The Big Sleep

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Big Sleep at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 20, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Mystery
Director: Michael Winner (The Jokers)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Candy Clark, Oliver Reed, James Stewart
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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18 thoughts on “The Big Sleep

  1. TonyRo

    this remake is shit and I’m pretty certain it’s easier/cheaper to find the Bogey version (or God forbid the actual BOOK). why would someone even take the time to screen this crap? who’s going to watch it?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Well, I don’t think it’s shit and I’ve never been that impressed with the Bogie/Hawks version, which is only a vague approximation (on the occasions when it makes sense) of the book, and I do have a pretty good opinion of the book. And, yes, I have read the book — three times, if memory serves. Obviously, you disagree with my take that there’s some significant merit in the film — as both a version of the book and as a work of interest to anyone taking a look at Winner’s films — and that’s okay. But, you know, I’m not really asking for anyone to look for it or buy it, so I’m unclear what that’s about. As for who’s going to watch it, you’ll have to ask the Hendersonville Film Society who showed up, I guess.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    What is it about Michael Winner’s films that sparks such violent reactions? When people don’t like his movies they REALLY don’t like them. Of course remaking a beloved classic is just asking for it but as remakes go this one is of more than passing interest. Director Winner says in his DVD commentary (Region 2 only alas) that he wanted to film Chandler’s story not remake the Bogie/Bacall/Hawks version. Although shooting it in 1978 London removes the film noir elements and has created most of the hostility towards it, this version does allow Chandler’s portrayal of corruption, degradation, and loyalty to stand on its own. While not the classic the 1946 version is (the pre-release 1945 version is even better), having Chandler’s narrative with Mitchum/Marlowe narrating and the strong supporting cast (Oliver Reed, Richard Boone, and James Stewart each deliver their lines in their own unique ways) make it a worthy successor. As to how many people show up, we’ll find out late Sunday afternoon. So far the Michael Winner series has had better than average attendance and no one has walked out yet. Perhaps the more controversial Winner films (THE NIGHTCOMERS, DEATH WISH, THE SENTINEL, DIRTY WEEKEND) could make an interesting library series someday.

  4. TonyRo

    I don’t necessarily hate Winner’s films….the DEATH WISH series hold a lot of merit with me (especially the third one…it’s way cool), but this version of Chandler’s classic novel is, in my eyes, a bastardization of the story

  5. Ken Hanke

    Maybe the updating and the location change could be said to betray or undermine the story, but how can a version that follows the plot and to a large degree the dialogue/narration qualify as a bastardization of the story? The Hawks version — regardless of any other merits it may have — is far nearer a bastardization.

  6. Chip Kaufmann

    For the record 43 people attended this afternoon’s screening. No one had seen it before. Nobody walked out and afterwards no one complained about the change of scenery or updating it to 1978. Several did say that they would like to see the 1946 original again and that it had been a long time since they had seen it.

  7. Ken Hanke

    For the record 43 people attended this afternoon’s screening.

    That’s a pretty respectable turn-out for a special showing.

  8. Chip Kaufmann

    Some came to see Mitchum and many came because of Chandler. The Winner series has drawn well but that’s because of the stars involved not the director.

  9. TigerShark

    >>>this remake is shit and I’m pretty certain it’s easier/cheaper to find the Bogey version

    Both versions are available at, along with millions of other movies. Very easy to get.

  10. Jeremy Dylan

    I don’t think I was as irked by the geographical or temporal transfer as I was by the lack of atmosphere and the redundant narration.

  11. Ken Hanke

    The narration is a central component of the Marlowe books. The only film I’m familiar with that doesn’t use it is the Hawks Big Sleep.

  12. Jeremy Dylan

    The narration is a central component of the Marlowe books.

    Yes, but in the books it’s not redundant because you can’t see what’s happening. In the movie (from memory), it’s ninety minutes of simultaneous show and tell. Not to mention Mitchum’s delivery of it leaves plenty to be desired.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I have rarely heard you say anyhing I agreed with less. (It sounds like something out of a screenwriting textbook.) Without Marlowe’s voice, there’s nothing special about these books. I presume you similarly dislike Murder My Sweet and Lady in the Lake?

  14. Chip Kaufmann

    I find that what this BIG SLEEP lacks in 1940s noir atmosphere is made up for by the unique vocal delivery of several of the characters. In addition to Mitchum’s steady delivery (which suits an older, wiser Marlowe), there’s Reed’s velvet menace as Eddie Mars, Stewart’s emotional longing for Rusty Regan in his final scene, and Richard Boone singing “Frankie & Johnny” after dispatching Colin Blakeley. This is a great movie to listen to. I like to think of it as a radio version with pictures.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Now, that you mention it, I recall that it was this movie that turned my wife into a Robert Mitchum fan — not from watching it, but from listening to it (from a VHS copy taped off HBO) while painting a wall mural.

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