Michael Winner, the pugnacious British filmmaker (and restaurant critic), died in January at age 77. He dabbled in almost every genre (Westerns, musicals, horror, costume melodrama, war movies etc.) though was most at home with ironic comedies during the 1960s and violent thrillers in the 70s. He made six movies with Charles Bronson, the best-known being Death Wish, the controversial adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel that combined vigilante revenge fantasy with a hint of satire to enduring box-office and pop culture appeal. But what did Winner bring to his 1978 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first novel – and can it measure up to the enduring 1940s Bogart and Bacall classic made by Howard Hawks?
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. I also submit it for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog- for links to the other participants’ reviews, click here.
“I was neat, clean-shaven and sober. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on ten million pounds” - Opening voiceover by Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum)
Attentive readers will immediately recognise a subtle change in currency for this otherwise close reproduction of Chandler’s opening paragraph, one that is highly indicative of what is to follow. Robert Mitchum stars as Marlowe, a role he had already played a couple of years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely (1975), a romantic hommage to 40s Film Noir set in period and keeping fairly close to the original novel. As it was a modest commercial success for producers Jerry Bick and Elliot Kastner they engaged Winner to write and direct a kind of box office follow-up, though apart from the presence of the iconic actor the two don’t have much in common. For one thing the action is now set in the present day – and for another it has been relocated from Los Angeles to the UK, which is certainly the biggest initial hurdle to overcome for any fans of the book given how central the author’s topographical descriptions of California (which he fictionalised variously as ‘Bay City’, ‘Poodle Springs’, ‘Idle Valley’ etc) are to his work.
The first thing that has to be said, in fairness, is that once you get used to the transposition to the UK, Winner’s is otherwise a pretty faithful adaptation of Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe book, certainly much closer to the source than the much-loved if more loosely derived Bogart and Bacall version. And yet Winner’s approach in general, for all his literal reverence for Chandler, is probably emblematic of why he was liked by producers but often hated by critics, though he definitely gets top marks for effort. Winner in fact reinstated the first person narration which Howard Hawks dispensed with in the 40s iteration and in addition follows the plot very closely. Marlowe is hired by the ailing General Sternwood (James Stewart) to deal with a blackmail attempt relating to his younger daughter (Carmen in the novel, for some reason Camilla in the film, and played in an absurdly over-the-top manner by Candy Clark) by a gay pornographer named Geiger (John Justin, who played the prince in the Korda version of The Thief of Baghdad). Marlowe follows Geiger home and later that night discovers the man shot dead and Carmen at the scene of the crime clearly under the influence of narcotics. Winner in his movies at the time never shied away from sordid detail so he does make quite heave weather of all these elements with Clark found nude and stoned at the scene of the crime and Geiger’s nasty bullet hole in his forehead seen in unlovely close-up.
After Marlowe takes the girl home, the film makes a point of clearing up that well-known conundrum from the 40s version – who killed the Sternwood’s driver? Here we see him clearly commit suicide by driving the car into the river at top speed, leading to that most absurd but convenient of film and TV clichés – the cop telling the hero that a car/ and or body has been found and then arriving at the scene when it is in fact being pulled out of the drink – so how could they know what car it was if it hadn’t been pulled out yet? Marlowe discovers that local gangster Eddie Mars (a rather chubby-looking Oliver Reed) was involved with Geiger and that Agnes, the latter’s bookstore accomplice (played perfectly by Joan Collins just as her career, long in the doldrums, was about pick up again) is involved with small-time gambler Joe Brody (Edward Fox) who has some incriminating photos of Camilla. After a nicely staged catfight involving Marlowe and Agnes, Joe gets shot by Geiger’s boyfriend and all seems solved.
“So many guns lately, so few brains”
Only there is this residual mystery over the disappearance of both Eddie Mars’ wife Mona and Rusty Reagan, the husband of Sternwood’s older daughter (Vivian in the book but now Charlotte in the film). In the Hawks version the daughter is played by Lauren Bacall and the film’s plot was largely sacrificed to build up her part. Winner is much more faithful here but is hampered by a pretty poor performance from Sarah Miles as the daughter who in addition appears in a succession of utterly hideous outfits (the 70s really were a trashy decade for fashion) and fails at every turn in her attempts to be coquettish and seductive – instead she just comes across as plain weird, fickle and suffering from an unusually dry upper lip (lots of lip-smacking action). So where are Rusty and Mona Mars and why isn’t Eddie worried about her disappearance? And just who is Lash Canino?
This adaptation is a quite frustrating at times because while perfectly competent technically, the look of the film is very flat with little attempt at atmosphere other than a few scenes shot at night, which is typical of Winner’s preference for naturalistic location shooting over studio artifice. This helps differentiate it from the dreamy black and white of the 40s version without doubt but what this also means is that the style is of necessity more often somewhat dull and functional; more disappointing is the fact that it does often feel somewhat sluggish, with Mitchum rather less engaged here than in his previous outing, especially in the scenes with Sarah Miles who appears in a succession of see-through tops but is never very convincing as a sophisticated society temptress. It doesn’t help that the 25-year age disparity between the two is so obvious, but both just seem to be coasting here. And this is a shame because they were excellent together a few years earlier in Ryan’s Daughter (which also featured an Oscar-winning performance from John Mills, who appears here as Marlowe’s police contact at Scotland Yard). Winner often got amazing casts in his film, working with the likes of Orson Welles, Faye Dunaway, Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, James Coburn, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine and many more but none of the films they made together are particularly memorable (his early comedies starring Oliver Reed are much more impressive) and sadly the same is true here.
There are some notable performances though, especially from Candy Clark (bonkers but certainly dynamic) and a very sexy Joan Collins while Richard Boone chews up the scenery to great effect as the wonderfully named gunman Lash Canino (just one of the best henchmen names in fiction). But Winner’s approach is often just too prosaic to give the film the poetry, drive and atmosphere it requires. To give Winner credit he makes much greater use of Chandler’s dialogue thanks Hawks and maintains his wonderful opening and closing speeches. These are heard as bookends for the film with symmetrical POV shots from Marlowe’s soft-top Mercedes as he arrives at the opening and then departs at the end from the Sternwood home, backed by a jazzy lament, one of the last scores by Jerry Fielding (his fifth collaboration with Winner). This kind of ambitious circular structure is not what many would associate with the usual ‘zoom and thump’ of Winner’s thrillers and again shows that he was making an effort to to reach for something a bit more stylish. For all that though it’s the climactic gun battle with Canino, all shot at night, which really stands out for its proficient staging – this is also true of the director’s handling of the conclusion. Indeed it is really gratifying to see the finale use the novel’s ending, which had been completely excised by Hawks, and which does in fact work very well indeed – the last 20 minutes of the movie are probably what is most memorable, with a strong final scene between Mitchum and Stewart too, much better than their rather torpid initial meeting in the orchid house.
But whereas the 40s version worked as a kind of screwball Noir thanks to the chiaroscuro look and the charismatic banter between Bogart and Bacall, there is very little atmosphere and momentum to the remake, which quickly gets bogged down in a sea of flashbacks. It is also a mistake to show Rusty Reagan in the flashbacks – a wonderful, teasing phantomatic presence in Chandler’s original novel, when we see him he inevitably fails to live up to General Sternwood’s reverential reverie of the man. This tends to point to another weakness in the movie as the narrative does feel a bit choppy (this is partly Chandler’s fault as he based it on several short stories that he ‘cannibalised to use his own terms) and Winner’s often leaden staging tends to emphasise this, making it feel that the movie is constantly stopping and starting again – in particular Winner seems to have given no thought to how to make transitions between scenes so that few rarely flow from one to the next. Thus, with a bumpy plotline and so little apparent connection between the events and characters, it is hard to get involved or care about the outcome. We await then for a truly faithful and effective cinematic adaptation of Chandler’s debut novel, though the BBC has made a couple fo excellent versions for radio starring Ed Bishop in the 70s and Toby Stephens a couple of years ago (I profiled the series here) – but then the intimacy of radio will always find it easier to match a novel narrated in the first person.
DVD Availability: Easily available internationally on DVD, the best edition by far is the 2007 Region 2 release by ITV Studios. It offers the film in a terrific widescreen anamorphic encoding and includes a number of extras, such as a look at the London locations used, an overview of Chandler’s importance by Maxim Jakubowski at his late lamented Charing Cross Road bookshop Murder One (they now operate online at www.murderone.co.uk), and a typically brash and unapologetic audio commentary by Winner, which is often extremely rude and frequently as funny. He also provides an on-screen interview and a brief two-minute intro to the minute – not a great movie perhaps, but an excellent DVD.
The Big Sleep (1978)
Director: Michael Winner
Producer: Jerry Bick, Elliot Kastner, Michael Winner
Screenplay: Michael Winner (from Raymond Chandler’s novel)
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Art Direction: Harry Pottle
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Joan Collins, Richard Boone, Oliver Reed, Sarah Miles, James Stewart, Candy Clark, Edward Fox, John Mills, Diana Quick, Richard Todd, James Donald, John Justin, Don Henderson, Colin Blakeley, Harry Andrews