The Big Sleep (1978)

Written and directed by Michael Winner.

“She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be a bit wearing for a steady diet.”

The Disc

A release from the ITV archives, this one, with a Photoshop job on the front featuring the biggest names from the cast – Robert Mitchum, Oliver Reed and Joan Collins – and a Raymond Chandler credit to boot. No mention of Michael Winner apart from in the credit block on the back of the case, for some reason…

The disc itself features a commentary by Winner, a featurette on the location shooting, a short featurette on London’s only mystery bookshop in which the owner sings the praises of Chandler and Mitchum, and another short on Mitchum’s involvement.

Why Did I Get This?

Bit of a cheat this one, insofar as it’s not a disc that’s been on my shelf for years – unlike the 1946 version which I rewatched and wrote about a little while back (and which has proved one of the most popular Late Reviews – thanks for reading!).

No, this one’s only been on the shelf for a couple of weeks since I stumbled across it in a second-hand shop after the shops reopened, and forked over 99 whole pence for it.

Frustratingly, a few days after picking it up I spotted an eviscerating take down of the 1978 adaptation from a film historian whose opinion I respect. I quickly stopped reading, as I knew I had this planned, but while I was already curious to see this version (and I haven’t seen Mitchum’s other appearance as Philip Marlowe), that weird Michael Winner-inspired coincidence turned my curiosity morbid.

To be clear then, this isn’t exactly a Late Review – more a comparison between the two versions. Compare The Marlowe, if you like…

Anyway, there’s only one way to find out what it’s like…

The Late Review

As always the Late Review will go into detail about the film, so if you want to avoid spoilers, skip to the next heading.

CHRIST!

Sorry, it’s just the first thing that happens after you press play is a screen full of Michael Winner staring down the barrel of the lens. I wasn’t expecting that, nor was I expecting him to talk about how this version was probably a better version of the story than the Bogart version despite being transplanted from Los Angeles to London, and how he reckons Joan Collins only got her role in Dynasty thanks to her appearance in this.

Alright, perhaps I should’ve expected him to praise his own work so enthusiastically, but still, that was a surprise.

Okay, so now we’re in a vintage Mercedes pulling onto the A602 and passing a horse and cart while heading towards a country estate.

I have no idea when this movie is set.

Story wise, the outline’s the same – elderly General Sternwood (played in this by an elderly James Stewart), is being blackmailed because his daughter Camilla (Candy Clark), is a bit of a wildcat, and wants Marlowe to take care of it.

Marlowe meets Camilla on his way to the greenhouse to chat with the general, after cheerfully describing his outfit in voiceover and eyeing up the chauffeur ominously. As soon as Clark bounds into the hallway and starts dancing around Mitchum, I was completely baffled by the decisions she and Winner made about her performance.

I’m not familiar with the rest of Clark’s work, but her over-the-top quirky babydoll act she’s chosen here is pretty grating and sits really badly against Mitchum’s style which, frankly, is weary to the point of somnambulism. Her nudity – once for the blackmail reveal and again when she flashes Marlowe from his own bed before going off in a strop when he refuses to show interest – may be a little gratuitous, but it’s brief, and whatever you think of her performance, she seems totally committed to it.

It’s nice to see Mitchum and Stewart jawing away for the few minutes screentime they share, and it’s played less solemnly than the Hawks version. For example, when Mitchum says: “She tried to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time,” Stewart lets out a big laugh (or something close to a laugh). It’s clear we’re watching two actors of note, and Winner shoots them with glee, but I don’t think it’s too unfair to suggest they’ve both given better performances.

Speaking of the shooting style, Sternwood’s mansion is an enormous stately home, and largely shot from low angles to show off the height (of Mitchum and the ceilings), and detail of the elaborate rooms and decor. Elsewhere, Marlowe’s Westminster flat is a palace, considering he’s earning £50 a day plus expenses, while his office and those at New Scotland Yard all look like empty production offices the filmmakers borrowed on the sly. I guess all the location money went on the Sternwood mansion.

Winner also made the odd decision to shoot a lot of dialogue in singles – some of the witty back and forth between characters that was so engaging in the Hawks version as the performers acted each other off the screen is shot with side-on close-ups of characters facing each other. It turns watching cinema magic into a sort of tennis match, with heads flipping back and forth at the same speed as the dialogue.

Throughout the documentaries on the disc, Mitchum is praised as bringing a world weariness to Marlowe with most participants in the featurettes saying his is the definitive version of the character. Now, I only have Bogart’s version to compare with and I haven’t seen Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely, but for me, it’s not even close.

It feels like Mitchum is pretty much sleepwalking through this, but conversely, his voiceover sounds practically chipper – it’s like the opposite of Harrison Ford in whichever cut of Blade Runner nobody watches any more. Permanently low key, he occasionally offers a GREAT BIG EYE OPENING expression to suggest surprise or shock, especially following this exchange…

CHARLOTTE: “She has a great little body, doesn’t she?”

MARLOWE: “Yes.”

CHARLOTTE: “You should see mine some time.”

For the most part it’s a confident performance that’s so quiet and sleepy Mitchum stands out in a noisy world, but his expression following that line should come with a Tex Avery-style AWOOGA sound effect.

While we’re on performances, Sarah Miles as Charlotte Sternwood is no Lauren Bacall, and the chemistry between her and Mitchum is… I dunno, barely there. She’s adopted a Katherine Hepburn vocal style in lieu of a performance, and out of nowhere she develops a lizard-like tongue-poking action while she’s playing roulette towards the end of the movie that, frankly, looks silly.

While we’re on silly, Edward Fox as Joe Brody practically barks his lines while giving big arm and leg energy. As the partner of Joan Collins’ Agnes, he gets to deliver a big old exposition dump in double time and flashback after a rowdy slap fight in his home accompanied by mad banjo music which ends with Mitchum holding all the guns and Collins checking her tights for ladders.

That kind of exposition dump is something that this version does frequently to rush the plot along – and it does feel rushed. Famously, the plot of the Howard Hawks version was so labyrinthine that there was a plot hole that even the writer couldn’t explain – less famously, it got so frantic and confusing on my last rewatch that I resorted to bullet points to keep up.

Winner makes an effort to close up that plot hole, and we do see the chauffeur drive the Sternwood car into a dock in a pretty decent stunt in this one, and Edward Fox later takes credit for sapping the poor driver prior to his death.

It’s pretty weird seeing a high class pornography blackmail case take place in a 1970s London suburb, and the taxi chase which saw Bogart enjoy some harmless flirting with a female taxi driver, this time involves a middle-aged bloke and some terrible dialogue that is at once too much and too little.

MARLOWE: “Such a lot of guns around town lately, and so few brains.”

Despite the shift in location to the UK, everyone seems to have at least one gun – clearly the seventies in Michael Winner’s London were a pretty brutal place. Mitchum’s Marlowe does have a secret little arsenal in his car just like Bogart, but it’s presentation is less cool.

I feel like I’m coming across as quite negative on this film, but to be honest, I watched it with a smile on my face. Yes, there’s a lot about it which feels out of place and frankly doesn’t work (Marlowe playing a portable electronic chess game on a stakeout is weird, as is his use of an elaborate speakerphone cradle so he can phone New Scotland Yard while making a sandwich – either delay the call or the snack by about five minutes, Phil), but there’s a sort of appeal to it with the odd element here and there which does work.

Oliver Reed, for example, plays Eddie Mars as a quietly spoken thug… alright, he pretty much hisses a lot of his lines, but he delivers the closest thing to menace this movie has to offer. Having recently watched The Night Manager, I’d equate his performance style to Tom Hollander’s Corky in that series – all sneer and underlying danger. Also, he looks good in a tuxedo, and there’s more going on behind his eyes than (a) you’d expect and (b) some other members of the cast.

Some of the unusual shooting styles are interesting too, if a little overplayed. Towards the end of the movie, after Marlowe’s been knocked unconscious and tied to a chair, the picture and music is deliberately fuzzy and woozy as he comes round. Minutes later, he’s on the floor looking up at Eddie’s wife, and the shot/counter-shot between the two is played from their point of view, meaning one or the other is upside down in the screen. It’s a fun little quirk, but goes on a little too long.

Marlowe’s escape from capture is also a well executed and fun gag, as he improvises a way to lure panto villain Lash Canino (played by Richard Boone, laughing maniacally and bloody annoyingly each time he kills someone) out into the night and blows up his parked car using his tie and pocket square. This sequence is spoiled slightly by some appalling repetition of Boone’s death cries as Mitchum empties his revolver into him, but again, it’s a fun sequence.

There are also a couple of tweaks which are interesting rather than annoying, such as General Sternwood’s second appearance from what will likely be his deathbed, crying a single tear as he asks Marlowe to find out what happened to his friend Regan. It’s not exactly made explicit (which is surprising, considering how explicit some of the other elements of sexuality have been in the updated version), but it seems fairly clear the men were closer than friends, and Stewart’s portrayal of inner conflict and regret is a step above many of the other performances.

Ultimately, the blackmailer and the murderers are all stopped, and Winner wisely avoids having Mitchum’s Marlowe declare undying love for Miles’ Charlotte. In another interesting change, he tells her to have her sister committed to an asylum for her own safety and for the good of their father, then walks out of their lives forever, even refusing his payoff.

We end the movie as we began it – in the driving seat of the droptop Mercedes, this time speeding away from the Sternwood mansion as the credits roll.

Thoughts On The Film

Obviously, for the purposes of this Late Review, I wasn’t trying, but it’s impossible to avoid comparing this film to the 1946 version and it really does not compare favourably.

It feels like it’s trying too hard to be different (even changing some character names for no particular reason), but in doing so, Michael Winner’s fingerprints become more and more visible on it, and they bring their own baggage with them.

At 95 minutes (including the Winner intro), it’s a breezy enough affair, and it does have that comforting feeling that comes with some 1970s British movies – complete with “hey, it’s that guy!” moments, and the pleasure of seeing a vision of the country’s streets that doesn’t really exist anymore. Quaint, almost.

Ultimately though, losing half an hour in comparison to the 1946 version and having a script written at speed by Michael Winner means the film requires at least three massive exposition-filled flashbacks, all hastily read and clumsily edited to the point where they feel almost like a parody.

Verdict

I can’t see myself rushing to rewatch this, but I honestly didn’t hate it.

If nothing else, it’s an interesting look at how different filmmakers can present the same material. I bought this out of curiosity, and I’m glad to have seen it.

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