The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, adapted by Robin Brooks

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BBC Radio 4, 5 February 2011

Writing about a new Chandler adaptation is always going to be a difficult task, particularly for aficionados of his work. There are at least two actors who have become iconic as Marlowe in two media: the first of these is obviously Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). Although nothing like Chandler’s original description of Marlowe, Bogart had that kind of down-at-heel cynicism, as well as a basic decency that seemed particularly suitable for the character. Moreover he forged the kind of sexual chemistry with Vivian Regan (Lauren Bacall) that rarely appears on the screen. On radio the definitive Marlowe has to be Ed Bishop, who played the part in the complete cycle of adaptations in the late 1970s, in productions mostly adapted by Bill Morrison. His voice had that kind of world-weariness that seemed especially suitable for a man who basically disliked his job, yet paradoxically worked hard at it for the measly sum of $25 a day plus expenses. The director John Tydeman worked on most of the Bishop adaptations; he was very fond of the saxophone playing mournfully in the background, mixed with the screech of tyres and the slamming of doors, as Marlowe relentlessly pursued his suspects with little concern for his personal safety.

Claire Grove’s new version of The Big Sleep, adapted by Robin Brooks, had Toby Stephens in the leading role. Facially speaking Stephens seems way too aristocratic for the role; but one of the joys of radio is that actors don’t have to worry about their looks, only their voices matter. Stephens’ voice had the tendency to rise at the end of each speech, suggesting a kind of dogged optimism. Even though he had to descend into the San Francisco underworld to disentangle the various threads of Chandler’s almost impenetrable plot.

Brooks’ adaptation seemed more concerned with the women, as compared to earlier versions; we learned a lot about Vivian Sternwood (Kelly Burke), who pursued a life of pleasure while trying at all costs to prevent her father General Sternwood (Sean Baker) from experiencing further suffering. The fact that she singularly failed in her task suggested that she was subject to circumstances beyond her control. In a world controlled by racketeer Eddie Mars (Henry Devas), such concepts as good and evil no longer had much significance. Vivian’s sister Carmen (Leah Brotherhead) was portrayed as a man-eater, who concealed her true motives under a fašade of cuteness. If anyone crossed her, however, she proved to be a ruthless killer; witness what happened to Rusty Regan. She encountered Marlowe, and tried to ensnare him through a combination of girlish laughs and Marilyn Monroe-esque sighs. However the detective would have none of it; he had too much experience of San Francisco’s fleshpots to be taken in by such a charade.

The adaptation ended rather unsatisfactorily, in my view, with Marlowe explaining in almost meticulous detail the various threads of the plot. While this strategy might satisfy some listeners’ desire for closure, it had the effect of slowing down the plot, which in Grove’s production had moved swiftly towards its resolution. Perhaps the adapter and director ought to have taken a leaf out of Hawks’ book and left some open ends, and thereby forcing listeners to draw their own conclusions.

While this Big Sleep might not have persuaded me that Stephens could be added to my list of definitive Marlowes, he nonetheless encouraged me to listen to others in the forthcoming Radio 4 cycle of adaptations of Chandler’s books. Who knows – maybe my opinions will change by the time I have listened to all of them.