With the fullness of Robert Altman‘s body of work now complete, it’s easy, in retrospect, to define what is thought of as particularly Altmanesque: movies with large, overlapping ensembles like Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion — or even the less well-regarded likes of Ready to Wear or Dr. T and the Women. But Altman also had a long-standing habit of dipping into recognizable movie genres and subverting them with his observation-heavy, story-averse style. Two of his most notable genre experiments, The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974), recently made their debut on a pair of Blu-rays from Kino Lorber. Both provide insight into the ways Altman operated within and without Hollywood conventions.
Technically, The Long Goodbye is based on a Raymond Chandler novel about his famous private detective character Philip Marlowe; its screenplay is even credited to Leigh Brackett, who worked on the much older Chandler/Marlowe picture The Big Sleep (1946) (as well as Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back, among others, proving her facility across genre). Altman took liberties with both Chandler and Brackett, creating a concept he refers to on the disc as “Rip Van Marlowe” (the Blu-ray’s features are imported from a previous DVD release, which means Altman participates): a private detective who has somehow woken up from his late ’40s heyday to stumble around early ’70s Hollywood, out of step with the time.
Elliott Gould, who plays Marlowe here, certainly creates that impression, with his mumbling, rumpled performance. Stretches of his lines sound and look like they were looped in later; even if they weren’t, there is created an unnerving cross between dialogue and inner-monologue voiceover. “It’s okay with me” becomes his catchphrase; or perhaps, in the parlance of the time, his mantra.
Like a lot of noir, the story starts simple and gets tangled. Marlowe gives a ride to his buddy Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), later finds out that Lennox’s wife is dead, and then, shortly thereafter, hears that Lennox himself has committed suicide. This sends Marlowe knocking against cops, gangsters, and another case involving a novelist and his wife. Despite his go-along catchphrase, Marlowe doesn’t seem emotionally detached from the case, but he nonetheless feels outside of the action — shy of hard-boiled, maybe more like soft-boiled. Altman uses this adrift Marlowe, who begins the movie talking to his cat and wandering out to the grocery store to buy it more food, to kid the conventions of noir that were, at the time, less than three decades old. This is a more self-referential noir, where the movie’s slow-burning titular theme song is repeated so often, in so many different versions, that it becomes a running gag as much as a musical motif.
Interestingly, Altman’s film shares a certain impenetrability with The Big Sleep, in that it makes sense scene-to-scene, but can be hard to reassemble without some help. But as is often the case with Altman, the plot is not necessarily the point. The Long Goodbye‘s mixture of Chandleresque plotting and deadpan ’70s befuddlement makes it especially influential on other detective-story riffs, like the Coen Brothers‘ The Big Lebowski and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s recent Inherent Vice.
DVD: Thieves Like Us
Film: Thieves Like Us
Director: Robert Altman
Studio: United Artists
Cast: Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen
US Release Date: 2014-11-25
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Extras rating: 6
For Thieves Like Us, released the following year, Altman tackled a genre more relatively new: the outlaws-on-the-run thriller, in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde, which galvanized audiences seven years earlier. Like The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us was based on a novel from several decades earlier, but unlike the Rip Van Marlowe movie, this one stays in its original period of 1936. The film follows escaped bank robbers Bowie (Keith Carradine), Chicamaw (John Schuck), and T-Dub (Bert Remsen) as they pursue their chosen career while holed up at the home of a gas station attendant.
The movie looks faded and washed out, even in a high-definition transfer, and Altman’s use of wide shots and zoom de-glamorizes the outlaw trade despite the potentially romanticized surroundings (Coke — the soda not the drug — appears everywhere). For these criminals, bank-robbing is a workaday gig, albeit one more lucrative than other day jobs. When one of them ruefully notes that he “only had a machine gun once in [his] life, and [he] never got to fire it,” he sounds like a low-level employee feeling glum about missing out on a promotion.
Thieves Like Us (1974)
This doesn’t make the criminals look innocent, exactly, but they do come off small and scrappy, hardly the type to lead police on a thrilling chase. Indeed, Thieves Like Us has plenty of downtime, and fills in some backstory offhandedly as it goes — like that Bowie is, in fact, a murderer in addition to a robber. The movie’s halfway point, where the injured Bowie is nursed by the gas station attendant’s daughter Keechie (Shelley Duvall), would be an inciting event for plenty of movies. Carradine and Duvall make a sweet couple; they’re also a gangly, sometimes goofy-looking pair.
Thieves Like Us isn’t as funny or playful as The Long Goodbye, but it does have its own self-referential moments, as when the camera watches one robbery from outside the building, with a crime show playing audibly on a radio. Though it doesn’t hit many false notes, the film does feel a little studied, as if Altman was more invested in undercutting gangster romanticism than building even the smallest amount of momentum. Altman’s commentary on the Thieves Like Us disc — sporadic, but informative when he does speak — acknowledges the deliberate pace, confirming that the director was fully in control of this odd, sometimes alienating project. Even when moonlighting in distinct genres, he was making the Altman version.