The 1978 version of Raymond Chandler’s novel was made three years after Robert Mitchum’s first onscreen outing as Phillip Marlowe, in Farewell My Lovely, which was in turn a remake of the 1944 film, Murder, My Sweet, in which Dick Powell played the private dick. This time, Mitchum was directed in the main role by the rather infamous food critic turned director, Michael Winner, who also wrote the screenplay for this version of The Big Sleep. Although the remake is largely similar to the 1946 version, it is far more explicit due to a lack of censorship (the 1946 version had been subject to the Hays Code), and more faithful to the novel because of this. Upon its release, much like its predecessor, the film received mixed reviews. And as with its predecessor, its reputation has increased over the years, although the 1946 version is still considered the definitive adaptation of Chandler’s novel. The film reunited Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles, who had played a married couple almost torn apart by infidelity and small village gossip in the David Lean directed classic, Ryan’s Daughter.
The film begins with a derisive narration from Marlowe (played by Robert Mitchum).
It was about 11 o’ clock in the morning. I was wearing my dark blue suit, powder blue shirt, tie, display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks, with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean shaven, sober. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on £10 million.
Carmilla Sternwood (played by Candy Clark) predatorily and dizzyingly circles him before forcefully kissing him as the butler arrives to call him into see General Sternwood (played by James Sterwart).
The General is crippled from the waist down due to a steeplechasing accident. He tells Marlowe that he was blackmailed five years ago by Joe Brody, and is now being blackmailed by A.G. Geiger for Carmilla’s supposed gambling debts.
After being hired by the General for £50 a day, Marlowe is questioned by Charlotte Sternwood Regan (played by Sarah Miles), who asks him if her father has hired him to find her missing husband, Rusty. Marlowe demurs before leaving the house.
He goes to Geiger’s bookstore, where he pretends to be an intellectual and learns that the shop is clearly a front as the shop assistant (played by Joan Collins) has no knowledge of rare books. He then follows a man with a walking stick, who had been in Geiger’s shop, before the man runs away in a panic and leaves a package behind. Marlowe knows exactly what the package will contain: a book of pornography, showing women in various rather indiscreet poses.
Marlowe watches Geiger’s shop, where he sees Geiger flirt with a young man who had been in his shop’s backroom earlier. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house, number 8 Greeenstone. Carmilla arrives, and whilst through the pane in the front door, Marlowe hears gunshots. He breaks into the house and finds Geiger shot in the head, and Carmilla sitting in a chair whilst naked and catatonic. The house, as with the 1946 version, is heavily decorated in an “Oriental” style. The camera set up in front of the chair on which Carmilla was sitting, is missing its film. After dressing her, Marlowe takes Carmilla home, and tells the butler to pretend that she was in all evening and that he wasn’t there.
Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house and discovers that the other man’s body is missing, with only a large blood stain as evidence that he was killed in the house at all. Back at his own apartment, Marlowe looks through Geiger’s coded black book. Inspector Jim Carson phones Marlowe and invites him to the scene of a recent crime. Marlowe watches as the police pull a car belonging the Sternwood’s, with their dead chauffeur, Owen Taylor, inside, from the river. The Inspector informs Marlowe that Taylor was in love with Carmilla and tried to marry her in Scotland a few years before.
Marlowe returns to Geiger’s bookshop, where the shop assistant is cagey and dismissive, and the shop is being cleared of all its stock. Marlowe follows Geiger’s associates to a garage, which has Joe Brody’s name on the door. He returns to his office, where Charlotte is waiting for him. She is being blackmailed over pornographic photos, taken the previous evening by Geiger, of Carmilla. She tells Marlowe that her husband ran away with Mona Mars, the husband of the man that she may be able to get money from in order to pay off the blackmailers. Marlowe is unimpressed by this information and Charlotte’s flirting.
Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house once more, where he finds Carmilla. He grows impatient with her evasive and childish behaviour, before Eddie Mars (played by Oliver Reed), the owner of the house, arrives. Mars threatens Marlowe with a gun and instructs him to stay away from the house and Mars, before Marlowe mentions Rusty Regan and leaves.
Marlowe goes to Joe Brody’s (played by Edward Fox) house, and is threatened at gunpoint once again. Agnes, Geiger’s ex-shop assistant, is there, and revealed to be Brody’s girlfriend. Marlowe tells Brody that Carmilla will say that Brody killed Geiger, before Carmilla arrives and tries to shoot Brody in order to retrieve the compromising photos of herself. But Marlowe stops her and sends her home after she kisses him again.
Brody explains that the photos and the negatives aren’t his, and that he got them from Taylor after he knocked the chauffeur out. Brody is then shot through the door by Geiger’s boyfriend, who Marlowe previously saw with Geiger outside the bookshop, and in the backroom. He makes the boy drive him to Geiger’s house, where he overpowers him after he tries to attack and shoot Marlowe. After tying the boy to a balustrade, Marlowe finds Geiger’s body enshrined in the locked main bedroom. He phones Carson, who, once they are at the station, introduces Marlowe to Commander Barker. Marlowe hands the boy over to the police and makes a statement, but doesn’t tell them about Carmilla’s involvement with Geiger. But Barker warns Marlowe about the troubled Sternwood sisters after he learns that Marlowe is currently in General Sternwood’s employ.
Marlowe returns to his apartment, where he finds Mars, who questions Marlowe about his statement to the police, and then asks Marlowe to visit him at his club sometime. Once Mars and his heavy leave, Marlowe phones the Sternwood residence to tell Charlotte, via the butler, that he has retrieved the photographs of Carmilla. Marlowe goes to Scotland Yard and finds out more about Rusty Regan and Mona Mars. He is then followed by an unknown man.
The Sternwood’s butler phones and tries to pay Marlowe off now that the case is supposedly closed. Marlowe agrees, although he has no intention of leaving things as they are. He visits Mars’ casino, “The Cheval Club”. Mars also tries to pay Marlowe off, but Marlowe refuses. Charlotte is also at the casino, and wins £22 000 at roulette. A petty criminal, who Marlowe knows, tries rob her on the way to the parking lot.
Marlowe knows that this is a set up, and is unconvinced by Charlotte’s claim that Mars is not blackmailing her. She becomes angry when Marlowe insists on continuing with the case and when he rejects her sexual overtures. After dropping Charlotte off at home, Marlowe finds Carmilla in his bed and coolly throws her out before changing his bedding.
Harry Jones is revealed to be the man who has been following Marlowe, and whilst at Marlowe’s office, offers to sell him information for £200. Jones reveals that he knew Rusty Regan and Mona Mars, Eddie Mars’ lounge singing wife, as well as Mar’s heavy, Lash Canino. He then tells Marlowe that he knows where Mona is being held by Mars because she and Rusty did not in fact run away together. Marlowe goes to Joe Brody’s old office in order to meet Jones and give him his money, but he witnesses Jones being poisoned by Canino instead. Agnes phones the office and arranges to meet Marlowe in the Italian Gardens in Hyde Park, where she tells him that she and Brody saw Canino with Mona, who was wearing a blonde wig, near a place called Hunt’s Garage.
Marlowe sets out to find said garage, but gets a flat tire on the road due to some tacks on the tar. Fortuitously, this happens right outside of Hunt’s Garage. After fixing Marlowe’s flat tire, Canino and the mechanic knock Marlowe out. He awakens to find Mona, who won’t believe that Eddie murdered Rusty. When she leaves the room, Marlowe tips his chair back and knocks the phone off its cradle. He then lies to a panicked Mona that he called the police so that she will free him from his bonds. Despite still being handcuffed, Marlowe gets to his car while Canino assaults Mona inside of the house for being stupid and letting Marlowe get away. Outside of the house, Canino tries to kill Marlowe with a machine gun, but Marlowe distracts him by blowing up a car before shooting Canino.
Marlowe is released at the police station thanks to Mona’s testimony of events. He sees she and Eddie leaving the station together after Carson warns Marlowe to stay off the case for “playing too rough”. Marlowe goes to see the General upon the other man’s request. The General asks him to find Rusty for £10 000 because he clearly cared about Rusty as a close friend as well as a son in law. Marlowe then sees Carmilla playing darts on the estate grounds. He gives her a gun for self defence, and she asks him to show her how to shoot. Once at some old ruins on the property, she tries to shoot and kill Marlowe, but he has loaded the gun with blanks.
He tells Charlotte that he knows Carmilla murdered Rusty because he rejected her sexual overtures, and Eddie knows and is blackmailing Charlotte, whose father is entirely unaware of his youngest daughter’s murderous impulses and the blackmail scheme. Charlotte offers Marlowe money, but he angrily rejects her offer and demands that she place Carmilla in psychiatric care. The film ends with Marlowe’s fatalistic narration:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a stagnant lake or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
Michael Winner’s adaptation of The Big Sleep is not necessarily inferior to its predecessor in terms of its treatment of the source material, and it does have another great performance by Mitchum in the lead role.
But the film does have problems which detract from it somewhat. Instead of being set in Los Angelas, as the 1946 version was, Winner’s adaptation is set in 1970s London, which is rather jarring, not least because of several characters’ references to Marlowe being an American detective (not werewolf) in England, and the fact that Charlotte is British whilst her father and younger sister are clearly American. It also means that there is no continuity between Mitchum’s two Marlowe films, as Farewell, My Lovely was set in 1940s Los Angelas. It also suffers from Winner’s pervasive love of Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR), which is utilised to ill effect in two scenes.
Despite having a very enjoyable and quite well crafted neo noir aesthetic and atmosphere, especially in terms of Marlowe’s car and the scenes in Geiger’s house and in the parking lot of Mars’ casino, the film lacks the dark moodiness of the original film, which was achieved both through chiaroscuro black and white cinematography and much of the film taking place at night.
Although Miles and Mitchum have good onscreen chemistry, it isn’t as charged as Bacall’s and Bogart’s, and Miles isn’t quite as up to the task of mysterious femme fatale as the walking sexpot that was her predecessor in the role. But she does, like Bacall, manage to capture the weariness and defeated acceptance that covering for her deranged sister has led her to adopt as part of her everyday life. In the final scene, when Mitchum’s Marlowe expresses his disgust at her sister’s impulses and her complicity in them through hiding said excesses, she looks utterly broken, like a paper doll that has been crushed in a moment.
Mitchum’s performance in his second outing as Marlowe is a triumph. He is no inferior to Bogart, even if his one time contemporary will always be considered the definitive Marlowe. He delivers his dry witted dialogue with a laconic ease that shows why he was often cited as existing in a role rather than acting it out. And he manages not to seem creepy opposite female costars who are young enough to be his daughters. He manages this by looking thoroughly unimpressed and quite disinterested when they try to seduce his character in various parts of the film, most notably when Carmilla flashes him from beneath his bed covers. While Bogart’s Marlowe is fairly triumphant at the end of the film, having solved the case and got his lady, Mitchum’s Marlowe is just weary and fed up with the machinations of not only the wealthy, but people in general. Like Bogart, he is no white knight in the role, and he delivers his final observations on the entire sorry affair with a matter of fact fatalism that perfectly conveys that despite his bone weariness and acceptance of the inevitability of death and the release it allows from worldly concerns, he will continue in his role as a private detective, both because he has to in order to survive, and because he feels that he has some part in maintaining some decency in the world.
Even if you are a firm fan of the original film, as I am, I do recommend that you give this version a chance. I can assure you that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by much of what the film has to offer, thanks in no small part to the great Mr Robert Mitchum’s turn as Phillip Marlowe, which I consider to be the best after Bogart and Powell’s.
The small things behind The Big Sleep:
Due to memory and hearing loss, James Stewart had trouble remembering his lines, and his aged appearance disconcerted some cast members, with Mitchum saying, “The picture was all about corpses, but Jimmy looked deader than any of them.” James Stewart, despite being almost a decade older, outlived Mitchum by one day in real life.
Oliver Reed apparently only accepted the small supporting role of playing Eddie Mars in order to work with Mitchum, who he greatly admired.
Mitchum was sixty years old at the time of filming, some twenty seven years older than Marlowe is in the book, and twenty two years older than Bogart had been whilst playing the character in the original film adaptation.
This was the only time that Mitchum and Stewart ever worked together.
Mitchum was the only actor to play Marlowe onscreen more than once.
Due to copyright issues, Winner could not use an actual pornographic magazine for the one part of the film. So he arranged a photoshoot in order recreate one.
Despite being sixty years old during shooting, Robert Mitchum was stalked during the making of the film by two women.
This post is my second and final entry for “The Remake of the “They Remade What?!” Blogathon” hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please go and check out her blog on Blogspot for more info and to see everyone else’s entries.