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The Big Sleep
cast: Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Oliver Reed, John Mills, and Joan Collins

director: Michael Winner

95 minutes (15) 1977
widescreen ratio 16:9
Prism Leisure DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I am sorry. I am sorry, but I cannot hold it in...
'Calm down dear! It's only a remake!'

Bogart and Bacall's The Big Sleep was my first exposure to noir and it remains one of my favourite films to this day. It's funnier than The Maltese Falcon and, apart from Peter Lorre; it also has more scenes that are memorable. I'm not sure whether I prefer Bogey's horrific impression of a gay man or the idea that a woman is ugly until she takes off her glasses and unpins her hair at which point she's gorgeous, but either way it's classic stuff.

Philip Marlow is brought in to solve a blackmailing case by a retired general and his wild daughters. Soon, he's up to his neck in pornography rings, mobsters and dead bodies as he tries to protect the elderly general from the truth about his daughters and a man he adored. It's Chandler at his best and while clearly episodic, piecemeal rather than a true whodunit the plot ticks over nicely, and the dialogue's solid too.

All of this to say that when I was offered the chance to review a version of the film made by the cigar-chomping kings of British exploitation cinema - Michael Winner and Lew Grade (father of Michael Grade) - I jumped at the chance.

Transported to Britain in the 1970s, Chandler's plot proves to be idiot-proof because it keeps the film going and it is never dull. However, as a piece of genre filmmaking this is not so much a train wreck as it is a fleet of 747's crashing into the Vatican. You literally cannot take your eyes off screen for one second because you don't know what weird and inappropriate creative decision will play out next.

The film begins with a first-person view of a drive through the country. It is shot on video and if you didn't pay attention to the credits you would be forgiven for thinking this was an episode of Bergerac. This impression disappears however the second Robert Mitchum steps out of the car. His performance as Marlowe is wooden if amiable (it's his second go at the role after 1974's Farewell My Lovely) but his inclusion in this film and his striking resemblance to Brian Clough make it the first in a series of strange casting decisions.

Jimmy Stewart does well as the general but Oliver Reed's performance is so stiff and uncomfortable that I wonder if he wasn't kidnapped by Winner and forced to perform at gunpoint. There is also John Mills as Carson in what must be the poshest police station I have ever seen, but the true gems come not from the tired and un-motivated stars but from the lesser known actors and actresses.

The Sternwood girls are monuments to bad and exploitative casting. Sarah Miles is less a femme fatale than a heroin addict as she staggers about on her thin legs rolling her eyes and letting her tongue hang out. The only other performance I have seen that even approaches its weirdness is Courtney Love at the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt. Meanwhile, the younger Sternwood girl is played by the delightfully named Candy Clark who takes her clothes off all the time and whose performance is so infantile it gives the film a vague subtext of paedophilia. My favourite though has to be Richard Boone's scenery chewing turn as Lash Canino who roars with laughter as he poisons people and fires machine guns whilst clumping around with his leg in plaster.

The updating of the script is equally disastrous. Overlooking for a moment the silliness of private detectives working for 50 quid a day and blackmailers asking for a thousand pounds, Winner shows an utterly breathtaking laziness and lack of vision in his transplanting of the story to 1970s' Britain. Chandler's world of illegal pornography was stylised but had enough of the real about it to convey a sinister and dark underworld. The problem is that what makes for a dark underworld in 1930s' San Francisco really does not work when transplanted to 1970s' Britain. By the late 1970s, you could buy porn in any branch of W.H. Smiths and there were sex shops all over the West End of London. Therefore, why you would need a fake bookshop to distribute stuff you could buy legally is not clear. If they had altered the plot slightly to make it child pornography or hardcore videos, the whole thing would have worked a lot better but this seemingly never occurred to Grade or Winner.

As a thriller or a slice of noir, this film is utterly laughable. However, this is also its charm. I hugely enjoyed watching this film as one Hollywood star after another made a fool of themselves and more and more unknowns chewed scenery. Prism Leisure is selling this for �5.99 and, as an evening's entertainment, it is difficult to fault. This is definitely not one for your DVD collection but the next time you have friends over, slip it on and open up a bottle of wine and marvel at the weirdness that is Michael Winner's Big Sleep.
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