The Long Goodbye
Reviewed by Rahul Hamid
Produced by Jerry Bick, Robert Eggenweiler, and Elliott Kastner; directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by John Williams; costume design by Kent James and Marjorie Wahl; starring Elliot Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, and Jim Bouton. Blu-ray, color, 112 min. A Kino Lorber release.
Film noir is a slippery term. It doesn’t really represent a consciously produced genre, like the Western or the musical. It is a mood and a style and a preoccupation with dark themes that can be found in some, but certainly not a large percentage, of Hollywood films of the Forties and Fifties. It might be historically contingent on the flood of German émigrés—trained in the expressionist style—that came to Hollywood in Hitler’s wake. It can be contextualized by the loss of innocence experienced by GIs who witnessed the horrors of the war, or insecurities at home based on the expanding presence of women and minorities in the workforce and American public life, or the expansion of American cities and the housing crunch caused when veterans returned home. The explanation might be as mundane as the invention of cheaply produced metal venetian blinds in the 1940s. Some argue that it is the existence of neonoir, or the collective memory of noir, that gives the original movement any real coherence. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a contemplation of the memory of Hollywood and an invitation to interrogate the values of and reassess our nostalgia for that great dream factory.
Altman’s take on noir and the detective genre is characteristically idiosyncratic and playful. The main conceit of The Long Goodbye is to place Raymond Chandler’s legendary detective, Philip Marlowe, into what was then present-day Los Angeles. In one of the interviews provided by Kino Lorber on the Blu-ray, Altman refers to the detective, played with a nervous, inwardly focused, neurotic energy by Elliot Gould, as “Rip van Marlowe.” He is a Quixote figure—with the values and understandings of an earlier time—who awakens to a new California, torn by the Vietnam War, obsessed with wacky self-help movements, and addled by a drug culture turning sour and the Woodstock generation changes, now shifting towards the selfishness of the “Me Generation” decade.
In terms of plot, however, Altman and his screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who also co-wrote Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep), stick quite closely to the plot of Chandler’s original novel. Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), is accused of killing his wife and Marlowe, after Lennox proclaims his innocence, helps him escape to Mexico. Left in Los Angeles to face the heat surrounding the murder, Marlowe must clear himself and prove that Lennox is not the real killer. His search leads him into the orbit of a dissipated romance novelist, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), and his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), who is the sister of the murdered Mrs. Lennox. Marlowe must also contend with Roger’s frightening, drug-pushing quack psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) and a sadistic gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), to whom Lennox owed money. The emotional core of the film and the novel is Marlowe’s unwavering belief in Terry’s innocence. He is willing to undergo a great deal of a pain, including a stint in the county lockup and a beating by the gangster’s thugs, in order to find justice for his friend. In Chandler’s novel, Marlowe’s superior morality is able to vanquish the fallen and corrupt noir world. Altman recasts Marlowe’s loyalty as irrelevant and naive in the modern world and changes the ending of the film to reflect this: Marlowe’s reassuring values, like the glamour of classic Hollywood, are revealed to be illusory and out of date.
In previous Chandler adaptations, Marlowe was played variously by Dick Powell, George Montgomery, Robert Montgomery (who acted mostly with his voice, while also directing his 1947 experiment in first-person camera, Lady in the Lake, told from the detective’s point of view). By far the most memorable Marlowe, however, was played by Humphrey Bogart in Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). Bogey’s Marlowe is tough and wise, witty and world-weary, the moral compass in the shadowy, impenetrable world that Hawks creates. Hawks’s loose structure and anecdotal approach to narration allow us to know Marlowe and relish the Bogart persona. It is this incarnation of Marlowe that relates most directly to Gould and Altman’s revision of the character. Hawks’s meandering style also influences Altman’s direction, which flows freely as well, allowing the audience time to enjoy different moments and performances for their own sake.
Altman’s treatment of classical genres in films such as M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), and The Long Goodbye is often written about by critics in terms of radical revision that is not only motivated by a desire to innovate formally, but also to make caustic, though entertaining, critiques of the American mythology that undergird classical genres. M*A*S*H is an antiwar war movie that pokes fun at the idea of military competence and glory in battle by focusing on an anarchic surgical team in a field hospital, which places the focus directly on the casualties and human cost of war. Though set in Korea, the film is obviously a scathing critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Similarly McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an anti-Western set in the gloomy, snowy winter of the North (rather than South) West, where the Western’s manly virtues of honorable violence are turned on their head and revealed as simply brutal carnage in the service of the white man’s unrelenting push to conquer the North American continent and open it up for capitalism. Rather than a celebration of American individualism, the humble hopes and ambitions of the title characters are crushed by the larger forces of history. While Altman’s view of American life and society is quite bleak, his movies are also extremely enjoyable, witty, and enthrallingly daring in their formal qualities. Before making his first feature, Altman had spent twenty years as a director, first of Industrial films in the Midwest, and later as an extremely successful network television director. His mastery of his craft allows him to pull off the daring experiments with overlapping sound and multiple characters and storylines that characterize his later film career.
It is easy to see the ways in which The Long Goodbye, bookmarked by the ironic use of the song “Hooray for Hollywood,” easily fits into the scheme of genre revisionism: the morality of the film noir is turned on its head, the detective as the bringer of order and justice is mocked, and the visual conventions of the genre are radically altered. As opposed to the typical noir chiaroscuro lighting, Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond use a technique called flashing, which lightens the darkest parts of the image to create a washed-out, underexposed look, so that the film looks like an old sepia postcard, again reinforcing the sense that the cinematic past is fading away. This is a perfectly reasonable reading of Altman, but upon viewing the film again on this beautiful Blu-ray transfer, I feel that it fails to capture the complexity of the director’s vision and the nuance of his films. As much as The Long Goodbye debunks the hard-boiled detective noir genre, it is also suffused with nostalgia, steeped in film history, and deeply interested in Raymond Chandler and the mythic Los Angeles evoked in his novels.
Throughout the film, there are references to classic Hollywood: the security guard who imitates Barbara Stanwyck and other stars; Gould’s impression of Al Jolson in blackface; and the last scene as a re-creation of the famous long take that ends Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). We get the sense that, just as Gould’s Marlowe is haunted by the ghost of Marlowe past, all of Los Angeles is haunted by its movie past. Marlowe does not notice the present at all: he barely sees his naked hippie neighbors eating hash brownies or contorting themselves into impossible yoga positions. Nor does he see the battles between an antiwar counterculture and the Establishment going on all around him. His one-liners and detached, knowing attitude, so charming in Bogart, make him appear completely out of touch in his unfashionable suit and old car. Yet, the film decries Marlowe’s betrayal at the ending and, like so many Altman films that seem to simply shamble along, suddenly everything is brought into sharp emotional focus, and we are left haunted by what we have seen.
In the “making-of” documentary on the disc, Altman also mentions that he and Brackett were passing around a book of Raymond Chandler’s letters called Raymond Chandler Speaking, which influenced the making of the film. The book is divided into various themes, including a section on Chandler’s love of cats. The film famously opens with Marlowe’s desperate attempts to feed his yellow tabby cat, a scene that does not occur in the novel. When he tries to fool the cat into eating the wrong brand of cat food, the cat disappears, setting up the cycle of betrayal, disappearance, and loss that structures the entire narrative. Chandler’s sarcastic spirit expressed in that book, as well as his sardonic observations about Hollywood and the difficulties of being a writer, run throughout the film. While Altman changes the ending of the novel, there are many elements that remain. In one tracking shot, as Marlowe approaches the beach house of the wealthy Wades, we see a stream of black and Hispanic workers walking by, obviously servants and gardeners in this rich community. Chandler’s Marlowe is an outspoken defender of Mexicans in the book and condemns the prejudice that they face in Anglo-dominated Los Angeles, still angry after the Zoot Suit Riots of the mid-Forties.
Chandler also hints at a kind of queer identity hidden within Marlowe. His unwavering faith in Lennox, his tendency to become involved with the same women who have been involved with Lennox, his dandyish appreciation for clothes, his impossibly clever loquaciousness, and his impatience with women all hint at a gay energy. Altman also picks up on the homoerotic qualities of gangsters and the mistrust and fear of the femme fatale from classic noir, making Chandler’s theme of closeted homosexuality more explicit. This is particularly apparent in the male stripping scene orchestrated by the violently misogynist Augustine (featuring an uncredited bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger) and in Marlowe’s total indifference to his scantily clothed neighbors. Altman seems aware of the political complexity and multiple meanings and interpretations that the original period of noir expressed. Rather than simply debunking Chandler, Altman seems far more interested in amplifying and paying homage to the themes that interest the novelist while adding his own spin.
The Long Goodbye is much more complex than a simple nullification of the Hollywood past. It is in many ways an elegiac long goodbye to the dreams and promises that Hollywood and America make but can never deliver. Altman’s desire to revise genres comes more out of an outrage at the ways in which his country disappoints him and fails to live up to its own ideals. It is impossible to be outraged by something in which you never had any faith. The Long Goodbye is through and through a film about betrayal.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015