Lauren Bacall’s outfit in this top image may not have made it to the final cut in The Big Sleep (I’m guessing it’s a publicity still or a studio portrait, or maybe it was part of the earlier version of the film, which didn’t get to be released), but I wanted to include it here anyway, because it would have been my favourite look. The white shirt with a gaping neckline and short sleeves gathered at the hem, the polka dot scarf and those large patch pockets on the full skirt – this looks like the more sophisticated version of that dressed-down outfit Lauren Bacall would sport two years later, in Key Largo.
The Big Sleep (1946), Bogart and Bacall’s second film together, follows private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he picks his way through a corrupt labyrinth of gamblers, blackmailers, pornographers, hired thugs and murderers, who have attached themselves to the rich, elderly General Sternwood, and his two daughters, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers). It is one of the classics of film noir, heavy on great dialogue, style, it has wit and verve and an intricate and fast-paced plot, and where the time of day is appropriately night. It is a “deeply mysterious puzzle in which everyone is suspicious and most are guilty of something,” writes Todd McCarthy in the book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.
Lauren Bacall was only 21, untrained as an actor, but she had already proven in To Have and Have Not that she loved sizing up a man, and not any man, but Humphrey Bogart, and that she enjoyed the competition. Lauren and Bogie had gotten married one year earlier and, once again, their rapport comes across vividly on screen – “the electricity between them, spurred by the hothouse atmosphere and the provocative, insolent characters they were playing, became palpable once again,” writes Todd McCarthy in the book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, just as it had To Have and Have Not. As Vivian, she is not a femme fatale, she is a cool, elegant charmer, with her reserved poise, angular beauty and immaculate finger waves, and dressed in Leah Rhodes’ costumes. The designer would also dress the actress in Key Largo and would later create the costumes for Hitchcock’s Strangers on A Train (1951).
The houndstooth wool suit is a reinterpretation of the one Bacall had worn in her first film alongside Bogart, To Have and Have Not. That one had been inspired by a similar one Howard Hawks’ wife, Slim, liked to wear. Nancy “Slim” Hawks was in fact the one who had seen Lauren on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and told her husband that she was a star in the making, which made the director cast her in her debut film.
She is wearing a beret again with the suit, but this time the jacket is not fitted to the body, but has a straight cut and it’s paired with a black sweater and a box purse.
Above, in trousers and loafers, very Katharine Hepburn-style. Below, wearing a silk charmeuse robe.
A subtle geometric detail on a simple ladylike dress can make a big difference. Those sleeves are interesting enough, too.
Sexuality was an essential element of the film, and Bogart and Bacall’s exchanges especially are wittily playful. Marlowe is presented as hugely appealing to women – “every woman in The Big Sleep is feverishly hungry for love …and though every one of them would prefer Humphrey Bogart, they settle instantly for anybody,” Cecelia Ager observed in her review of the film – and Bogart, by now in his mid-forties, exuded an easy confidence that was entirely plausible, assisted by the fact that he and Bacall were married in real life. The film largely owes its endurance to his compelling performance.
Bogart made personal style into an art form. He was a very smart and well-read man, he struck a chord with men and women alike and he hated the whole “movie star” thing. He thought he was no better than anyone else and that’s how he lived his life. “A man with a tough shell hiding a fine core. […] By showily neglecting the outward forms of grace, he kept inferior men at a distance.” – Alistair Cooke, in the book Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, by Richard Schickel and George Perry.
He wasn’t conventionally handsome, but he had an unmatched magnetism. The Maltese Falcon (1941) had established the iconic image of the trench-coated, hunch-shouldered figure of Bogart, the front brim of his fedora tilted downward. Not only was film noir defined, but also the quintessence of the private eye: hard boiled, cynical, ruthless, courageous, driven by an ethical code that he alone understands and respects. That look became his trademark. In The Big Sleep, simplicity is the key word for Marlowe’s wardrobe: plain shirt, plain tie, plain jacket, trench, a great overcoat, and a few great little details like the fedora, the watch and the perfect pocket square – it doesn’t take much effort, but it’s all it takes to dress well. Humphrey Bogart remains one of the most legendarily well-dressed film stars of all time, his style on and off screen as iconic as anything else about him.
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photos: movie stills, captured by me from this DVD edition | Warner Brothers
bibliography: Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, by Richard Schickel and George Perry