A bizarre footnote in the cinematic canon of Raymond Chandler adaptations, 1978’s The Big Sleep is a surprisingly radical departure from the typical milieu of its source material. Reprising his role from 1975’s Farewell My Lovely, Robert Mitchum returns as iconic private investigator Philip Marlowe, but the action is inexplicably shifted from 1940s Los Angeles to present day London. Even stranger, Mitchum at this point was beginning to show every one of his sixty hard-drinking years, making for an incongruously worn-down, lethargic portrayal of they normally spunky, tenacious Marlowe (in the books, the character is only thirty-three).
Just like the classic 1946 Humphrey Bogart film version, Winner’s Big Sleep follows stoic, tough-talking Marlowe as he is contracted by an eccentric old General (Jimmy Stewart) to find out who’s behind a series of blackmail letters. Things get complicated when the General’s entitled older daughter Charlotte (Sarah Miles) takes an interest in Marlowe, provoking the ire of her wild, sociopathic younger sister Camilla (Candy Clark). As the investigation progresses, Marlowe finds himself ensnared in a convoluted web of double-crosses and treachery involving a perverted pornographer, a crooked gambler, and a cold-hearted hit-man. Before long, all these trusty noir machinations burn over, resulting in a twisty climax of misanthropy, mayhem, and murder.
However, unlike the earlier Sleep, this post-Hayes-code version includes copious amounts of nudity, profanity, and graphic violence. As such, it must be said that, for all his off-key choices, director Michael Winner (Death Wish) does manage to hew closer to Chandler’s original vision tonally, going grimmer and grittier than iterations that were hampered by restrictive censorship. Technically, the movie is sound if workmanlike; shot tight and framed retiringly through that classic late-70s washed-out grain. Nevertheless, one can’t help but occasionally long for the rich black-and-white of the old Howard Hawks picture–not to mention its stars and script.
Indeed, that may have been a better movie, but I can’t help but feel this Big Sleep is a more interesting one. Barring that, it is at the very least an obscure rarity, only sparsely available on DVD until now. Special features on the disc include a colorful audio commentary with wily director Winners, a brief documentary about Raymond Chandler’s life and writings, and a mini-tour of the London locations used for filming. Overall, if you’re a fan of the pulp detective genre, there are few B-Sides as hypnotically beguiling as this strange, forgotten film.