Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

The Long Goodbye is a 1973 noir film Directed by Robert Altman. It's based on Raymond Chandler's sixth book, and follows private detective Philip Marlowe (played here by Elliott Gould), one of the most famous characters in the detective/crime/mystery genre(s).

After B&W mostly became a thing of the past, aside from the occasional art film, noir lost much of its moody, often clinical, darkness and pools of shadow, much of the work inside the studio. The newer wave of colored noir films were much seedier, often eschewing the studios for the unfettered grime and bedlam of location shooting—the streets lined with trash and graffiti, the people often not as well dressed (save for gangsters and pimps in cheap suits, and the occasional upper class urbanites), drugs were just part and parcel of the urban environment.

Whereas the older black and white noirs were often just a momentary lapse into a darker world, with a clear juxtaposition of the two, the colored noirs of the 70s and onwards seemed steeped in cynicism—an individualistic, consumer-minded low-trust society.

At the least, The Long Goodbye is mostly beautiful to look at—thanks largely to the keen eye of Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the great American (well, that's where he did most of his gigs, anyway) cinematographers. There's a visual beauty to this film that's lacking in most color noirs. There's still a dreariness to the surroundings, specifically the city, and it gets even worse in Mexico (of course).

I'm not terribly familiar with Marlowe as a character, with the exception of reading The Big Sleep and watching the film adaptation, but Bogart was definitely a better representation of the character than Elliott Gould. This seems to be a different character, one envisioned by Altman.

The character really does seem a bit like a loser (even being called as much by the end and agreeing with the epithet)—kind of in the laid back, wisecracking way of stoner characters found in films since the 1960s, and a more modern equivalent might be Pynchon's Inherent Vice (or Anderson's adaptation).  His humor is on the drier side;  he mumbles many of his lines, seemingly to himself when the person whom he was originally talking to can't possibly hear him; he dresses well enough but seems like a slob, anyway, what with his posture and unshaven face; and he chain smokes like crazy, lighting a cigarette almost ever scene, smoke always filling the frame much of the time. Hipsters of today would probably find something compelling in this iteration of Marlowe. That pretty much completes the character of Marlowe in this movie.

Some scenes feel a little pointless, and the same could be said about certain segments of dialogue. It opens with Marlowe on a unfruitful quest to feed his cat. It easily could have been cut out. However, the intention was probably to humanize Marlowe a bit—make his everyday existence mundane like the average viewer of the movie. To show how banal and empty his existence is.

It's the 1970s. Plenty of hippies around at that time. Strangely Marlowe lives right next to a gaggle of women who constantly giggle and are high on drugs, presenting topless, and performing yoga maneuvers. It's part of the humor, and often commented on by Marlowe's guests. They are annoying, but they give a feel for the zeitgeist of that period. Toward the end of the film, the girls are more incoherent than ever and Marlowe fails to communicate with them. They don't even recognize he's there. It shows a big generational gap compared to Marlowe's origins—when the character was first used in the late 1930s.

Along the way is a side story about his cat. He makes several attempts to find it and even seeks help from the hippie chicks, uselessly. He never finds the cat during the film, and is completely alone by the end.

One thing I definitely noticed when watching, which is also referenced on wikipedia (referenced from a book):
Altman and Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. Altman wanted Marlowe to be a loser. He even nicknamed Gould's character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been asleep for 20 years, had woken up, and was wandering around Los Angeles in the early 1970s but "trying to invoke the morals of a previous era".
This made sense because of how much this modern (at the time) era would clash with Chandler's character of Marlowe. However, it didn't feel as if the "Rip Van Marlowe" idea truly came through. It seemed like Marlowe fit in well enough with the era, but there was a vestige of that former era that was building up like a slow fire, and at its hottest by the final confrontational scene.

The story itself isn't too exciting: Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), a friend, drives to Marlowe's apartment around the time he gets back with the cat food. In the scene where Terry is introduced in profile, and he's presented as clean and without any wounds. In his second scene, the other side is revealed with several cuts, dragged along his face like claws or the nails of a hand. Terry is in trouble with someone and Marlowe drives him to Tijuana. Marlowe gets taken to jail by some cops who think he might know something about the murder of Sylvia Lennox and where Paul Lennox is. He refuses to tell them anything and is in jail for three days before being released. It's referred to as an honorable act a few times in the movie, since he didn't snitch on his friend. Paul is declared dead by suicide.

From there Marlowe is hired by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her husband, an author, named Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) is introduced as a minor character to whom Roger Wade owes money. Meanwhile, a gangster is looking to find Paul and the money he owes him.

Bit by bit much of what we learn turns out to be lies and Marlowe slowly unravels the case. Even as he finds more clues, the police are uninterested in reopening the Lennox case. When he heads back to Mexico, he has to bribe the police to get the final piece of information to solve the case.

The interesting thing about it all is that Marlowe's PI business is struggling, and it doesn't appear he even broke even or made enough money for it to all be worth it. Eileen must have paid him, yet not nearly enough for the trouble he's been through. But he ends up giving the $5,000 dollar bill as a bribe. It becomes, by the end, not about money. It's honor and tradition which seems to propel Marlowe on his course.

Many people who are Chandler fans don't like the ending and think of his actions as being out of character. They probably are right (It's best to think of this movie as an Altman film that was inspired by Chandler's book—not a faithful adaptation of Chandler). But all the same, the ending packs a punch and makes the viewing worthwhile. It's difficult to explain without spoiling it. Marlowe acts as a vigilante, bringing justice when the law refuses to budge. In a movie inhabited by corrupt and ineffectual cops, damaged and adulterous men and women, gangsters, listless hippie chicks, and murderers, his honor-bound actions seem revolutionary and anachronistic.

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