American private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is in London, er, for some reason where the ailing General Sternwood (James Stewart) procures his services to find out who is attempting to blackmail his two wayward daughters. It soon becomes apparent to Marlowe that Camilla Sternwood (Candy Clark) is not in her right mind, but as his investigation unearths a pornography ring, several murders, a mob boss and some hired killers, he finds himself drawn into a second mystery. Namely the curious disappearance of Rusty Regan, husband of Sternwood’s eldest daughter, Charlotte (Sarah Miles), who seems strangely unconcerned over his vanishing act.
Three years after Farewell, My Lovely (1975), the great Robert Mitchum reprised the role of iconic private eye Philip Marlowe in this the second screen version of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel. Of course while Mitchum’s initial outing as Marlowe had been an authentic period piece, here the action was relocated to not-so-swinging Seventies London, shot in less than inspiring fashion by Robert Paynter, future D.P. on An American Werewolf in London (1981). Who the hell thought that was a good idea? Calm down dear. For it was indeed none other than bon viveur, car insurance pitchman and scourge of restaurateurs everywhere, writer-producer-director Michael Winner.
Quite what the most iconic detective in American crime fiction is doing in old blighty, or indeed why Mr. Winner thought it was such a great idea to relocate him remains a mystery. Perhaps it was his response to Robert Altman’s even more radical adaptation of The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliott Gould as a controversially mumbly Marlowe, which itself followed the most-definitely-Swinging Sixties set Marlowe (1969) starring James Garner in a dry run for his Rockford Files persona. Regardless, the change of location was a bad idea given Los Angeles is as much a character in Chandler’s books as Marlowe himself. Its themes simply don’t translate to glum, grey Seventies London. Shockingly however, in recent times an increasing number have voiced their preference for Winner’s version over the, frankly peerless, Howard Hawks film with Humphrey Bogart. These defenders claim the remake is far truer in spirit to Chandler’s novel. Whilst the inclusion of Marlowe’s closing monologue, pitched to world-weary perfection by Mitchum, adds a pleasingly poignant note, for the most part Winner simply makes explicit all those plot elements Hawks could only hint at back in 1946: pornography, nymphomania, drug use, homosexuality.
Yet while the film is crass in parts, it is also oddly quaint. The sight of Marlowe racing around Knightsbridge in a vintage Rolls, trading witticisms with stalwart British character players, or else stuck in the back of a black cab with a whinging cabbie (“Bloody colonial!”), pitches this closer in tone to a made-for-television detective thriller or else one of those star-laden Agatha Christie adaptations that were a cinematic staple around this time. Little wonder, given the film was co-produced by Sir Lew Grade. Chandler’s ingenious scenes and vivid dialogue coupled with the then-sixty year old Mitchum’s ten carat gold charisma ensure The Big Sleep is never less than watchable, plus those trademark Marlowe one-liners still make an impact.
Winner’s hyperactive penchant for cross-cutting from multiple angles throughout every scene, edited in another Howard Hawks connection by Christian Nyby, co-director of The Thing from Another World (1951), was never likely to clarify a plot famously so complex even Chandler wasn’t sure what was going on. So don’t look to this version to reveal who the heck killed the chauffeur. Although Winner secured a notable cast, with the exception of reliable legends Mitchum and Stewart (who nonetheless appears distressingly ill), everyone seems on a mission to outdo each other in the eccentricity stakes.
Reunited with Mitchum eight years after Ryan’s Daughter (1970), the usually engaging Sarah Miles vamps it up to not terribly convincing effect while Candy Clark is miscast and strains rather embarrassingly as the demented nympho. John Mills makes a codgerly cameo as a police inspector, Richard Todd essays his superior and goes goggle-eyed over a porno mag, Joan Collins is the proprietress of a seedy bookstore, Harry Andrews plays a shifty butler and Edward Fox makes an appearance as an ill-fated toff. At least Oliver Reed injects the right note of whispery menace as nightclub boss Eddie Mars while despite limited screen-time, Brideshead Revisited star Diana Quick acts more seasoned players off the screen. She should have been cast as one of the Sternwood girls.
Towards the finale Richard Boone pops up as special guest villain. The film tries its best to sell him as a menacing badass, but the then-ailing actor appears so frail it seems like a harsh wind could do him in. Whilst filming the climactic shootout, both Mitchum and Boone were allegedly nine sheets to the wind, prompting Winner to describe the sequence as “gunfight at Alcoholics Anonymous.” Worth watching for the ever-laconic, impeccably attired Robert Mitchum doing his thing, though it wasn’t entirely his last outing as Philip Marlowe. He reprised the role yet again in 1987 for a spoof segment on Saturday Night Live.