"The Big Sleep," Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective classic, was finessed onto the screen with enduring vividness by Howard Hawks and a splendid group of collaborators in 1946.
No one figured to impose on that marvelously racy and explosive bowdlerization of the original novel.
Michael Winner, with a desultory remake starring Robert Mitchum, certainly hasn't. He doesn't even have a clue.
Hawks and hiw writers - William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brakcett - contrived to conceal what the director later acknowledged as an inability to figure out the tangled plot. They weren't nearly as confused as it later amused Hawks to pretend, but in reworking certain elements, probably to avoid censorship problems, they left the denouement a trifle murky and abrupt. They more than compensated for the inconvenience by reproducing the Chandler idiom and atmosphere and by investing almost every sequence with melodramatic to erotic suspence.
Winner's version is starved for tension and cleverness from the outset. A parade of distracting, disillusioning elements, prevents the story from getting untracked. Mitchum, continuing his ponderous impersonation of private eye Philip Marlowe begun two years ago in "Farewell, My Lovely," is obliged to account for the English location, an incongruous innovation dictated by the film's financing rather than artistic invention, with a whopper about Marlowe taking up practice in London after World War II.
After making this feeble voice-over excuse for being a long way from Los Angeles, Mitchum pulls up at the Sternwood mansion and trades clumsily ominous glances with a young chauffeur who holds a limp, running water hos against the side of a limousine. The mansion door is opened by a butler in the person of Harry Andrews, a casting inspiration that immediately convinced me that the butler did it, even though nothing had been done at this early state.
Andrews leaves Mitchum and the audience to admire a huge oil painting of James Stewart in Air Force uniform dominating a spacious waiting room. Candy Carlk enters as that unforgettable nymphomaniac, Carmen Sternwood, now called Camilla for some mysterious reason, and instanly wears out her welcome by being permitted to leer and jump about with bewildering abandon. When Mitchum is unshered into the greenhouse for an audience with Stewart, cast as the cripped old reprobate Gen. Sternwood, feats the movie before it's scarcely be the quality of unreality decisively degun.
Who can sustain the illusion of Marlowe talking to a client? Obviously, we're watching a reunion between two aging stars. It's like Oldtimers' Day at the Screen Actors Guild. By the time Winner has slogged his way through the plot, and Mitchum is heard reciting Chandler's concluding ruminations about destiny - "His thoughts were as gray as ashes, and in a little while he too . . . whould be sleeping the big sleep" - you feel as gray as ashes and ready for at least a little nap.
Everything is out of whack in this transposition of Chandler's material. The actors seem to be going through familiar motions, but they look wrong, sound wrong and inhabit the wrong settings. A master of the wring nuance to tinker with the dialogue in a haphazard, disconcerting way. Unless my ears decive me, he tends to start out by transcribing Chandler dialogue only to rephrase it ineffectively in mid-passage, producing a peculiarly flattened-out idiom.
Most directors try to maintain a sense of continuity from one shot or sequence to the next. The ideal is to achieve performances and a succession of images that compel dramatic interest and emotional involvement. Winner's technique is so slipshod that one is reminded of the mechanics and drudgery of the filmmaking process virtually every time he switches angles.
Winner keeps reminding you that the action isn't continous, that you're watching a collection of bits and pieces. One could imagine such a method being used consciously to achieve certain humorous or polemical effects. In his case it's an accidental method.
The original film version of "The Big Sleep" was, of course, a good excuse for a reunion between Bogart and Bacall, whom Hawks had brought together in "To Have and Have Not." Mitchum and Sarah Miles, who inherits the Bacall role as the elder Sternwood heiress, were co-starred in "Ryan's Daughter," but I doubt if many patrons have been clamoring for a reunion. They can't be detected striking sparks under Winner's direction either. Miles looks a sight nervously lurching about in see-though blouses her hair plastered down on top and frizzed out on the sides and back. This coiffure seems to accentuate her wide. Howdy Doody mouth in anfortunate way: She ends up resembling a debauhed ventriloquist's dummy.