Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Big Sleep (1978)

Most people remember that Robert Mitchum played Philip Marlowe in the rather good 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely, but few recall that he played Marlowe for a second time in the seventies, in a remake of The Big Sleep.  There are good reasons for this, in large part due to the fact that the film seems to have vanished completely from our TV screens.  Also, of course, it is always overshadowed by the 1946 version with Humphrey Bogart.  The fact that the 1978 film was written and directed by Michael Winner, who these days tends to be remembered as an egotistical purveyor of violent revenge fantasies, celebrity food critic and car insurance salesman.  While it is true that many of  Winner's films from the early seventies onwards are pretty much unwatchable nowadays, pompous, overblown and very reactionary in their themes and execution, not to mention misogynistic, I'm actually prepared to defend The Big Sleep.  I've always found it perversely enjoyable thanks to the eccentric decision made by its producers to transplant the story and characters from forties Los Angeles to seventies Britain, while still keeping the characters of Marlowe and several of the other key protagonists American.  The end result is, to say the least, somewhat peculiar.

Yet it almost works.  This, in large part, is down to an excellent cast, particularly Mitchum who, although his performance isn't up to the standard of his previous appearance in the role, perfectly encapsulates Marlowe's combination of world weariness, cynicism and shop worn integrity.  It also helps that, despite the temporal and geographical dislocation, the film follows the plot of Chandler's novel reasonably closely.  Plus, shocking though it might seem, Winner's direction is actually pretty effective - the film looks good and moves smoothly and most of his usual, trademark, excesses are absent.  Sure, the film can never really challenge the Bogart version, but it does represent and interesting and surprisingly entertaining alternative take on the story.  The contemporary UK setting might seem an odd choice, but it sort of makes sense - Marlowe had been updated before, (the Elliot Gould starring Long Goodbye and the 1969 James Garner headlined Marlowe, for instance), and it is always interesting to see how Marlowe's forties values deal with the modern world.  Combining the updating with the unfamiliar UK setting not only heightens the idea that Marlowe is a man out of time and place, but it also neatly differentiates the film from its predecessor.  With The Big Sleep now available on DVD and Blu Ray, I might yet get around to seeing it again.



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