Robert MitchumJoan CollinsOliver ReedCandy Clark
The Big Sleep (1978)
Medium: film
Year: 1978
Director: Michael Winner
Writer: Raymond Chandler, Michael Winner
Keywords: The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark, Joan Collins, Edward Fox, John Mills, James Stewart, Oliver Reed, Harry Andrews, Colin Blakely, Richard Todd, Diana Quick, James Donald, John Justin, Simon Fisher-Turner, Martin Potter, David Savile, Dudley Sutton, Don Henderson, Tom Laughlin, Nik Forster, Joe Ritchie, Patrick Durkin, Derek Deadman
Format: 99 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 13 May 2010
I quite liked it. The critics tore it to shreds when it originally came out, but I thought it was okay. The cast has a couple of standouts, its English setting works better than you'd expect and the plot makes sense.
That last one is the big improvement, by the way. I'm not going to pretend that the 1946 Bogart-Bacall version isn't a greater film, but there was certainly plenty of room to improve on its plotting. That had been a joke. Even if Raymond Chandler's original novel had been blameless in that regard (and it wasn't), its subject matter simply couldn't be done in 1940s Hollywood. Thus we got a final film with a pornography racket with no pornography, murder victims whom no one had ever murdered and a script that's basically given up on even trying to make sense. This however is the 1970s. They're going to do Chandler proud. Nudity is good, violence is even better and they're even happy to include the homosexuals.
Did I mention that this is a Michael Winner film, by the way? I've never seen Death Wish, but obviously I know of him by reputation and if you're looking for sleaze and cheerful excess then we've come to the right man. What he's best at is action. He has a good understanding of visual storytelling and the film's at its best when it's simply choreographing car chases, men running, guns firing and so on. One of my favourite cool moments is the way Robert Mitchum confirms a hunch just by walking past a van, for instance. I like the clarity of Winner's work here. The story never feels confusing and instead everything we need to know is presented simply and in the right order. That might sound like a unnecessarily basic thing to be praising a film for, but it's rather refreshing to see an adaptation of The Big Sleep in which people's motivations make sense and you don't have to go and read the book to work out why X shot Y.
On the downside, the editing can occasionally be a bit clumsy when it comes to actors and I wished he'd given more space to James Stewart.
Then you've got the cast, whom I like. You wouldn't call them sparkling, but they're a group of fine, dependable actors with two towering giants in Stewart and Oliver Reed. James Stewart couldn't fail to be magnificent, of course, although for characterisation of Sternwood I actually prefer 1946's Charles Waldron. Apparently he looked like a man at death's door when they were making this film, struggling against hearing and memory problems to get his lines out, and shortly afterwards he retired from the movies. A few years later he'd be facing surgery for skin cancer, although in the end he lived for another twenty years and died exactly one day after Robert Mitchum. In addition to him though, this film also has the richest, juiciest slice of ham you'll see all year, in the form of Oliver Reed. Now that's what I call screen presence. He's brilliant, dominating the screen with such glowering relish that I'm going to have to start collecting all his movies.
Everyone else is okay. Robert Mitchum is no Humphrey Bogart, but he's not trying to be. Bogart was lighter, wittier and more badass, which might sound like a paradoxical combination but that's Bogart for you. Mitchum on the other hand is just plodding along like a big old bloodhound, occasionally making me laugh with his under-reactions and looking every day of his sixty years. Sensibly the film doesn't try to make him a romantic lead.
Meanwhile the actresses playing the Sternwood sisters are doing respectable work, even if I was occasionally disconcerted by Candy Clark. I might prefer Martha Vickers's less literalist interpretation in 1946, but you can't say Clark isn't making brave choices and playing them strongly. Joan Collins brings star quality. Even lesser roles are being filled by quality British actors like Edward Fox, Don Henderson and John Mills. It's a very different cast from the earlier film, but you couldn't possibly call it a weak one. However the weird thing is that the dialogue doesn't seem to sparkle, even when the lines are identical to ones we heard in 1946 because both films are quoting Chandler word for word. This is almost disconcerting, especially when the script says things like "stop thinking you're so amusing" and the audience just goes "eh?". I think it's that Howard Hawks's film had a champagne touch that makes everything seem wittier, whereas Winner's is less self-aware and more earnest.
The contemporary British setting works, which is weird. I'd half-expected it to be a disaster. Nevertheless you've got the fact that criminal pornography works as a plot device in Britain when it wouldn't have in 1970s America, where they were in the middle of the Golden Age of Porn. This was the same year as Debbie Does Dallas. Mind you, the setting slaughters any notion that this might be set in the same fictional universe as Mitcham's other turn as Philip Marlowe three years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely. Michael Winner also manages to make England seem convincingly tough and nasty, which was perhaps the single most important factor in making it all work. Edward Fox in no way resembles a tough guy, admittedly, but Oliver Reed is seriously scary and he doesn't employ a pair of comedians as heavies, unlike John Ridgely in 1946.
I wasn't wild about Richard Boone as Canino, mind you, but he certainly looks the part.
There's one head-scratcher, in which a policeman says "car's a mess and so is the man inside it"... before they've pulled it out of the river. How did he know? However on the upside there's plenty of nudity from Candy Clark, awe-inspiring cleavage from Diana Quick and some outfits so flimsy and see-through for Sarah Miles that she might as well have been topless. Never let it be said that Michael Winner overlooked the lowest common denominator.
At the end of the day, there's nothing brilliant about this film, but also nothing obviously wrong with it. Its 1946 predecessor clearly outstrips it, in both directions. In comparison this is a workhorse, but that doesn't make it bad. On the contrary it makes sense, it impressed me with how clearly it handles a complicated story and I think it has a particularly good fifteen minutes. What it's best at is action and visual storytelling, with even the poisoning having a nifty "corpse falls through window" moment and Winner clearly having fun with scenes like the car flying into the river. He's Michael Winner. What did you expect?
It's even an intelligent choice of film to remake, albeit a suicidally brave one. The critics at the time were wrong, I think. It's fine.