Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Big Sleep (1978) Café au lait Noir (White Coffee)

"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."

1978's The Big Sleep is best watched cold turkey. If you have never read Raymond Chandler's novel, and didn't know that the original tale took place in 1939, in Southern California, nor ever seen Hollywood's Bogart/Bacall 1945 Film Noir interpretation, you may find this version quite enjoyable.

Comparatively, Chandler's The Big Sleep (1945) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was retooled to take advantage of the chemistry that arced across the screen between Bogart and Bacall, the studio added a love story angle and the accompanying dialog.

The Big Sleep (1978) with Robert Mitchum in the Philip Marlowe role, doesn't have that Bacall/Bogart love story, it follows the novel more closely with it's original dialog, and isn't hampered by the Hayes Code. It's biggest complication is the whole story is shifted to The United Kingdom and updated to the present 1978. Instead of ramshackle, decrepit and shabby it wallows in old world opulence. Marlowe drives a '71 BMW instead of a 1930's Marmon.

All this modifying and Anglify-ing is interesting considering that Chandler was sort of modified and Anglicized himself, born in 1888 in Chicago, Illinois, he spent a few years in Nebraska living along the Missouri River with relatives and then moved with his mother at the age of 12 in 1900 after his father abandoned them to a borough of London in the UK. He flipped back again ending up in the States, moving first to San Francisco, then Los Angeles.

So I'll repeat, if you don't know that the original story was supposed to be all taking place in 1939 and was supposed to be in Los Angeles you'll actually find it a pretty good film, the story updates pretty much flawlessly. Marlowe in this version, is an ex US soldier who stayed on in the UK after WWII to open a Commercial and Civil Investigations Agency and all the supporting cast is actually top notch. I can guess that being an English Production, with mostly English actors and with a modest budget in mind it was far easier to update the story to the present and change the local. But what makes all this an even bigger shame was Mitchum played a top notch Marlowe three years earlier in Farewell My Lovely (1975) a remake of 1944's Murder My Sweet. the '75 film kept the story to the year 1941, and it was also not hampered by either the Hayes code nor by the unofficial PC "code" that seems prevalent today . If they would have just followed the previous film there could have possibly been a whole series of Marlowe films that would have been true to Chandler's novels in the correct time period, i.e., The High Window 1942, The Lady in the Lake 1943, The Little Sister 1949, and The Long Good-bye (1953).

Philip Marlowe 1978 version (Mitchum) in a classy intro sequence
The film was directed by Michael Winner (Lawman (1971), Chato's Land (1972), Death Wish (1974)) the screenplay was by Michael Winner based on Raymond Chandler's novel. Cinematography by Robert Paynter (The Mechanic (1972)) and the music was by Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch (1969)).

The film stars Robert Mitchum (eight Classic Noir, Farewell My Lovely (1975)) as a 61 year old Philip Marlowe Sarah Miles (Blow-Up (1966), Ryan's Daughter (1970), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)), as Charlotte Sternwood Regan,  Richard Boone (Man on a Tightrope (1953), Vicki (1953), I Bury the Living (1958)), as Lash Canino, Candy Clark (American Graffiti (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Zodiac (2007)Twin Peaks, TV Series (2017– )), as Camilla Sternwood, Joan Collins (Judgment Deferred (1952), The Slasher (1953), The Good Die Young (1954)),  as Agnes Lozelle, Edward Fox (The Day of the Jackal (1973), Never Say Never Again) as Joe Brody, John Mills (The Gentle Gunman (1952), The Long Memory (1953), King Rat (1965)), as Inspector Jim Carson,  James Stewart (Call Northside 777 (1948), Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959)), as General Sternwood, Oliver Reed (Wild for Kicks (1960), The Hunting Party (1971), Gladiator (2000)) as Eddie Mars,  Harry Andrews as Norris, Colin Blakely (This Sporting Life (1963)), as Harry Jones Richard Todd (Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958) Never Let Go (1960) Why Bother to Knock (1961)), as Commander Barker, Diana Quick as Mona Grant, James Donald (King Rat (1965)), as Inspector Gregory, Martin Potter as Owen Taylor, and John Justin as Arthur Geiger.

The film stylistically lets you know right from the get-go credit sequence you're not in sunny SoCal. It's diffuse light, sunless and somber, a gloomy cloudy day. And it's all a bit off (at least to this Yank). A POV from the cockpit of a 1971 BMW 2500. We are cruising down the blacktop and taking an exit from what looks like an "M" designated high speed motorway, the highway markings are strange, you are driving on the right and exiting on the left, and you continue downshifting through various grades of road, through intersections, including a circle till we steer into the driveway of a country estate.

Highlights from the credit sequence

Cut off and passed by a 1970 Jaguar E-Type 4.2 Roadster Series II

The plot of Chandler's "The Big Sleep" was cannibalized from his Pulp Fiction, particularly his Black Mask short stories,  "Killer in the Rain" (1935) and "The Curtain" (1936). Both stories have powerful fathers with wayward daughters. Chandler did some sifting of "Finger Man" (1934) and "Mandarin's Jade" (1937) into the mix also.

Sternwood Mansion

It's the 70s, PI Marlowe is summoned by US Retired General Sternwood (James Stewart) to his estate in Hertfordshire. Marlowe was recommended to Sternwood by Inspector Carson (Mills).  Sternwood was supposed to be paralyzed after a horse rolled over his legs, yet while talking to Marlowe you can see his feet moving under a blanket that covers the wheel chair he sits in. I suppose Winner used the blanket to mask Stewart's fidgeting, it didn't work, they could have just changed the dialog to say that he was just crippled and could walk but only with great pain and difficulty.

General Sternwood (Stewart)
Sternwood wants Marlowe to find a blackmailer named Joe Brody (Fox), Sternwood paid Brody 5,000 pounds to leave his daughter Camilla alone. A recent letter from Brody includes a marker, a signed promissory note for a gambling debt that states upon demand that Camilla Sternwood pay 1,000 pounds to an Arthur Geiger, Bookseller. Marlowe tells Sternwood that he can lean on Brody for 50 pounds a day plus expenses.

While at the Sternwood mansion, Marlowe also has quasi sexual run ins with both of Sternwoods daughters the older, flirty, spoiled, and Anglicized Charlotte Regan (Sara Miles) who wants to know if her father hired him to find her husband Rusty, and the seriously flighty, and apparently schooled in America, Camilla (Candy Clark).

Camilla (Clark) trying to sit in Marlowe's lap while he's standing up.
 Charlotte (Sara Miles),  looks like trouble

Charlotte in her boudoir
Marlowe starts to shake things up by first visiting Geiger's bookstore. There, he meets receptionist Agnes Lozelle (Collins) who tells him that Geiger is not in. He tells Agnes that he'll wait.

Agnes (Collins)
While waiting he gets suspicious of the activity in the shop. A man comes in and drops off a package. Agnes presses a button on her desk three times and a door opens at the rear of the shop from where the man receives a new wrapped parcel and heads back out the door. Marlowe tails him. The man sees Marlowe and gets nervous ditching the parcel in some bushes. The parcel contains a book of pornographic pictures. Geiger is a smut peddler and a homosexual with a boy toy Owen Taylor (Potter).

Tailing Geiger
Marlowe stakes out the shop and eventually tails Geiger (Justin) to his home Greenstones 8. He surveils Geiger's house into the evening from his parked BMW.  Later that night a 1970 Jaguar screeches to a halt out on the street and Camilla walks into Geiger's driveway and up to the house. Marlowe follows. Nearing the house he observes flashes of light from the windows and hears Camilla's laughter.

Gun shots ring out. Marlowe breaks in. He finds Geiger with a hole in his head, dead on an oriental rug. A drugged Camilla naked, sitting on a dias surrounded by photographic equipment. A small black lacquered oriental table with drug paraphernalia, a syringe, a vial, a spoon, a cotton swab, a tube tourniquet, a candle and matches.

Geiger (Justin)

Marlowe gets Camilla dressed and drives her home in the Jag. He then returns to the crime scene and finds Geiger's body gone. Later, snooping around the house again, Marlowe and Camilla are interrupted by Eddie Mars (Reed) a gambler who owns The Cheval House Casino and also Geiger's house who holds gambling markers on Charlotte Sternwood Reagan. Rusty Reagan supposedly ran away with Mona, Eddie's wife, and Eddie has info that would interest General Sternwood. At this point we are only at the 30 minute mark of a 99 minute film.

Inspector Jim Carson (Mills) and Marlowe

Eddie Mars (Reed) 
Next, a man named John Brody along with Agnes, attempts to bribe Charlotte with the pornograhic photos from Geiger's house. The Big Sleep novel and Hawk's 1945 film version are notorious for having a complicated plot (which again derives from Chandler's amalgamation of four different short stories), this film actually does a good job of laying it all out in an easy to follow scenario.


Marlowe's '71 BMW with a touch of London fog

Mona (Diana Quick)

Lash Canino (Boone)

Mitchum is great throughout, most of the cast is fine in their parts. Aside from Jimmy Stewart's figiting, Candy Clark is a bit too over the top she plays Camilla more like a 13 year old who has just discovered she has boobs rather than a tantalizing seductress. I enjoyed all of the vehicular action sequences with Mitchum tooling around the countryside and negotiating the narrow London streets in his BMW, it's a nice touch. The film has it's own bit of style, it's noir lite, café au lait, it's more jolly ol' England than foggy bleak London, but it's a fun ride.

It took me about three viewings to really warm to the film, to forget where and when it was supposed to take place and just enjoy it for what it is, another Chandler novel adapted to the screen is always a bonus. I like it a bit better than it's companion 70's update take on Marlowe, Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) with mumbling Elliott Gould.

Screencaps are from the ITV Studios DVD. 7/10

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