Sunday, March 22, 2009
Philip Marlowe on Film: The Big Sleep (1978)
"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep."
~Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) in The Big Sleep~
In 1978, British director Michael Winner (Deathwish) filmed his version of Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. Winner's take on the tale was set in the-then present day and had weary, smart-aleck private investigator Philip Marlowe based in England, the character having remained there after presumably serving in the U.S. army during World War II. Despite that, the film is largely faithful to the novel, but with typical 1970s gratuitous sex and violence to make it more palatable and less "old fashioned" to 1970s audiences. Though considering the censorship practices in the 1930s, those more unsavory elements probably would have been in the book had the times permitted it. I initially preferred this version over the much-lauded 1946 version (directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe) and found the change of location interesting. This was Mitchum's second crack at playing the knight in rumpled suit, having appeared in 1975's Farewell, My Lovely. The Big Sleep gets much criticism because A) It's directed by Michael Winner, who is largely reviled in Great Britain for being a Grade A Jerk and name-dropping snob, and sub-par filmmaker. and B) Chandler's romantic, ghostly, and morally decayed Los Angeles is replaced as the locale by soggy, scruddy-weather England.
The cast here is quite impressive, with James Stewart as invalid General Sternwood, and Sarah Miles and Candy Clark as his troubled daughters. The cast is rounded out by Richard Boone, Oliver Reed, and Joan Collins. Mitchum seems to be enjoying himself here, even if his weariness is less in evidence than is depicted in the novels. In fact, he's downright cheery, even when replicating sequences from the actual novel. Though I love Mitchum in about everything, even total dreck, his potrayal of Marlowe still isn't right for the character. He's in esteemed company, because no one has gotten the role down perfectly and the man who could play him to perfection never got the chance. Still, Winner's The Big Sleep touches most bases, with Mitchum's delightful voiceover, hardboiled delivery tempered with age and the typical labyrinth-style plotting that makes the detective genre so appealing. In fact, the script improves on one of Chandler's best lines:
"I met her [Carmen] in the hall, she tried to sit in my lap. I was standing up at the time."
Jerry Fielding's score is also right at home with its high-modernist, dissonant sound that fits this mystery so well. It punctuates and moves the action along quite nicely. It works particularly well in the film's opening, when Marlowe is driving up to the Sternwood estate with the camera positioned at the front of the detective's car.
But what works against this version is the decided lack of Golden Age glamour that made Film Noir so appealing. This is more of a gritty crime drama and while it succeeds on that level, the 1970s were definitely not the apex of glamour, and neither were its stars. The supporting cast tries gamely to measure up to the genre but even B-Stars like Audrey Totter and Marie Windsor could work wonders in the most trifling of material, whereas Sarah Miles, and Candy Clark are merely adequate in their respective roles. Maybe it's because I could accept an aging Mitchum as the lead, but have grown accustomed to the faces that populated so many Noir films in the 1940s and early fifties.
For a decade that was best-known for its attempts at realism, the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep fails when it comes to that aspect of Chandler. The author's world has to be the sadly romantic Los Angeles circa 1940, just as Faulkner must be in the American South and McMurtry in the American West. I still like this take on the Chandler classic--a lot-- but the definitive version of any of the author's books has yet to be made.