Friday, August 1, 2008

Sweet 70s Cinema: The Long Goodbye

Not the goofy movie the poster suggests...

As an unabashed fan of Raymond Chandler, film noir, and Bogart's iconic rendition of Philip Marlowe, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye could thrill or offend me. A lot of fans of the classic The Big Sleep and Chandler's poetic novels find Elliot Gould as a smart-ass, sleepy "Rip Van Marlowe" too much of a change in character; the only pussy he chases is his housecat. If in The Big Lebowski, The Dude is a man for his times, Gould's Marlowe is perhaps a man who fell asleep in the '40s and woke up to the hedonistic, nihilistic '70s.
Still a pussy magnet.

While I like Robert Altman's films, I prefer his experiments with genre, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which goes beyond even revisionist Western, or his classic MASH, the war movie that's not a war movie. His famous ensemble pieces such as Nashville leave me a bit uninterested, though the excellent Short Cuts, built on a framework of Raymond Carver's touching and painful stories, works especially well. In this movie he plays with point of view; the shots and cinematography are all based on not what Marlowe sees, but how he sees it. He's always outside a window, peering in, vision distorted by the glass. They famously exposed the film to light to dull all the colors in the first two acts, like Marlowe has awakened from a long sleep and his perception is fuzzy, until finally he sees what must be done.

Naked yoga and other '70s delights

Gould is sort of a post-hippie P.I., whose favorite line is "it's alright with me," and it's a surprise that Cole Porter's song of the same name isn't in the soundtrack. There is only one song repeated in many variations throughout, "The Long Goodbye," by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. At first a Tom Waits-like gravelly voice sings it, then a woman, and the motif is even repeated by a Mariachi band when they head to Mexico. The bookends are "Hooray for Hollywood," for a bitter dash of irony. When we meet Marlowe, he is famously trying to get his cat to eat cottage cheese so he doesn't have to buy cat food; he eventually relents, heads out, and slowly gets embroiled in the story. Leigh Brackett, the great screenwriter of The Big Sleep, Rio Lobo and The Empire Strikes Back, takes Chandler's novel and shuffles it around. Marlowe's friend Terry Lennox is on the run; he wants Marlowe to bring him to Mexico, which he does. Later the cops pick up Marlowe and he finds out Terry has apparently killed his wife and committed suicide, which he doesn't believe.

Like The Big Lebowski after it, it throws a lazy operator in the middle of a sleazy conundrum, but Marlowe isn't inept like The Dude, and while there are laughs here, this is no comedy. It's Chandler seen through the gritty eyes of Serpico, except Marlowe is no naïf. By the end, he's as cold as Sam Spade, sending the girl to the gas chamber. Altman's whimsy sets us up for the staccato slaps of brutality the story deals out, and makes them hit that much harder. When Marlowe is picked up by the cops, he toys with them, and rubs the fingerprint ink on his face like Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Shortly thereafter he is shown pictures of Terry's wife, with her face battered in.
A story seen through a dirty lens

The case leads him to Roger Wade, a drunken, raging giant of a writer played by Sterling Hayden. With a full beard and fiery eyes, he's like a loquacious Hemingway, staring at the sea with a drink in his hands. He and his wife Eileen, the subtle femme fatale, knew Terry and his wife, and are also mixed up with mobster Marty Augustine, another motormouth psychotic played for laughs at first. Arnold Schwarzenegger has an early role as one of Marty's thugs, sporting a porn 'stache and his Olympian physique; the perfect choice for mob muscle in body-worshipping '70s California. These little jokes aside, the movie is no less brutal than Chinatown; here it plays out with a Coke bottle instead of a switchblade, and in the end, Marlowe can trust no one. Not even his cat.
Sterling Hayden's last great performance.

Gould's Marlowe is a different kind of sleuth. He doesn't deduce, or gumshoe, or beat revelations out of people like Mike Hammer. He drinks in the situation around him, and eventually comes to the likeliest conclusion. He wears a suit and tie among his girl neighbors performing naked yoga, drives a '40s roadster and stops to let a sleeping dog pass, while '70s land yachts honk behind him. When an Old Man becomes one with the sea, he dives in, and later argues with the cops and their useless questions. That's not how you solve anything... you watch and look for the connections.
Only Altman could make a shakedown scene look like gay prostitution.

When Marlowe finally finds the loose thread he has to tug at, he moves with an unusual grace and ruthlessness. He expects to need to bribe Mexican police, but they laugh and pass on his $5000 bill. Detective stories are about a personal code; even when the character explicitly tells us he does not have "a code," the role of the operator is to attempt to tilt the scales toward a form of justice he can live with, whether it is selfish, altruistic, cruel, or magnanimous. Marlowe's last act can be seen as justice, or as selfish. Is he avenging Terry's wife, or is he just pissed off that he lost his cat? The ending is perfect, swift and absolute. Hooray for Hollywood.


Rob L. said...

Watch Nashville again. It's awesome.

J.D. said...

This is probably my fave Altman film out of everything he's done. Whenever he hooked up Elliot Gould, it almost always resulted in something special as evident from: MASH, this film and CALIFORNIA SPLIT. All great films.

But there is something special about THE LONG GOODBYE that makes it my fave. Maybe its Gould's loose, freewheeling, improving style that goes so well with Altman's equally free-flowing style... Such a great pairing.

Nice article!

Post a Comment

And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

disclaimers of legal bull shitte

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

All writing © 2011 Thomas Pluck and may only be reprinted with express written permission of the author. You may link to pages at will. If you wish to repost anything on your website you must contact Thomas Pluck using the contact form. Thank you for your cooperation. -Robocop