My regular reader will know that I try and find something good in almost everything; this Pollyanna-esque attitude hit the rocks when dealing with a back catalogue of British enfant-terrible Michael Winner. Winner turned down The French Connection and Jaws, but left behind a body of work that mesmerises with its sheer awfulness. His 1978 remake of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep struck me as a hideous misfire when I saw it on tv circa 1984. Looking back with different eyes, it’s still absolutely hideous. For some reason, Winner’s adaptation moves the action to 1970’s Britain; the disconnect of hearing Robert Mitchum drawling Chandler’s iconic prose over drab images of the A1 motorway is discordant, not helped by the baffling use of vintage cars; this indecisive style makes Winner’s remake a real brain-bender to watch.
You probably know the story. Phillip Marlowe (Mitchum) is hired by the aging general (Stewart) to investigate a blackmail attempt on his family, but his wayward daughters are clearly key; one is played by Candy Clark in a drug-addled high-pitched performance that’s a strain to watch, the other by Sarah Miles sporting a Crystal-Tips and Alistair hairdo. Oliver Reed is a sweaty nightclub owner, slumming Edward Fox and Joan Collins add some kind of Brit flavour, and Don Henderson and Dudley Sutton are amongst the minor roles. Even Richard Todd, Richard Boone, Colin Blakely and John Mills are buried in the mess, but few make an impression beyond vague recognition.
Mitchum had just scored a hit in the same genre with 1975’s Farewell My Lovely, but comes unstuck while wandering around Ramsgate on a wet afternoon.Winner claimed his adaptation was more faithful to the original story, and in one aspect, he comes up trumps; there’s a lot more sex here. If you are looking for a film that features nude, drugged models, James Stewart, hard-core pornographic book-stores, vicious gay pimps and other juxtapositions, The Big Sleep has plenty to offer. But the explicitness topples into Winner’s trademark vulgarity, despite a classy cast who would be ideal for their roles if someone else was in charge.
Winner’s bland direction makes The Big Sleep look like a tv drama about estate-agents; there’s more detail in the scummy-looking maisonettes than in the characters. It’s no surprise that Lew Grade is the producer here; he was a master at packaging a project, yet seemed to have little taste when it came to the ideas behind them. But for a Winner film, this isn’t too bad; star-spotting, with some accurately-transcribed dialogue almost make this watchable in a ghoulish kind of way. Mitchum noted that Stewart looked like a corpse here, but everyone looks as if they have embalming fluid coursing through their veins, staving off The Big Sleep without much success.