Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep introduces us to Philip Marlowe, the quintessential private dick, a character that would “plague” Chandler’s career and delight millions in literary, film, radio, and television versions. In The Simple Art of Murder (1950), Chandler describes this type of (anti)hero:
“He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man… He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”
Old Time Radio fans got to enjoy Van Heflin and then Gerald Mohr donning the role (1948-51), ABC TV later tried its luck with Philip Carey (1959-1960), Powers Boothe gave it a shot on HBO (1983-1986), and Danny Glover did a one-off for Showtime in 1995.
But after the original novels, it’s film that most often captured audiences with its depictions of Marlowe, beginning in 1940s Hollywood with four adaptations of novels in three years:
- 1944: Murder My Sweet with Dick Powell
- 1946: The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart
- 1947: Lady in the Lake with Robert Montgomery and
- 1947: The Brasher Doubloon with George Montgomery (an adaptation of “The High Window”)
As time passed, interest in reviving Marlowe for the big screen continued, including James Garner in 1969’s Marlowe (based on Marlowe’s early novel The Little Sister) and Elliot Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye.
To my mind, however, the two films that had the right to boast that they had the actor best fit of any Hollywood star to play Marlowe were 1975’s Farewell My Lovely and 1978’s The Big Sleep. Both featured Robert Mitchum. And both, to my mind, failed tragically because Mitchum was simply too old-looking to play the role as originally written, particularly opposite the young actresses chosen for the female roles.
Lest this sound like simple ageism, let me clarify that I would have had far less disappointment had Mitchum filmed The Long Goodbye, when Marlowe is in fact older. Or if they’d cast the women closer to his age. But when we’re talking The Big Sleep, Mitchum’s 1978 remake is frankly difficult to sit through.
There are plenty of other complaints one can make about the remake, from setting it in the 1970s to shifting the setting from the US to England and changing the women’s names for no apparent reason.
This doesn’t mean I have no complaints about the gorgeous mess that is the 1946 film. Cutting out the nude scenes and gay references and substituting Bogart doing a homophobic pansy book connoisseur character makes the film far less true to the novel and Chandler’s social commentary in it. And even if we consider the Hays Code and give the film a break, appreciating its innuendo and direct implications if not depictions, there’s the issue of age here, too.
Bogart was 47 and Bacall 22 when The Big Sleep was released. Mitchum was 61 opposite 37 year-old Sarah Miles. That’s 25 years between B&B and 28 between M&M. Not much difference. But oh how you see and feel it with Mitchum. A lot happens between 47 and 61, and we all age differently. Moreover, I credit Bacall for 90% of the appeal of The Big Sleep, especially in the chemistry between her and Bogart’s Marlowe. They sizzle, but unlike some other noir couples (Tierney and Trevor in Born to Kill or Mitchum himself and Jane Greer in the above-mentioned Out of the Past), it’s not about a meeting of two actors who know their appeal. It’s one taking the other along for a very lucky ride.
In considering the ’46 vs. the ’78 version of The Big Sleep, I have no hesitation in arguing Mitchum is the better actor to play Chandler’s shamus. It’s just that Mitchum’s chance at Marlowe came too late and the production was mishandled.
So, I won’t be watching the remake again if I can avoid it. Instead, I’ll remain grateful for the ’46 film despite its flaws, and I’ll cherish all the great work Mitchum did in other films. (I just hope a remake of Night of the Hunter isn’t in the works.)
This post is a contribution to Phyllis Loves Classic Movies’ “They Remade What?!” Blogathon.