Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Big Sleep (1978)

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Robert Mitchum didn’t get to play Philip Marlowe back in the late 1940s/early 1950s. He did however get to play Marlowe in two movies in the 1970s, offering us a fascinating glimpse of what Marlowe might have become much later in life. The two 70s movies were Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 and The Big Sleep in 1978. It’s The Big Sleep with which we are concerned at the moment.

The odd thing is that most reviewers are puzzled firstly over why director Michael Winner would have dared to remake such a beloved classic and secondly why he chose to set his remake in 1970s London. I would have thought it was perfectly obvious that the decision to choose 1970s London was an entirely sensible attempt to distance this movie from the 1946 Howard Hawks version.

I have no problems with the updated setting. The danger of trying to make a neo-noir set in the 1940s is that you will end up with a movie that has that slightly phoney period movie look, and will also end up looking too pretty and too picturesque. Polanski got away with it with Chinatown in 1974 and I think Dick Richards got away with it in the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely but other 1970s remakes of movies from the 30s and 40s that try to reproduce the period settings do look overly pretty.

Winner makes no attempt whatsoever to reproduce the classic film noir look. He concentrates on trying instead to capture the film noir mood and the film noir thematic obsessions.

The movie follows Raymond Chandler’s novel reasonably closely. The novel has a notoriously convoluted and almost incomprehensible plot. Voiceover narration and flashbacks are used in a desperate attempt to make the plot understandable but it still defies comprehension.

Philip Marlowe, an ageing American private eye based in London, is hired by the frail elderly General Sternwood to deal with a blackmail threat. On his visit to the general’s house he meets the old man’s two daughters and decides, correctly, that they’re going to be trouble. The elder sister, Charlotte (Sarah Miles), is obviously scheming and dishonest and hiding lots of things. The younger daughter, Camilla (Candy Clark), practically tears Marlowe’s trousers off. As the movie progresses we find out that her first reaction upon meeting any man is to get him into bed immediately.

Camilla has been posing for nudie pictures for a sleazy bookseller. Marlowe finds her zonked out of her brain on drugs in a room with a dead man. She has no idea where she is.

Marlowe was not hired to find Charlotte’s missing husband Rusty but Marlowe is sure that that is what the general really wants him to do. Rusty supposedly ran off with the wife of gambling club owner Eddie Mars (Oliver Reed).

There are lots of murders. There are lots of suspects. Pretty much any of the characters could have committed any of the murders, for motives that remain obscure.

This version naturally has a degree of 1970s sleaze and relatively graphic violence.

Mitchum is as charismatic as ever. He was getting older but the 1970s proved to be an incredibly fruitful decade for him. In fact it’s difficult to think of any Hollywood actor who gave more great performances in the 70s than Mitchum.

The supporting cast is extraordinary. Oliver Reed, John Mills, Richard Boone (as a totally psychotic killer), Richard Todd, Harry James, Edward Fox, Joan Collins. All give interesting performances. Oliver Reed underplays which makes Eddie Mars seem even more sinister and dangerous. Joan Collins is delightfully sexy and wicked. James Stewart on the other hand is much too folksy. Richard Boone is just nuts and makes a character who is supposed to be frightening merely ridiculous.

The problem is the two actresses playing the key roles as the general’s daughter. Sarah Miles is ludicrously miscast and out of place and, fatally, there is zero sexual tension generated between Marlowe and Charlotte. Candy Clark’s performance as Camilla can only be described as bizarre. It’s just so wrong and so inappropriate that it’s morbidly fascinating.

There are a lot of things wrong with this movie but there are a lot of things that are right as well. It’s sufficiently entertaining and interesting that there’s no need even to try to understand what’s going on. It should be a disaster but in its own way it’s rather fun. It’s also amusing that the behaviour of the general’s daughters, which would have been scandalous enough to make blackmail plausible in the 1940s, would scarcely have raised eyebrows in the 70s. OK, Camilla poses for nudie pics and she’s frantically promiscuous and does drugs. In other words her behaviour is perfectly normal for the 70s. It all ends up making the movie a crazy 1940s/1970s mashup. I think it’s worth a look.

Shout! Factory have released both the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely and the 1978 The Big Sleep on a single Blu-Ray and both films look wonderful.

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