Three years after playing Raymond Chandler’s famous detective Phillip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975), which was set in the 1940s, Robert Mitchum reprised the role in this film, which is set in the 1970s. Making the time-shift between movies even more awkward, The Big Sleep writer-director Michael Winner employs hokey devices straight out of Chandler’s Depression-era fiction, such as femme-fatale types and hardboiled interior monologue presented as voiceover. Yet in other respects, The Big Sleep is quite modern, thanks to ample amounts of gore and nudity. Therefore, it’s an old-fashioned movie filled with things that turn off most fans of old-fashioned movies.
Moreover, Winner risked walking on hallowed cinematic ground with this project, since the first movie version of The Big Sleep—starring Humphrey Bogart and released in 1946—is considered a classic of the original film-noir cycle. Given this tricky context, it almost doesn’t even matter that Winner’s version of The Big Sleep is an adequate little mystery/thriller. In order to satisfy all concerned parties, the movie needed to be superlative, which it is not. Furthermore, Winner inexplicably changed the location from Los Angeles (as in the original Chandler novel) to London, and then populated the cast with a random mixture of Brits and Yanks. Since nothing inherently English happens, the jump across the pond is a head-scratcher from a conceptual standpoint.
In any event, the convoluted story begins when Marlowe is invited to the home of a rich American, retired General Sternwood (James Stewart). Sternwood hires Marlowe to scare off a would-be blackmailer. Meanwhile, Marlowe receives seductive advances from Sternwood’s adult daughters, the cynical Charlotte (Sarah Miles) and the provocative Camilla (Candy Clark). As per the Chandler story, the seemingly simple job opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, eventually placing Marlowe in the midst of betrayals, double-crosses, and murders.
Winner hits the sleazy elements of the narrative hard, as in scenes of Camilla posing nude for a pornographer and various incidents of people getting shot through the skull. The material is so grim and the story is so bewildering that The Big Sleep isn’t fun to watch, per se, even though it boasts abundant sex appeal thanks to Clark, Miles, and costars Joan Collins and Diana Quick. Concurrently, the men in the supporting cast provide gradations of menace, with Colin Blakely, Richard Boone, Edward Fox, and Oliver Reed playing villainous types. (Offering glimmers of gallantry are the characters portrayed by Harry Andrews and John Mills.) However, none of the film’s performances or technical contributions is extraordinary, so Mitchum dominates in the absence of anything more interesting. As in Farewell, My Lovely, Mitchum’s seen-it-all demeanor suits the Marlowe character perfectly.
The Big Sleep: FUNKY