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The Big Sleep

CritiqueQuotes • Philip Marlowe at the movies

The Big SleepFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literary form

Literary, crime, mystery

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 72,000 words

Farewell, My Lovely scene
Robert Mitchum is back as Marlowe in 1978's The Big Sleep, costarring with big names like Joan Collins.

Old-country Marlowe

The Big Sleep (1978): Film, 99 minutes; director Michael Winner; writer Winner; featuring Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Joan Collins, James Stewart

The success of Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 led a few years later to a re-filming of The Big Sleep (1978) around Robert Mitchum. But what a difference.

Mitchum is now hitting sixty. (I think the character in Chandler's novel is supposed to be about thirty-eight.) But worse, the period has suddenly been updated from the 1940s to then-present 1970s.

And, far worse, the setting has been moved from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the civilized lanes of Britain. Yes, Marlowe is now a gumshoe in swinging London.

Robert Mitchum as Marlowe 1978
Robert Mitchum back as Marlowe.

There may be a tiny bit of justification for this in author Chandler having been raised in England, and the script by director Michael Winner (best known for making the vigilante Death Wish movies) is not bad.

Despite being about twenty minutes shorter than the 1946 Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, it reflects the book's text better, taking huge chunks of voice-over and dialogue straight from the novel.

It also borrows some from the earlier film. The line about meeting the younger Sternwood now becomes, "She tried to sit in my lap. I was standing up at the time."

One plot improvement though: that one unresolved murder is finally explained.

But Chandler-Marlowe just doesn't work in 1970s England. The brooding moodiness is gone. Marlowe changes from slumming angel to solid, middle-class citizen. He mixes it up with characters played by prominent actors from both sides of the Atlantic, like Jimmy Stewart, Sarah Miles, Oliver Reed, Edward Fox and Joan Collins, which makes for some confusing accents.

The sex and pornography themes are truer to the book than in the 1940s adaptation, thanks to the more enlightened times, but the scandal attached to them is gone. Marlowe shadowing umbrella-wielding Britishers around London because they're buying and selling books of, gasp, naked women?

Trailer for the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep in mod Britain.

Yet, in some ways Mitchum is a better Marlowe than Bogart. (He is better in Farewell, My Lovely anyway). He exemplifies the weary but still decent sleuth. One can only imagine what he could have done with the role in 1946.

But we already have a classic Big Sleep from 1946 that we're quite happy with. We may enjoy this later British incarnation as a curiosity. Or not.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Philip Marlowe at the movies

1942, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1969, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1998, 2022