“Second Screening” is devoted to watching alternate versions of NFR entries and determining which version is most worthy of preservation. Today we look at the original version of “The Big Sleep”. You can read my thoughts on the original film here.
First, a little backstory. “The Big Sleep” was filmed in 1944 and slated for a 1945 release. After viewing a final cut, Lauren Bacall’s agent, Charles K. Feldman, requested that scenes be re-shot to put more emphasis on Bacall’s character, as well as to add more scenes that showcase the natural chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Hawks and his team did just that, and the film was delayed until an August 1946 release.
What’s Different?: Roughly 15% of the film was changed from the 1945 cut to the 1946 theatrical release. As previously stated, the primary change is that while the original cut features Lauren Bacall and includes a potential romance between the two, Bacall’s Vivian is much colder to Bogart’s Marlowe. Their relationship ends at the same place, but it’s a much more gradual build to the final scene. Scenes were either reshot to now include Vivian in them (such as the scene of Marlowe bringing Carmen home after the murder), or completely scrapped in favor of new scenes. A scene of Vivian paying Marlowe for his services initially took place in his office in a quick, somewhat empty scene. The replacement is the “horserace” scene, arguably the most famous (if not the most racy) scene in the final film.
But Bacall wasn’t the only one affected by these cuts. Among other changes was the deletion of a sequence where Carmen seduces Marlowe. It was believed to be filmed in 1944, but not present in the 1945 cut before being restored. The original cut also features a lengthy scene of Marlowe and the D.A. discussing the case up to that point. It answers a lot of questions the 1946 version doesn’t, but it slows the pacing tremendously. This scene’s subsequent removal saw actors James Flavin and Thomas E. Jackson be completely cut from the film. Similarly, a reshoot of the Mona Mars scene (again, to better highlight Bacall) led to the original actor, Pat Clark, being replaced by Peggy Knudsen when Clark was unable to return to the studio.
Does It Help?: The original 1945 version is interesting to watch, but mainly as a supplement to the final cut. The changes made were substantial, but the original cut didn’t hurt the film too much. You could have released the 1945 version and still have a pretty decent film on your hands. The key difference is Bacall’s work. The 1945 cut features a more cryptic Vivian slowly warming up to Marlowe, while the 1946 cut allows her to be more heated towards the beginning, and therefore more vulnerable once Marlowe starts to solve the case. It’s the difference between a good movie and an outstanding one.
The Verdict: Stick with the 1946 cut. The 1945 cut is for movie lovers, or those who need a little more time figuring out the film’s twists and turns. I’m delighted that the UCLA Film Archive discovered and restored the 1945 version, and it lives alongside – but secondary to – the 1946 version, where it belongs.