Regular readers of this blog might be wondering why I would go anywhere near Michael Winner’s infamous remake of The Big Sleep. Isn’t it the epitome of corrupt, commercial film making? How could Winner have the temerity to remake a classic? What could he possibly produce that wouldn’t be at best a pale shadow of the version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks?
These questions boil down to a larger one of whether or not remakes are ever justified? (Technically, Winner’s version is not a remake since he went back to Chandler’s novel, but comparison to the older film is inevitable.) To which my reply would be: “Why not?” While it is perfectly justifiable to prefer an older version, you cannot assume the newer is inferior just because it is a remake. In this particular case, there is no obligation to accept the ’40s version’s “classic” status, which results partly from the director’s inflated reputation and the participation of Major Author William Faulkner. The situation begins to look suspiciously like judging the remake in terms it can’t possibly meet even if it offers its own, potentially interesting qualities.
In fact, Robert Mitchum is just as good as Bogart. Sarah Miles lacks Lauren Bacall’s satiny sleekness, but she’s a better actress, with her own quirky appeal. Instead of Hawks’s studio-bound Los Angeles, Winner gives us London locations selected with a flair for evocative ambiance that is not often credited. There are sharp character performances from Joan Collins, Richard Boone, Edward Fox, Harry Andrews, Oliver Reed and Colin Blakely. And while Winner’s down and dirty sleaze is admittedly laid on a bit heavily, it’s tough to imagine updating Chandler without such muck if the film were to engage the jaded ’70s audience.
As a product of that era, I am admittedly more in tune with Winner’s style and attitudes than with Hawks and company. Which is another way of suggesting that the gratuitous flash, ragged atmosphere, bad haircuts and polyester suits of Winner’s film are no more commercial and corrupt than the ’40s version, which was made by a major studio with as little interest in “art” as Winner’s producer Sir Lew Grade (jokingly referred to as “Sir Low Grade” in the ’70s). The 1978 version just meets different expectations. That may be the real issue with remakes: cherished work is superseded by new conventions which, if judged in terms of the original, seem inferior and corrupt.
Comparing the two versions is not exactly a matter of apples and oranges since both are based on the same novel. The point is rather that popular culture does not age well, a reality equally true of both films (and of Chandler). Enshrining a pop favorite as “classic” may feel good, but the very act of putting it on a pedestal indicates that it cannot move people the way it did originally. Is it time for the Millennials’ version?