29 October 2007

The Big Sleep '78

The Big Sleep (1978)
Directed by Michael Winner. Starring Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark, Joan Collins, Edward Fox, John Mills, James Stewart, Oliver Reed.

I finally watched the 1978 film of The Big Sleep, the second adaptation of Raymond Chandler's premiere novel. The first movie version is the well-known 1946 (completed in 1944 but kept on the shelf) star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks. The 1978 re-make of the novel stars Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, who had played the character three years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely, and is directed by Michael Winner, best known for Deathwish, one of the touchstone flicks of the 1970s.

Although I am a Chandler fanatic, I have avoided the Big Sleep '78 for years, mostly because of the horrible reviews I had read of it, and because of my low opinion of most of Mr. Winner's films. But now that I've actually seen the movie, I'm surprised to say that it's not that bad. Certainly it's the best thing of Winner's I've seen. It still suffers from a tremendous conceptual flaw, one I always knew it had, but it does occasionally overcome it. More about that in a moment.

To put my viewing of Big Sleep '78 in context, you have to know that I am not fond of the 1946 version, considered a "classic" of film noir. It is too slick and clean-scrubbed, bowing to the puritanical Hayes Code, and the script waters-down Chandler's plot so that ending doesn't make much sense. (Plenty of people have griped that the whole film doesn't make much sense, but the novel has a similar confused plotting.) The changes that keep Bogart and Bacall in a constant flirtatious relationship go against the grain of the characters from the book and lightens the demented tone of the novel. Bogart also plays Marlowe as too hard and too much like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The score by Max Steiner is superb, however.

I was surprised to find that Winner's version is incredibly faithful to the novel, duplicating most of the dialogue and the scenes. It keeps the downbeat, negative ending (and consequently makes much more sense than the more positive wrap-up in Big Sleep '46 that pawns off Carmen's killings on Eddie Mars, and then makes him pay for his crimes with a few bullets from his own men) and avoids making a romance between Mitchum's Marlowe and Sara Miles's Charlotte Sternwood (changed from "Vivian" Sternwood in the book, I have no idea why). Whole chunks of Chandler's exposition appear in a voiceover by Mitchum, which he also did in Farewell, My Lovely. Some of the casting is quite ingenious. Mitchum is a much mellower Marlowe, and consequently a more faithful to the character than Bogart. Jimmy Stewart as the lonely, dying General Sternwood, and Richard Boone as the sadistic killer Lash Canino, are right on target. Candy Clark has a good time as the demented and childish girl-toy Camilla Sternwood (changed from "Carmen" Sternwood in the book, I have no idea why). And Oliver Reed and Joan Collins…

Wait a second, you're thinking…Oliver Reed and Joan Collins? What if I also told you that Harry Andrews, Edward Fox, John Mills, and Colin Blakely are also in the movie? Hey, isn't that a huge amount of English actors for a classic Los Angeles detective story?

Yes, it is. And that's the film's big problem. Somebody, and I'll wager it was English native Michael Winner, decided to move the film's backdrop from 1939 Los Angeles to 1978 London. This is like moving Sherlock Holmes from Victorian London to 1930s Los Angeles—an essential element of the character is lost. I have no problem with updating Marlowe into the modern day—Robert Altman did it superbly in 1973 with The Long Goodbye—but ripping Marlowe and Chandler from the seedy 'n' sunny world of Los Angeles robs them of their reason for existence. The old, aristocratic, proper, and overcast setting of London doesn't make any sense for Philip Marlowe. Sure, it means you can cast Oliver Reed as Eddie Mars and Joan Collins as the manipulative bookshop lady, but it still means the rest of the film just feels "off." It's Chandler's words and actions, but it's not his world. This is the reason the public has mostly forgotten the film, despite some of its qualities.