Feeling in an arbitrarily eclectic mood last weekend, I decided to select my viewing on the basis of films with the word ‘big’ in the title.
As it so happened, they all turned out to be crime movies, more or less, and cultural pundits may make what they will of that.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
I love the Coen Brothers and I love this film. It’s pretty much what you’d get if David Lynch directed a comedy noir. Jeff Bridges is ‘Dude’ Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire with the same handle, and drawn into a kidnap plot. There are German nihilist pop musicians, a porn film director, a self-righteous crooked rich guy and his factotum, and an artist who wants to get pregnant. There’s also the bowling team and their rivals, plus John Goodman as redneck anti-hero Walter. With an ensemble cast of larger than life characters and a ‘busy’ plot, it feels like part pastiche of The Big Sleep, even down to the wheelchair bound catalyst for much of the action, with his airhead wife and ‘intellectual’ daughter, crossed with elements of surrealism courtesy of the Dude’s hallucinatory ‘trips’ and an on/off commentary from a character first introduced as a tumbleweed. At the end we’re left pretty much up in the air, with the Dude back where he started from, but that’s okay. Destination was never an issue with this film, just the fun of the journey.
The Big Heat (1953)
Directed by Fritz Lang, this black and white classic stars Glenn Ford as Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, who won’t let go of a case involving the murder of a crooked cop. His wife gets killed by the mob and Bannion is off the force, but he takes the vigilante route, bulling his way through to bring the big mob boss and his henchmen to justice. Ford doesn’t have to do much, except look and act tough/honest, and he’s competent enough as far as that goes, with an Achilles heel in that he appears too judgemental of others, who have the capacity to surprise him, as with the ‘b-girl’ who’s telling the truth and fellow officers who remain honest at core. Lee Marvin impresses, as tough Vince Stone, a bully and misogynist, with the moment when he throws scalding coffee in the face of his playmate retaining its power to shock even today. Gloria Grahame as playmate Debby steals the film for my money, with a flawless performance as the airhead who grows up fast and finds more backbone than any of the others. I liked her. In fact I liked the whole film. And, in our post-Fifty Shades of Grey world, I chuckled to myself at the subtext in the line ‘You’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs’.
The Big Bounce (2004)
It’s based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, a writer who I feel I should like a lot more than I actually do. It’s set in Hawaii and stars Owen Wilson as small time crook with ambition Jack, who gets the chance to relieve a local contractor of a large sum of money, but is actually being set up to take the rap for a murder. It’s a film in which everyone has a scam going on. It’s a film that perhaps tries a little too hard. There’s some gorgeous scenery, Morgan Freeman is excellent as ever (I think it’s his voice that sends me), model Sara Foster looks the part as femme fatale Nancy and isn’t quite as cliched as she could have been, and I didn’t expect it, but I was rather taken with Wilson’s blond boy charm and studied affability. Contrarily Gary Sinise, Charlie Sheen and Vinnie Jones all seem to be cast as comic cut-out bad guys, shouting a lot and gurning for the camera, while the plot has some seriously naff bits, such as when Jack and Nancy hide out in the house of a macho cop who turns out to be a closet gay and the ridiculous chase round a supermarket. It’s an uneasy cross between crime and comedy, falling short in both genres. I didn’t hate it, but it was more in the nature of a pass the time popcorn guzzler than anything substantial.
The Big Sleep (1978)
Scripted and directed by Michael Winner, starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, with a godawful soundtrack and the action transplanted from LA to London, this was never going to be anything other than an unmitigated disaster. Mitchum had all the presence of a plank and a curiously emotionless delivery, stripping Chandler’s one liners of all their mordant wit, and I don’t care how faithful it was to the source material, the plot was a ludicrously complicated hotch potch of overlapping conspiracies, with credibility undermined by the casual way in which the police involve a private eye in one of their murder enquiries. To modern viewers it probably all seems a bit silly – Camilla Sternwood’s art house nude poses hardly seem sufficient motive for murder in the age of the celebrity sex tape. On the plus side, Sarah Miles and James Stewart added a little bit of class, even if none of the rest of the cast distinguished themselves, while as a man who hasn’t found a naked woman in his bed for some time I have a certain sympathy with Camilla’s decision to shoot the fools who rejected her (some things you shouldn’t turn your nose up at). Finally, when Howard Hawks made the 1946 version with Bogart and Bacall, he is supposed to have phoned author Raymond Chandler to ask how the chauffeur died, and Chandler is alleged to have replied, ‘How should I know?’ Well, in Winner-world the chauffeur commits suicide, so that’s another great mystery solved.
Okay, what ‘big’ films do the rest of you like? (Demerits to anyone mentioning Tom Hanks.)
Big Trouble in Little China – but it’s a guilty pleasure for lines like ‘It’s all in the reflexes’ and ‘I was born ready’.
Good choice Ray, and I need to get a DVD of that film for my collection. The only other ‘big’ film I have is “Big Fish”, which didn’t really fit the vibe of the weekend.
The Big Hit with Mark Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips. Absolutely adolescent, but fun. It fits the crime remit—Wahlberg is a paid killer trying to live a normal life outside of his murders. Has some funny situations.
Elmore Leonard is a writer I’ve always had ambivalent feelings towards. I enjoy his novels enough while I read them, but a week later, I can’t remember the plot or the characters. It all just dissipates. Which is odd. He’s the cotton candy of crime writers.
I agree with Ray that Big Trouble in Little China is a fun film. Russell channeling John Wayne, like Cage channeled Elvis in Wild at Heart.
Never heard of “The Big Hit” before Rob. I’ll keep an eye out for it, though have to admit the two leading men don’t fill me with enthusiasm.
Publishers once made the mistake of sending me an Elmore Leonard book to review for BS, and I had some fun with it:-