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.


  1. Well, I can't see how it can be bad with both Robert Mitchum and James Stewart? Besides, the quotation in the beginning of your post is unbelievably hard-boiled!

  2. I'm not that fond of this version of "The Big Sleep." I love the 1946 version; it's one of my favorite movies of all time. And I think Bogart is terrific as Phillip Marlowe. I also think that the older Mitchum is quite good as Marlowe too. Have you seen the Mitchum version of "Farewell, My Lovely" made a couple of years before the remake of "Sleep"? He's even better, and the movie is much better too. Of the other Marlowes, Dick Powell was an interesting choice to play Marlowe and was surprisingly good, especially at the flippant business. It seems to me that Lloyd Nolan played Marlowe too (although I'm not sure he was called that) in the early 40's and was adequate. James Garner was not so good--too much like Maverick for my liking. But the absolute worst of all--and the absolute worst Chandler adaptation--is Elliott Gould in the great Robert Altman's version of "The Long Goodbye." Some people really like this movie (I've heard it compared to "Chinatown"!) but to me it's just dreadful. And Altman changed the ending, which completely altered the intent of the book. I clicked the link to find your choice as Marlowe (a clever idea), and although he hadn't occurred to me, I must say he would have been quite good. I can see the similarities between Marlowe and the characters he played in "Sunset Blvd." and "Stalag 17."

  3. I've not seen this, but the Bogart/Hawks version is one of my all-time favorite movies. I'll add this to the list.

  4. No one can compare to the Philip Marlowe in my head
    My all time biggest fictional character crush

  5. Marlowe in England did not work for me, though Mitchum makes a great Marlowe which he proved in the well, and better, made "Farewell, My Lovely." Still I have to say Bogart just has that role owned, along with Sam Spade.
    Part of my dislike for this version is Michael Winner, a pedestrian filmmaker with a very blunt style.

  6. It looks like it had a great cast though. I've never seen this version though. Great writeup on it. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  7. I love every frame of this movie, and have since the day I saw it, first-run, in a theatre. It was my intro to Chandler, Marlowe AND Mitchum, and inspired me to buy and read the novel, which blew my mind when I found out that, apart from one or two scenes, the movie followed PAGE PER PAGE (if you ignore it being in the wrong counry and the wrong decade).

    What a cast! And what a score! I just love murder mysteries set in England. This would make a fantastic double-feature with DEATH ON THE NILE (made the same year).

    What really amazes me is how this versin has so many more details in it from the book, and yet, is told is such a simple, straight-forward, step-by-step way, that I was able to watch it the very first time, and NEVER ONCE got lost. Whereas, evan after having seen this and read the novel, I still couldn't follow the Bogart version until I'd seen it 4 or 5 times.

    I now love both films, but in 2 very different ways. Funny thing-- when Mitchum repeats over and over, "What's Eddie Mars got on you?", I found it actually MUCH FUNNIER than when Bogart said it. Must have been his deadpan low-key delivery...

  8. Henry: Thanks for your comment and for sharing your personal memories of the film. It's appreciated when people comment on these older posts. Can't believe I wrote this nearly two and a half years ago...

    My opinion of The Big Sleep '78 hasn't changed a bit; I still enjoy it.

    Since the post was written (March '09), Jerry Fielding's great music score has been release (Nov '09) on a limited edition CD courtesy of the Intrada label, though it sold out quickly.

    It's also interesting to note that The Big Sleeep's main title was a composition Fielding had already used for a 1970 TV movie, Hunters Are For Killing, which starred Burt Reynolds (also out on CD through Film Score Monthly).

  9. Thanks for the tip on the soundtrack. One more thing to look for once I find a steady job again. (Or, maybe someone in the Spidey-Jazz yahoo group could trade me a copy; I've gotten a ton of stuff thru them I might never have otherwise.)

    The cast continues to amaze me, especially after watching English TV shows & movies for decades. Beyond the main cast, you've also got all these other people filling the spaces: Derek Deadman, John Mills, Edward Fox, Harry Andrews, Colin Blakely, Richard Todd, Don Henderson, Tom Laughlin (where the heck is HE in this thing?). What an amazing cast! And unlike the Bogart film, you can't mistake any of these actors for any other one.

    I really do need to get a decent copy of this one of these days, though. Channel 6 in Philly ran this on one of their midnight shows in the 80's. The SOUND is AWFUL (too loud and hollow, as if someone played with the knobs, or something), and-- idiotically-- the opening credits were snipped off and spliced onto the end of the movie. They used to do that with all their midnight films for awhile. I can't for the life of me imagine why.

    Many years later, AMERICAN GRAFFITTI finally became a fave of mine, watching it on TCM. Candy Clark was one of my favorite characters in the film. It kinda made up for her role in this one. (She's also good in BLUE THUNDER.)

    By the way, I read Oliver Reed only took the "small" role he did for the chance to work with Mitchum. How silly... in his brief moments onscreen, he's MESMERIZING. It blew my mind that his character got off scot free at the end. On repeat viewings, it's slowly sunk in how he was so involved in just about everything that happened, and was still waiting for the big payoff when the story ended. I always figured Eddie Mars getting shot by his own men in the Bogart film was a nod to the Hayes Office.


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