Monday, November 4, 2019

Robert Mitchum as a Contemporary Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.
The biggest knock against Michael Winner's 1978 adaptation of The Big Sleep was his decision to transplant the story to contemporary England. It was surely an odd choice, especially since Raymond Chandler's novels paint a rich, vibrant portrait of urban California life in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Winner's version does prove that Chandler's cynical private eye, Philip Marlowe, is timeless. You could plug him into a movie today and his voiceover wisecracks would work just as well ("Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains").

James Stewart as Sternwood.
The plot faithfully follows Chandler's 1939 novel, which marked Marlowe's first appearance in print. General Sternwood, a wealthy recluse, hires Marlowe to deal with a shady bookseller who is blackmailing his wild daughter Camilla. Before he can even leave the Sternwood estate, Marlowe is confronted by Camilla's older sister Charlotte, who wants to learn if the private eye has been hired to look for her missing husband.

In between fending off the advances of both daughters, Marlowe gets involved in a web of deceit, pornography, and murder--with the number of corpses increasing at an alarming rate. It's a typical convoluted Chandler plot, but then the acclaimed author was always more interested in his characters and settings than his storylines.

The Big Sleep marks Robert Mitchum's second appearance as Philip Marlowe. He starred in an earlier adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975). However, that film was set in the 1940s and co-starred Charlotte Rampling as the femme fatale. It earned mostly good reviews, with Sylvia Miles even picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mitchum was the producers' second choice for Marlowe...after Richard Burton.

Sarah Miles as Charlotte.
Mitchum's middle-aged, world-weary Marlowe is an interesting interpretation of what Chandler's private eye might have become. He seems to be playing the same Marlowe in both Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep, though there are some differences. Inexplicably, the contemporary Marlowe drives a Mercedes convertible and wears a Rolex. I'm not sure how a modestly-successful private investigator could afford such luxury items with his rate of £50 a day plus expenses. Incidentally, his presence in England is explained with a quick reference to his decision to stay there after World War II.

Admittedly, it's intriguing to see an older Marlowe shadowing shady characters in London and cruising along the English countryside. That's not the problem with The Big Sleep--nor is a respectable supporting cast consisting of James Stewart, Oliver Reed, John Mills, Richard Todd, Richard Boone, and Diana Quick.

No, The Big Sleep sinks because of its two female leads: Sarah Miles and Candy Clark. Miles starred previously with Mitchum and John Mills in 1970's Ryan's Daughter. She and Mitchum had remained friends over the years, but there's no sizzle between their characters in The Big Sleep. It's a sharp contrast from the sexual tension projected by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the same roles in the 1946 version of Chandler's novel. Indeed, Sarah Miles transforms Charlotte into a dull, lethargic character that generates no audience interest.

Candy Clark as Camilla.
On the flip side, Candy Clark overacts as Charlotte's carefree younger sister Camilla. Her character is so obviously psychotic that it spoils the film's climax. It's a puzzling performance, given that Clark breathed life in wonderfully-controlled quirky characters in movies like Q--The Winged Serpent.

If you want to see Robert Mitchum's take on Philip Marlowe, then your best bet is to check out Farewell, My Lovely. I hate to end with an obvious line--surely used by film critics when The Big Sleep was released--but Mitchum's second Marlowe feature is a snoozefest.


Here's a clip from The Big Sleep, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


3 comments:

Eric Warren said...

I did not like Mitchum as Marlowe, at least not in Farewell, My Lovely. Have not seen this take on The Big Sleep. Funny, because the Bogie version is one of my favorite all time films, and Mitchum is one of my favorite under-rated actors from Hollywood's Golden Age. Ryan's Daughter, among others seems to be all but ignored by anyone but the staunchest cinephiles. Better known, of course is Cape Fear.

aceblackblog. said...

I recently watched the 1978 version of The Big Sleep, and yes, it lives down to its reputation. All the pieces are there and the cast is strong on paper, but none of it really works.

Silver Screenings said...

Ah, I just cannot get into this movie. I keep comparing it to the 1946 version, which is probably unfair. I like Mitchum's approach, but it ain't enough for me.