The big sleep
The Big Sleep (1978)

© 2008 William Ahearn

Sometimes fidelity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Much of the criticism about Michael Winner’s 1978 version of The Big Sleep centers on moving Raymond Chandler’s story from Los Angeles in the 1940s to London in the late 1970s. That isn’t such a drastic step as far as I’m concerned since Bernard Travenier moved Jim Thompson’s Pop 1280 from an imaginary Texas to a colonial Africa in his “Coup de torchon” and packed the sensibility of the novel right next to the translation.

Winner’s film has several things going for it. Robert Mitchum turns in a credible, steady, and focused performance that almost captures the Marlowe of the novel even if this Marlowe drives an expensive vintage car and dresses better than the real Marlowe (unless Marlowe did marry Linda Loring from The Long Goodbye), yet he still doesn’t seem to need to take money from anyone.

The casting is interesting with James Stewart as General Sternwood, Oliver Reed as Eddie Mars, Joan Collins as Agnes Lozelle and Richard Boone as Lash Canino. Sarah Miles plays Charlotte (Vivian in the book) Regan and Edward Fox plays Joe Brody. Not one of them turns in a memorable line or scene in the entire film. This is their most leaden performances and it’s not the molten lead that sizzles and smokes or the lead of a speeding bullet breaking skin and bone but the lead of a forgotten pipe left on a shelf in the back room of an abandoned plumbing supply store.

The script is far more faithful to the novel than either of the Howard Hawks’ versions and shows Marlowe’s obsession with chess, the bedroom scene with Carmen (called Camilla in the film) and uses an ending much closer to the novel. (Except for “her” and that is at least hinted at.) It even – in narration – allows Marlowe to muse on “the big sleep.” The problem with that faithfulness is that part of the original novel dealt with pornography and drugs. By 1978, glossy magazines contained far more explicit pictures than any sold under Geiger’s counter and drugs – in 1970’s London – had lost the stigma they had in 1940’s America.

Having said all of that, this film is about as exciting as waiting for a long-distance bus in some far-flung outpost where even the bugs lack the enthusiasm to crash into the lighted windows of the gas station. Faithful has its place, boring doesn’t.

While Winner’s script (he wrote as well as directed) doesn’t add unnecessary shoot-outs, as did the 1975 “Farewell, My Lovely” or the added sex opportunities of Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep,” Marlowe has nothing to work off of. Jimmy Stewart gives up the ghost of acting while Candy Clark, as Camilla Sternwood is just plain annoying as the crazy rich girl. Everyone else and everything else about this film is utterly forgettable.

Robert Mitchum turns in a good performance as Marlowe – he has the distance and the suppressed anger and the long-view of the chess player – but it all happens in a vacuum. His attitude is ten times what it was just a few years before when he walked through “Farewell, My Lovely” hoping to find a door marked “exit.”

It’s just a damn shame it was wasted it in this film.

William Ahearn