The Big Sleep
The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Michael Winner
Based on the novel by Raymond Chander
Director: Michael Winner
Cinematographer: Robert Paynter
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Candy Clark, James Stewart
Release: March 13, 1978
Studio: United Artists
Percent Noir: 60%
As you are probably aware if you read last week’s article, I am not the biggest (heh) fan of 1946’s “The Big Sleep,” despite its critical status as one of the finest examples of noir. But I will give it credit for this – it looks like “Citizen Kane” when compared to the abortive 1978 remake.
The storyline is essentially the same here, with Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) hired by rich dude General Sternwood (James Stewart in an extended cameo) after someone begins blackmailing him. The more pressing mystery involves Sternwood’s daughter Camilla (Candy Clark), who is both mentally deranged and a nymphomaniac. While she was drugged, she had pornographic photos taken of her, and the guy who took them was shot in the head right in front of her. But as the film progresses, a second mystery takes precedence – this one involving the other daughter Charlotte’s (Sarah Miles) missing husband.
Right off the bat, screenwriter/director Michael Winner (“Death Wish,” “Appointment With Death”) makes two decisions that fundamentally make no sense. The first was to modernize the story for no apparent reason. The second was to switch the action from the United States to London for (wait for it) no apparent reason. I would have been fine with these changes if they were exploited in interesting ways, or brought out new wrinkles in the story, but neither does. Like, at all. This is especially odd since the movie, while not being an official sequel, was made in the wake of 1975’s Chandler adaptation “Farewell, My Lovely.” That adaptation, which also starred Mitchum as Marlowe, was set in ‘40s Los Angeles, creating an even greater disconnect. Yes, I know they were made by different creative teams for different studios, but audiences obviously took “The Big Sleep” as a sequel, and would have been confused by the disconnect when the film started.
That said, that disconnect would quickly give way to bigger frustrations. The original Chandler novel is confused in its storytelling, and the 1946 film compounds those problems threefold, but Winner seemed to make it a personal goal for his adaptation to make complete sense. Here, everyone explains. Then explains again. Then explains in voiceover. Then tells you once or twice more for good measure. I like my mysteries to be mysterious, but throughout it feels like I’m being spoon fed information I could have figured out myself.
Winner lifts dialogue and voiceover from Chandler’s novel, which is great. But the difference between the quality of Chandler’s dialogue and Winner’s new stuff is not only noticeable, but totally jarring. You find yourself engaged by a moment but then a line will stick out like a sore thumb and take you completely out of the movie.
Before I transition into Winner’s problems as a director, I will give the two good moments in the film fair praise. The first is when Marlowe says the immortal line “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” Winner cuts to Sternwood, and the old guy breaks into laughter. It’s the first time I can remember in a Chandler adaptation (heck, maybe any noir) where a character will give in and laugh at someone else’s hardboiled line of dialogue, and it brought a wide smile to my face. The second is the climax of the film, which is kept much closer to Chandler’s novel and, for my money, is more interesting morally than the 1946 version.
Winner’s screenplay is mostly inane, but his work as a director is downright terrible. Collaborating with his cinematographer Robert Paynter (you know that can’t be his last name, right?), they give the movie all the depth of an episode of “Quincy M.D.” No atmosphere, no excitement, and even the fights are shot so haphazardly (especially one involving Mitchum, Clark and Joan Collins) that they come across as funny. This is not a pretty movie. And don’t even get me started on the magically appearing pigeons near those ancient ruins!
Every now and then you write a sentence that you honestly never expected to find an occasion to write during your lifetime. That last sentence was one of those times.
The acting is, on the whole, just as bad as everything else. Mitchum can pull off jaded in his sleep, and excels at that in a few scenes. But mostly something different comes across in his performance – boredom. Poor, poor Miles is given one of the worst hairstyles I’ve ever seen on film (not an exaggeration) and seems genuinely adrift here. There’s one moment where she licks her lips while gambling which is riotously funny… but isn’t supposed to come across as such. Poor, poor Clark is astonishingly bad, but doesn’t hold a candle to Oliver Reed (!), who whisper-threats almost every line of dialogue, which comes across almost as funny as the lip licking. Stewart isn’t in the film long enough to make much of an impression, which might be a blessing in disguise.
This is bad. Like, unusually bad. Winner is infamous for directing the first few installments of the “Death Wish” franchise, of which the second is generally considered one of the most disgusting films ever made. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t watched. His filmography is fascinating – sure, several of his movies are unwatchable, but there are some super interesting choices here. He directed a prequel to “The Taming of the Shrew” called “The Nightcomers,” which starred Marlon Brando. His “The Sentinel” is not at all politically correct but still truly traumatic to watch. He remade “The Wicked Lady” as a comedy (!?) starring Faye Dunaway. This is a guy who was willing to try anything, even though his reach always exceeded his grasp.
Don’t watch this movie. The end.
P.S. The music is awful.
P.P.S. At one point Marlowe knocks someone out with a karate chop to the neck. I don’t have anything to add but felt like it needed to be said.