Saturday 19 October 2019

Movie Review: The Big Sleep (1978)

A private investigation thriller, The Big Sleep moves Raymond Chandler's novel to modern day England but fails to recreate the requisite mood of pervasive dank criminality.

In suburban London, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is hired by the elderly and paralyzed General Sternwood (James Stewart) to investigate and stop a blackmail campaign involving his wild younger daughter Camilla (Candy Clark). Marlowe also meets older daughter Charlotte (Sarah Miles), whose husband Rusty Regan has been missing for a month. The blackmail investigation leads Marlowe to book merchant Geiger, his assistant Agnes (Joan Collins), and her partner Brody (Edward Fox).

The trio are running a small scale pornography and blackmail racket, but soon Geiger is murdered, the Sternwood chauffaur turns up dead, and Brody is also summarily killed. One common thread linking the deaths appears to be slick gangster and casino operator Eddie Mars (Oliver Reed), whose wife Mona (Diana Quick) is also missing. With chief henchman Lash Canino (Richard Boone) emerging as a ruthless intimidator, Marlowe is intrigued that everyone he meets mentions the missing Regan, but no one is especially keen to find him.

A certain amount of courage is required to remake a classic, and to relocate a quintessential late 1930s Los Angeles crime story to 1970s England. This Lew Grade production insists on wedging a sordid American tale into a manicured British context, with English director Michael Winner also writing the screenplay. The result is predictable: despite the engagingly convoluted criminality, everything seems just off.

The story is faithful to the labyinthine book, but Winner never finds the style and mordant temperament required to stitch together the blur of killings and multiple conniving characters. The events are ticked-off with mechanical proficiency but zero chemistry, the staid English settings never clicking with the material and also left unexploited. Winner almost apologetically steers clear of contaminating Chandler's caustic attitude with any prim Englishness, leaving the film stranded in a vague blend of time and space.

Given the strength of the cast, the lack of any cohesiveness between people, events and places is almost tragic. Every key role is occupied by solid talent, but the stars appear to operate in detached parallel dimensions. The temperature between Robert Mitchum's Marlowe and Sarah Miles' Charlotte remains colder than the inside of a basement freezer unit. Oliver Reed is effective as the fashionable nexus of evil Eddie Mars, but never connects at a human level with any of his victims or enemies. And Candy Clark as Camilla lands on the side of childishly insane, missing all the essential nymphomaniac and rebellious undercurrents.

Although some of the dialgue wit survives and James Stewart rolls back the years to convey a stricken tycoon's heartache, this version of The Big Sleep is an exercise in transplanting the body but ignoring the soul.

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