Film

'The Long Goodbye' in the City of Angels and Demons

Robert Altman's '70s noir is a terrific, sad, and mischievous movie.


The Long Goodbye

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1973
US DVD release date: 2014-11-25

It's 3 AM, and Marlowe's sleeping with the lights on, fully dressed. He's also forgotten to feed his cat, who jumps on him in remonstrance. We don't know if he's hung over or what, but Marlowe's definitely going to seed. After trying and failing to feed the cat some cottage cheese with egg and salt, he finagles something morally questionable. He tries to fool the cat by substituting another brand in the old brand of cat food. Finding this a breach of contract, the cat dumps him, splits the scene, slips out the back. There are 50 ways to leave your owner.

It's an emblematic scene, like the hunt at the beginning of Akira Kurosawa's Ran. No sooner has the cat cut out than another kind of cat enters, Marlowe's longtime buddy (Jim Bouton). He explains that he needs a ride to the Mexican border after a fight with his wife, and Marlowe drops everything to help a pal. He will soon discover that he's dropped himself into something else, as everyone tells him the guy killed his wife and then himself after skipping with a mobster's money. Marlowe refuses to believe anything ill of his friend, just as he perhaps doesn't recognize his own moral decline, as signaled by the cat.

Marlowe's investigation of his friend, and a related case of an alcoholic Hemingway-esque writer (Sterling Hayden) and his sophisticated wife (Nina Van Pallandt), will become a journey to confront himself and what he's in danger of becoming. Or perhaps he's already become it. It depends on how you read an ending in which Raymond Chandler's detective appears to transform into Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. It's the only time Marlowe takes action, a startling contrast with the rest of the movie. This happens after the second time Marlowe wakes up in the picture; he literally needed to be hit by a car to be knocked out of his delusions.

In an extra, director Robert Altman explains that legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote the adaptation of Chandler's The Big Sleep with William Faulkner) wrote that controversial ending, and that no matter how far the movie strayed from the script or novel, Altman had it written into the contract that Brackett’s ending couldn’t be changed. We’re told she died before the film’s release, and Elliott Gould reports that he watched the film with her and she approved—all of which is odd because, as a PopMatters reader points out, Brackett didn’t die until 1978 after working on a draft of The Empire Strikes Back.

If you've seen this movie in edited TV prints or the lousy old VHS, be assured by this letterboxed Blu-ray that what looked messy in pan-and-scan looks clean and brilliant in photographer Vilmos Zsigmond's widescreen shimmer. In an extra, he explains the "flashing" technique of exposing the negative before printing, and a magazine article about it is reprinted. Zsigmond also talks about the camera's constant moving and zooming, which leads to the magnificent coup of a beach scene that echoes A Star Is Born and is foreshadowed by an earlier visual triumph when Van Pallandt and Hayden argue while Gould's silhouette and the ocean are reflected in the French windows. This is the only scene that strays from Marlowe's strict point of view.

What seemed iconoclastic about Gould's unshaven, rumpled, chain-smoking performance in the '70s now looks classic and right and squarely within the Los Angeles gumshoe tradition as it was still being plied on screen, namely in examples like TV's Harry O and The Rockford Files, where everyone was a little rumpled and bewildered. Gould's mumbling commentary to himself oddly anticipates Robin Williams in Altman's Popeye, although that choice had its source in the cartoons. Both are essentially nostalgic pieces about men with outdated codes of heroism.

The story is complicated and perhaps surreal, but also not impossible to follow. Of course, it's all about the grace notes: the textures of grunge and sunshine, Henry Gibson's fascinating pre-Nashville role, and how the score consists of never-fully-performed versions of the title song by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, even unto doorbells and funeral processions.

Note, too, the motif of all the neighborly nudity from the angelic unreachable sky women ("I think they're a couple of lesbians", says one goniff) and how their lives compare with the battered women below who mix with men. The first time we meet Van Pallandt, she's descending from above too. Are Marlowe's nubile neighbors related to the angels played by Sally Kellerman in Brewster McCloud and Virginia Madsen in A Prairie Home Companion? These languid, catlike women don't respond when Marlowe asks about his cat; perhaps they're providing its new shelter. Their topless yoga contrasts serenely with the brutal misogynist violence of Mark Rydell's character amidst his gang of male thugs, one of whom is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The scene where the guys take off their clothes is a moment of bizarre comic menace that strangely echoes and contrasts with the topless angels.

The new Blu-ray of this terrific, sad, and mischievous movie replicates the contents of a 2002 DVD (14 years ago!), and the added clarity finally reveals, if you know what you're looking for, the pattern of small American flags on Marlowe's red tie. You can see them best in the brightly lit supermarket scene and the scene of stripping mobsters.

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