Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Big Sleep (1978): A bigger yawn

I’ve always loved Candy Clark. With her straight red bangs and syrupy voice, she looks and sounds as sweet as her name, although the sugar is diluted with a bit of pepper for her role as sexy Carmila in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep. It’s a role played, less delightfully, by Martha Vickers in the 1946 version of the Raymond Chandler novel, but Clark is the only improvement in this otherwise dreary and misguided thriller.

What brain-deficient fool decided to update Chandler’s story to the 1970s, remove his private detective hero, Philip Marlowe, from his familiar Los Angeles stomping ground, and relocate him to gloomy old England?

Marlowe is now a snappily-dressed, rather affluent bloke who fits in only too well with the upper crust types he encounters. The plot is less convoluted than in Howard Hawks’ original (famously co-scripted by William Faulkner with Leigh Brackett), but no one is likely to care. Chandler’s strength as a writer was not in crafting plots, but in atmosphere, dialogue, and characterization, none of which survive in this hopeless remake.

The same producers responsible for 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely, which was set, and beautifully so, in the L.A. of the 1940s, were behind this film, and they brought back their just about perfect Marlowe, Robert Mitchum. They changed directors, though, and that was their mistake. Michael Winner did a decent job with Death Wish, but that Charles Bronson vigilante pic didn’t require more atmosphere than New York already provided. Marlowe needs smoky nightclubs, dimly-lit streets, and crumbling hotels with neon signs blinking through the blinds of the darkened rooms. Winner gives us none of that, and Mitchum is wasted.

The rest of the cast is competent at best. Joan Collins was starting to show her age as Agnes (played in the 1946 version by the younger and sexier Sonia Darrin), and Richard Boone, limping with the assistance of a cane, shouts his dialogue and looks gaunt, perhaps already suffering from the symptoms of the cancer that killed him a few years later. Sarah Miles is dull where Lauren Bacall was electric, and poor Jimmy Stewart looks as if he filmed his scenes during a commercial break during one of his then too frequent appearances on The Tonight Show. The whole shebang is a bust, only marginally redeemed by the always delightful Ms. Clark.

This time around, The Big Sleep is a big yawn.

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


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