Film Review: The Big Sleep (1978)

in #aaa2 months ago


1975 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic hard-boiled detective novel Farewell, My Lovely is arguably the best film noir made in colour and its star Robert Mitchum can be described as the best actor to play private detective Philip Marlowe. So, it isn’t surprising that Mitchum became the only actor to portray that iconic character twice, the second film being The Big Sleep, directed in 1978 by Michael Winner.

Unlike the first film, a faithful adaptation set in 1940s Los Angeles, the second had setting transplanted to contemporary London. Mitchum plays Marlowe as American private detective working in Britain and the plot starts when he visits one of his countrymen, elderly General Sternwood (played by James Stewart), in order to help him handle a blackmail. Marlowe soon discovers that the case might be connected to his daughters – older Charlotte (played by Sarah Miles), whose loveless marriage apparently ended with husband’s mysterious disappearance; and younger and mentally unbalanced Camilla (played by Candy Clark). Marlowe’s investigation leads him to a book store, which a revealed to be a front for pornography business and whose owner soon meets violent demise, becoming the first of many who would get killed while Marlowe enters deep into the world of sleaze, blackmail, organised crime and dysfunctional families in order to discover who was blackmailing Sternwoods and why.

Plot of Chandler’s novel was notoriously complex, in a way that even the author couldn’t handle so he left some of subplots unresolved. That remained in its first screen adaptation, classic 1946 film noir directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart. In the new version complexity of the plot becomes an issue thanks to direction of Michael Winner who was apparently guided with the producers’ desire to have budget as low as possible and worked very hard to keep it within 90 minutes of running time. As a result, pace is very fast, with many important plot elements not being developed or explained enough and many characters barely having time to get introduced before being killed. Many otherwise dependable actors are reduced to glorified cameos while others seem being terribly miscast, like Richard Boone in the role of supposedly menacing hitman. Throughout the film, Winner insists on speed at the expense of creating proper (neo)noirish atmosphere and even at the quality of certain scenes, including gunfight – a scene, which, according to later claims by Winner, featured actors terribly drunk during the shooting. Some of the elements, on the other hand, work. Winner was, unlike Hawks in 1946, unrestrained by the censorship of Hollywood’s notorious Hays Code, so he tries to keep audience’s attention with exploitative content like graphic violence and nudity. The latter is provided by very enthusiastic Candy Clark in a way which is somewhat justified, since her character happens to be psychotic nymphomaniac. Stewart, who had serious problems with hearing and memory during the production, gives surprisingly moving portrayal of her sick father. Mitchum, despite entering the seventh decade of his life, handles role of Marlowe competently, but even he can’t rise above the film’s limitations and it is quite understandable why after The Big Sleep he hadn’t got opportunity to play that character for the third time.

RATING: 4/10 (++)

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Critic: AA