Cross it off the List: Robert Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’

Raymond Chandler was a great writer. Within a relatively short career, he smashed preconceptions of the crime genre and refined it with a form of lean, tough prose which has spawned both sincere imitations and ridiculous parodies. Chandler’s pen exposed the dark, dank side of Los Angeles and the characters that populated it. In the seedy world of Raymond Chandler, hope lay in the hands of the hero, a flawed knight whom the author described as follows:


down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

 Philip Marlowe was this hero. A cynic with a hat, a gun and a heart of gold, Marlowe has long since become an archetype. His image is seared into the literary and cinematic subconscious, shrouded in a dirty trench coat and the smoke of cheap cigarettes. Marlowe is THE private detective.

Despite my waxing lyrical about Chandler and his creation, I have only read his first novel, The Big Sleep (twice, it is that good). However,many on the internet will tell you that Chandler’s greatest novel is his later story, The Long Goodbye (1953). Several visits to Wikipedia informed me that the 1973 film adaption of this work is a very interesting animal indeed. The fact that it was directed by Robert Altman, one of the most prominent and provocative directors of the ‘New Hollywood’ era, confirmed its spot on The Lazy List (the list of movies I want to see, which can be seen here).

Before I finish gilding the lily, I’d like to point out that this is the first Robert Altman film I have ever seen. I am aware of his style and significance, but only marginally so. If I say anything that is misinformed, I apologize. Disclaimer aside, I don’t feel as though I should praise a film based simply on the ‘importance’ of its director.

The story begins with a disheveled Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) being awoken by his hungry cat at three o’clock in the morning. He grumbles his way to a convenience store as several versions of the same song play over the radio. If you don’t like the song (which is named after the movie) you’ll have to get used to it- it is one of two pieces that make up the film’s soundtrack, and the second song is only used at the very end. Why? I don’t know, but to quote Gould’s Marlowe, “It’s alright by me”.

After buying cat food, Marlowe returns home. The cat is not impressed by Marlowe’s attempts to feed it a sub-standard brand. The hapless detective is then visited by a friend of his, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, no questions asked. Marlowe obliges, but finds the cops in his apartment the next day.  Mrs. Lennox is dead, and Terry, of course, is the prime suspect.

At this point, if the lengthy cat prelude wasn’t enough of an indication, the satirical streak of the movie really begins to rear its murky head. Interrogated in his own home, Marlowe knows how these things go down; “Let me guess; this is the part where I ask what’s going on and he says ‘Shut up, I ask the questions’?”

Oh dear. Philip Marlowe, scourge of these mean streets, has become self aware. This could be very, very bad.

Both literary and film noir have a very specific set of conventions, and with that comes a particular language. Noir dialogue has a set rhythm, a tempo of street slang, elaborate double meanings and euphemism. It is a lexicon which constantly dances on the edge of cliché, and so must be delivered with natural sincerity. It was this language that made Philip Marlowe’s world into something tangible, and to mess with its context and foundations is playing with fire. What Altman has done is taken the lingo, but placed it in a context where it doesn’t fit, a proverbial square peg in a round hole. Faced with a world where his sharp one-liners are lost in meandering, overlapping dialogue, it becomes even clearer that Marlowe is a man out of time. He probably fell asleep in the 1953 and woke up twenty years later. He wears a suit and tie; everyone around him rocks ‘70s beach-kitsch. He smokes like it’s going out of style, ignoring the fact that it already has. The world has passed him by, and that just might stop him from getting to the bottom of a very complicated case.

Terry Lennox commits suicide. Case closed. Or so everyone but Marlowe thinks. In the mean time, our hero tracks down Eileen Wade’s (Nina Van Pallandt) alcoholic husband, which takes all of fifteen minutes. Femme Fatale Eileen and her self-destructive spouse (played by Sterling Hayden) reveal a new connection to the Lennox couple, and what the police have ruled as a case of murder and suicide begins to look like a case of double murder. A spanner is thrown in the works when gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) arrives, looking for a suitcase full of money. He needs to findhis money, and drives the point home with a truly abrupt and grotesque act of violence, one that took me by surprise.

Based on that description alone, you would be forgiven for thinking that this film was a taut, if complex, thriller. You would also be wrong. The plot is complex to the point of fading underneath a maze of long, largely improvised conversations and odd cinematography.

Perhaps ‘odd’ is the wrong word; this film is very interesting to look at. The colours are blurry and faded; creating a distinct look that recalls the moody visuals of classic film noir as well as offers insight into the perspective of the perpetually confused Marlowe. The camera is always moving, filming through smudged glass and from askew angles and, like the dialogue, it helps capture the feeling of a somewhat naïve man as he navigates a web of corruption that goes far beyond his own understanding.

That is where my main problem with the film lies. Everything, from the look of the film to its characters and script, mount an attack not only the conventions of classic Hollywood, but on the main character himself. In the hands of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe was an imperfect warrior, gritting his teeth and holding his ground against the forces of evil. Robert Altman, however, seems more concerned with winking at the audience and saying; “Look at this poor sap, thinking he can do the right thing. Silly little Hardy Boy.” He commits the sin of not taking his main character seriously, which is vital in satire. Why? Because a joke loses impact if no one can tell it with a straight face.

When Marlowe finally stumbles upon a moment of clarity, the tone and look of the film change. The images become clearer and the conversations more concise. Finally Marlowe is in control, but this too is snatched from the audience by an out-of-character killing and a cheesy, chirpy song.

Despite all this negativity, I don’t hate The Long Goodbye. The performances are good, the visuals exciting and the script solid; there are moments of brilliance amid conversations that should be much, much shorter. What is frustrating about the film is not only it’s lack of core, but it’s laughing at the central character and his ideals. Even though he dealt with the ambiguities of humanity, Raymond Chandler understood that absolutes (especially controversial ones) are more thought-provoking than grey areas. Altman’s take on The Long Goodbye lives in a world where the idea of absolutes is laughable and the characters looking for them are irrelevant, I don’t like that world. 

This poster, by MAD Magazine artist Jack Davis, is probably an indication of how difficult marketing the film was. It’s probably one of my favourite movie posters ever




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