The 1978 film version of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep is wrongheadedly transported to London and just as wrongheadedly updated to the era in which it was made—both of which were undoubtedly commercial considerations. But at the same time, Michael Winner’s film comes far nearer to preserving the plot and the tone of the source material than the celebrated 1946 Howard Hawks film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall ever did. That’s not wholly surprising, since the novel had to be censored almost out of existence to be filmed in 1946, resulting in a narrative that only sort of was Chandler’s story. (The elements of pornography and drugs are so hinted at that you have to know they’re there to even spot them.) More inexplicable was the decision to remove the book’s trademark Philip Marlowe narration—and let’s face it, that’s what people read Chandler for in the first place. Whatever else Winner did or didn’t do with his film, he kept the plot and the cynical, world-weary narration.
The film marked Robert Mitchum’s second time on-screen as Marlowe, and he’s more than up to the task. But really, if you can get past the update and the location, so is everybody else—with the possible exception of Candy Clark, in what is, honestly, an impossible role (Martha Vickers was no better in the original). All the actors bring a little something to the table—including people like James Stewart, who really needn’t have given the production more than his name value, and Oliver Reed, who was mostly there as a favor to old friend Michael Winner. The problem with the film, more than anything, is getting beyond the idea of it not being Bogie and Bacall up there on the screen. If you can do that, then you’re a long way toward being able to see what a credible version of the novel it actually is.