Elliott Gould tells a story in “Rip Van Marlowe,” the talking-head-and-clip-montage documentary included as a special feature in the new DVD release of The Long Goodbye, director Robert Altman’s 1973 version of Raymond Chandler’s novel. He recalls the recent filming of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake, in which Gould has a featured role. During the shoot, Soderbergh, apropos of nothing, asked Gould if he was improvising when he smeared ink all over his face during The Long Goodbye‘s police interrogation scene. Gould replied yes, to which Soderbergh, delighted, exclaimed “I knew it!”
This anecdote, not quite classifiable as “amusing,” is on the surface revealing for its confirmation that the deep sense of self-satisfaction that structures Soderbergh’s films carries over into his offscreen behavior, because an intelligent child could deduce at once the extemporaneous quality of Gould’s performance as Chandler’s iconic private dick Philip Marlowe. Consequently, Gould’s anecdote also works on a deeper level as a mini-parable of the cultural amnesia that afflicts the supposed cream of Hollywood filmmaking today.
The trap that Soderbergh willfully plunges into in critics’ favorites Traffic and Out of Sight could have just as easily snared Altman when he made The Long Goodbye. Just as the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and early 1970s has become a fetish object for today’s “hot” young directors, the hard-boiled private eye text (exemplified by the print and celluloid versions of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Chandler’s The Big Sleep) had been equally fetishized by the custodians of popular culture in 1973. Had Altman wanted to please this crowd, he could have transformed Chandler’s sour opus into a period Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971). Or he could have beaten Roman Polanski to the punch with a punchier Chinatown (1972), though without the Eastern European dread that made Polanski’s film a commercial disappointment.
Instead, in adapting The Long Goodbye, Altman refused to indulge in empty nostalgia for the hard-boiled era the way that contemporary darlings like Soderbergh, Sam Mendes, Tarantino, or Altman-phile Paul Thomas Anderson (who, granted, navigates this pitfall better than most) wallow in the excesses of ’70s cinema. Like Gould’s “Rip Van” Marlowe, who is pictured in the film’s pointed first shot awakening in a daze, these current-day filmmakers seem to have slept through the previous several decades. Their films reproduce the kind of picaresque, character-centered plots and “gritty” milieu of the New Hollywood cinema, yet they also replicate the earlier movement’s gratuitous nihilism, its fashionable misogyny and racism, its empty stylistics, its assumed superiority to real people — traits that mar even the most striking ’70s movie landmarks — Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Parallax View (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), even — dare I say — Altman’s own Nashville (1975).
Today’s movie prodigies never seem to take as their models movies like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), whose portrait of modern alienation is grounded in a piercing social (and self-) critique, or Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973), a film that deftly fuses European, African, and Black American sensibilities into a deliriously passionate amplification of the vampire genre. The Long Goodbye is not the movie those other two are, but it was and is refreshingly honest in its intent and execution — more honest that the Philip Marlowe film immediately preceding The Long Goodbye, the imaginatively titled Marlowe (1969; an adaptation of Chandler’s The Little Sister), which celebrates rather than critiques the detective hero’s total retreat from society.
Chandler fans in 1973 saw Altman as committing some sort of desecration in using the Chandler novel as raw material rather than holy text, but their evaluation of the book was clouded by a lack of discrimination. Altman and Chandler are not quite kindred spirits, though there are some intriguing parallels existing between the two: both, for instance, achieved their first notable success late in life — Chandler finished The Big Sleep in his early 50s and published his first story at age 45, Altman’s age when M*A*S*H* (1972) jumpstarted his career.
But unlike Altman, who is still producing work at something resembling the height of his powers (proven by last year’s Gosford Park, which reworks the British, woman-targeted novel of “logic and deduction” that Chandler excoriated in his famous 1944 explicative essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”), Chandler peaked early. His major work — the first four Marlowe novels and script drafts for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946) — was complete by the end of World War II.
The Long Goodbye, the last of the Marlowe series to be published in his lifetime (and thus already colored by nostalgic regret), is a valiant but overheated effort by Chandler to reclaim the persona he and Dashiell Hammett invented, a persona coarsened and vulgarized in Mickey Spillane’s zillion-selling Mike Hammer series (a major affront to Chandler, who thought of himself as a culturally refined gentleman). Marlowe’s swan song is, unfortunately, tired and slack, especially the first third; its failure to match the verve and imagination of his earlier work is encapsulated by an overripe simile like “I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split” — a weak reheating of Farewell, My Lovely‘s classic fish-out-of-water metaphor, “he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
The plot of the book (reputedly the longest detective novel ever written up to that point) deals with Marlowe’s involvement in two seemingly unrelated missing person cases — Roger Wade, a “dirty book” writer and raving alcoholic, and Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe’s who dupes the shamus into helping his flight across the border, away from a gruesome murder scene at home. The narrative’s typically Byzantine machinations are worked out in frequently ingenious ways. But what truly animates Chandler’s interest is the detective’s sheer weariness and disgust with modern times.
There is therefore much ruminating on the misery of the world, the fruitlessness of action, and the depravity of modern culture and society. Marlowe is given room for cranky disquisitions on, in rough chronological order: the print media, the legal system, the movies, businessmen, television, doctors and lawyers, advertising agencies, “wetbacks,” the Los Angeles smog, family, and the suburbs.
But the deadliest venom is reserved for women in general — the book’s most lethal killer is (as always in Chandler) a woman, Eileen Wade, a viperous femme fatale who bludgeons Terry Lennox’s wife, then shoots her husband Roger and makes his death appear a suicide. Marlowe survives his encounters with Eileen, but his betrayal at the hands of Terry Lennox (who turns up alive at book’s end, not guilty of yet complicit in the book’s major crimes) alters him in a subtle but profound way. Played for a sucker, Marlowe, nursing hurt feelings (“So long, amigo. I won’t say goodbye. I said it to you when it meant something”), nevertheless allows Terry to return to his new life in Mexico.
Altman’s film was most notorious at the time of its release for changing the ending, making Terry responsible for his wife’s death and allowing Marlowe to shoot his old friend in retribution. It’s something of a “shock” ending (coming after 110 minutes in which Gould/Marlowe takes shit from everybody, most memorably his own cat) and, like most shock endings, it undercuts rather than deepens our appreciation of the work. But it’s an ending that makes at least as much narrative sense as Chandler’s, in which 300 pages of macho posturing climax with a whimpering and licking of wounds. And thematically it’s more profound. Altman’s variation dispenses with Chandler’s phony notion of betrayed brotherhood, his mourning of a ruined male camaraderie done in by a feminized, domesticated, consumerist world.
Rather than advance a bilious attack on contemporary culture and the decline of “values,” Altman’s film redresses the imbalance in Chandler: it’s largely neutral about the present (that is, the easily satirizable Southern California culture of the ’70s) and ambiguous about the past (the pre-WWII world that Gould/Marlowe seems to have been cryogenically frozen in). Still, at times the film’s visual design works unmistakably against the old “values.” The few times during which The Long Goodbye abandons its ’70s-vintage, pastel light-and-color scheme (achieved through a technique called “post-flashing,” which keeps contrast low without sacrificing image quality) come when the gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his henchmen push their way into the intrigue. Augustine’s viciousness and stupidity is appropriately accompanied by a sort of parody of the noir lighting style: lots of shadows, lots of contrast, but as mannered as his goons’ tough-guy gestures.
But rather than suggest an unbridgeable chasm, Altman usually prefers to squash both worlds onto the same plane. He accomplishes this most strikingly through visual style, with an invaluable assist from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (whose technical efforts on The Long Goodbye are chronicled in two of the DVD’s special features: a recent interview and a reprint of a 1973 American Cinematographer article on the film’s production). Zsigmond’s telephoto compositions and constant zooming flatten out perspective — most famously embodied by the literal and figurative shift in focus between a foreground, interior-night conversation between Marlowe and Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt, in a remarkably assured performance for a newcomer) and Roger Wade’s (Sterling Hayden) suicide in the Pacific Ocean, as visible through a background window. (Altman’s use of reflective surfaces in The Long Goodbye rivals the sophistication of Douglas Sirk, though Altman is more generous: he allows us to look at and through his surfaces at the same time.)
At first glance, the style with which Altman tells this familiar story seems totally unsuited to the subject matter — much like Howard Hawks’ flat, unobtrusive style in The Big Sleep (1946) was out of step with the more expressionistic, film-noir style then being applied to hard-boiled novel adaptations, including Double Indemnity (explicitly referenced in Altman’s film, as are a host of other classic noirs) and the first major Marlowe production, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). But as in Hawks’ great film, this unfashionable style turns out to be the perfect vehicle for narrating the hard-boiled story because it also contains the element of critique.
Not just empty genre deconstruction, The Long Goodbye (like the excellent Arthur Penn film Night Moves , another contemporary detective story released two years later) dares to ask some very basic questions about the hard-boiled detective hero: questions Chandler couldn’t bring himself to ask in the book. The smartass tone in Altman’s film (exemplified by a string of self-conscious classic Hollywood gags, notably the recurrence of the theme song in every conceivable musical form, from flamenco to grocery store muzak) have led some to dismiss it as condescending, but in fact Altman was just more honest in his interrogation of a lost art form that, having lost its currency (and always in danger of losing its moral compass), had been enshrined by the nostalgia industry, a law onto itself by the 1970s. As it turns out, he was also more honest than the directors who today mimic the styles developed during the so-called last Golden Age of American filmmaking without challenging the nihilism and narcissism of its most characteristic works.