DVD Review: The Big Sleep

Legendary film collector Ray Regis taught a Film Noir course every year at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Each week would cover certain elements of the criminal genre. The detectives weren’t clean cut. The guilty weren’t that evil. The victims weren’t always innocent. It was a shadowy world where lust and desire overwhelmed common sense. Most of the films shown as part of the class were black and white classics from the ’40s and ’50s. At the end of the course, Ray would focus on modern attempts at Noir. While he could have shown a film that painstakingly recreated the atmosphere, quite often he’d break out the remake of The Big Sleep starring Robert Mitchum (Thunder Road) from 1978. The film wasn’t appreciated when it was originally released. The critics swore it wasn’t as good as the Humphrey Bogart original. Audiences were still fixated on seeing Star Wars for the 15th time. The remakes seemed an odd choice to inflict on students. Rewatching the film in the context of the class elevated the movie. The Big Sleep wasn’t a snoozer although Mitchum always looked ready for a nap.

Robert Mitchum had played Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe a few years before in Farewell, My Lovely. That movie was a period piece with Marlowe uncovering clues in the Los Angeles of 1941. The Big Sleep transports the detective in time and space. He’s now beating the bushes in 1970s England. Marlowe gets hired by an ex-pat American General Sternwood (It’s a Wonderful Life‘s James Stewart). The retired military man is getting blackmailed. He needs Marlowe to put an end to it. The Generals two daughters are mischievous so this is double the trouble for Marlowe. Charlotte (The Servant‘s Sarah Miles) is quite a flirt. The younger Camilla (The Man Who Fell to Earth‘s Candy Clark) is wild with no restraint. Both seem to have friends of undesirable backgrounds. Marlowe might have to hire a bodyguard for this case to keep the daughters off of him.

The case quickly goes from blackmail to homicide when he gets on the tracks of Arthur Geiger (Lisztomania‘s John Justin). He works for a rare bookseller (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner‘s Edward Fox) that has Joan Collins working in the shop. Marlowe quickly gets the idea that the store operates less off rare books and more from limited edition smut. He tails Geiger to a countryside house where inside he finds a dead Geiger and a nude and stoned Camilla. It appears that someone took the film from a nearby camera. This is one of the moments where the movie can show more with its R rating than Bogart was able to expose during the Hayes Office days. The crime scene gets messed up quickly. Things get nasty since the house belongs to a local gangster (Tommy‘s Oliver Reed). He sends a hitman (Have Gun Will Travel‘s Richard Boone) off to snuff out Marlowe. This case turns out to be more than just a polite case of blackmail.

Director Michael Winner does a fine job at modernizing Chandler’s novel. He doesn’t go overboard at creating a Film Noir mood. There’s no obsession with harsh shadows. Scenes are not loaded up with fog. Who needs shadows when you have Mitchum’s weary eyelids? Mitchum doesn’t compete with Bogart. He’s happy being the detective who is delighted to have a case that’s paying him the big bucks. Joan Collins is extra feisty as the secretary. She’s a few years out from dominating America in Dynasty. She gives Mitchum a tussle that prepared her for all those battles with Linda Evans. The R rating allowed the film to be a bit more raw than the original. The audience didn’t have to get teased completely as to the nature of the blackmail photographs. It’s easy to understand why the General was upset. While Winner’s The Big Sleep does a fine job of keeping the film interesting without having to remember what happened in the Bogart version.

The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the devious qualities of Joan Collins. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. The levels are fine for Mitchum’s gravelly delivery. The film is subtitled in English for those with an issue with English accents.

Audio Commentary with director Michael Winner is informative. Winner passed away last year so these are his last words about the film.

Maxim Jakubowski at Murder One (4:54) features London’s Mystery-only bookstore. He gives a little background on Raymond Chandler and Marlowe. “You can feel all the years things hadn’t worked out,” Jakubowski says about Mitchum’s turn as Marlowe.

Robert Mitchum in Marlowe Country (5:47) is a vintage featurette about the all star production. There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage of Mitchum struggling with Joan Collins. There’s short chats with the cast.

The Big Sleep on Location (14:03) allows Robert Powell to give a tour of the places used in the movie. He’s a location coordinator so he knows his stuff. He talks with Michael Winner. The director remembers his cast.

Trailer (2:11) sets up the mystery and debauchery.

The Big Sleep allows Robert Mitchum to unravel the twisted world of a family in England in modern setting.

Timeless Media Group presents The Big Sleep. Directed by: Michael Winner. Screenplay by: Michael Winner. Starring: Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Candy Clark and Joan Collins. Rated: R. Running Time: 100 minutes. Released: September 23, 2014.