other movies’ that reaches all the way to Pulp Fiction.

There’s probably a much bigger book about The Big Sleep lurking somewhere in Thomson’s lively mind and here’s hoping he writes it.

Clare Moody

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