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A private eye with a private elevator.


The Long Goodbye


The Long Goodbye is a goddamn tragedy. I mean to say, what could be worse, more tragic, more wretchedly soul-destroying, than having your beloved pet puss up and leave you after a dispute over the favoured brand of cat food? While Marlowe’s friend lying to him and using him is arguably the most cause-and-effect explanation for the former shooting the latter at the end, it’s the existential void the departing feline leaves that is surely the true root. When something like that happens, there’s simply no meaning to be had anymore.

Robert Altman’s film might thus be interpreted at yet another case of Hollywood maligning the moggy, although it is, at least, small compensation that Marlowe himself is a cat lover, duly receiving no end of untoward advances from those of a canine persuasion throughout (or being ignored by them, as in the case of “Asta”) – as Alan Rudolph characterised the movie, it’s “A man looking for a cat in a dog eat dog world”.

That entire opening sequence – Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is woken at 3am by his hungry kitty  (played by Morris), serves it some makeshift food it won’t eat, treks to the supermarket and fails to buy his pet’s favoured Coury’s brand, returns home and goes to elaborate lengths of stuffing the new cat food into an old can and pretending to open it anew before his cherished flatmate, only for the affronted feline to exit, permanently it seems, in favour of someone who will treat him with due respect – is absolutely blissful.

It’s an effective taster for the picture as a whole, less rambling than sidelong in its attention to the idea of a detective-solving-a-mystery tale. There isn’t really much detecting on Marlowe’s part, and as has been pointed out, he’s frequently just plain wrong (not least in his guiding averment, that he doesn’t believe his pal Terry could kill his wife). Elliot Gould’s dishevelled, “Rip Van Marlowe” (as Altman coined him) is a delight, but he isn’t going to please fans of Chandler, less still his Dirty Harry justice at the conclusion. 

Both Ebert – “It tries to be all genre and no story, and it almost works… it just takes all the characters out of that novel and lets them stew together in something that feels like a private-eye movie” – and Kael – “He underplays the plot and concentrates on the people, so it’s almost all of equal interest” – drew attention to the diminution of the principle component of detective fiction. Kael had more than six months longer than Ebert to formulate her argument for the picture’s triumphs, of course; it had been generally less than favourably received in LA, and by the time it arrived in New York in late 1973, the amusing shambolic Mad-magazine poster had been formulated to combat the generic yet unrepresentative Gould-with-gun poster (“It seems unbelievable that people who looked at this picture could have given it the reviews they did”). 

Kael presented a more joined-up account of Altman determining that critics didn’t like Gould’s Marlowe because they associated Marlowe with Bogart’s incarnation: “People still want to believe that Galahad is alive and well in Los Angeles”. Since that’s the principle of Chandler’s character, someone who was out of time in morality even in the ’40s, the central tenet of corrupting the character is absolutely fair game for criticism; you shouldn’t mock or deride such impulses, and you should be extra careful about breaching that iconography in classic characters (a riff like The Long Goodbye is fine, but if you muddy a franchise, you run the risk of forever besmirching the brand). I’m easy with it, but probably only because I don’t cherish the character. And even being in that (Leigh) bracket, I can readily attest that the ending is shocking. The line Marlowe gives is funny, along with his carefree dance down the street, but the act is askance with the knocked-down act Gould has given Marlowe. This, as suggested, is what losing a cat will do to you.

Brackett noted that the novel itself had seen a shift in Marlowe reflecting Chandler’s disillusionment, with endless pages devoted to “how rotten the world was and how rotten everybody in it was”. She didn’t hold that Marlowe was a fool, even though Kael quotes Chandler saying “and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish”. Gould’s Marlowe is an “innocent man… decent man… honest man. He’s the honest man who always gets screwed because he believes everybody else is honest, and he trusts his friends, and he go taken for a ride, and he got mad”. He’s a “pushover” (Kael) until he isn’t, in a scene she compares to Harry Lime in The Third Man. 

Brad Stevens notes the scene was “singled out for criticism by those who believed Altman was expressing his contempt for the heroic ideals Marlowe represented”, but he had a curious take that the character swaps identity with the bandaged man on the hospital bed – the Mummy: “I’ve seen all your pictures too” – and “becomes indistinguishable from the psychotic Marty Augustine”. 

Which is an extreme take, but the extra-diegetic sense IS feeding into a disillusioned conclusion, in a film which is (self) consciously bleeding soundtrack cues in a look-at-me fashion (John Williams score song appears as everything from lounge act to muzak to funeral march). Brackett approved of the film, albeit recognised certain reservations: her “What in the… is going on there?” with Gould’s dance. Altman’s attitude was that “the whole thing is farce, so you play it off as a joke”, which is going that one step further in deconstructing the form. Altman sounds a bit glib there, since he isn’t breaking the essential mood or interiority of the piece, and the thematic content, writ large when discussed, is as immersed as every other element when played out in Altman-esque style. But then, The Long Goodbye is undoubtedly a quirky, unusual piece that only seems less so now because the 1970s produced so many movies that allows it to fit right in. 

Indeed, you take in Vilmos Zsigmond’s “hazy, pastel look” cinematography, achieved through risky “post flashing” and you wonder if a movie ever looked more ’70s. However, the approach was dictated by a wish to give the picture a nostalgic texture (a tec out of time). Altman, who agreed to make it for Gould and because “I love that ending”, called the film “a satire in melancholy”. Donald Sutherland told Gould “It’s a very moral picture” when he saw it. But is it Altman simply tearing down the aspirant? The idealised figure? Because it fits in seamlessly with the decade’s impulse, the puncturing of the dream, of the stretch for something better, engineered to burst and then leading, as the tide went out, to building extravagant materialism on the sand.

Altman noted it was made at “a very weird time… glazed in a haze of pot smoke”, which is where you get the limber ladies doing yoga and making hash brownies just across the way from Marlowe. Marlowe’s hauled in by police and does an Al Johnson impression (M*A*S*H irreverence). Gangster Marty Augustine was fleshed out considerably by Mark Rydell – the coke bottle and clothes removal weren’t in Brackett’s script – and he becomes both absurd and uncomfortably hyper-realistic (annoyed at not being able to observe Shabbas, telling Marlowe how he was slow to develop pubic hair). Brackett took issue with the coke bottle, which, she believed, would not have shattered but instead simply splatted its victim’s face. She also said of Kael’s “when you hear the improvised dialogue, you can’t take this credit seriously”, “Most of that ‘improvised dialogue’, two-thirds of it, came right out of my typewriter!

The picture is immensely enjoyable to inhabit; you could follow Marlowe bumbling around for hours. You can see something similar in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski, but the much pricklier Paul Thomas Anderson couldn’t pull the same trick off with Inherent Vice (you’re just alienated from everything, even though I enjoyed the movie for what it is). The drinking scene with Sterling Hayden’s voluminously bearded Roger Wade (“Caraway seeds?”) Being tailed by one of Marty’s goons (“Harvey, I’m proud to have you following me”). The oddball casting throughout entirely pays off: Nina van Pallandt, Rydell, David Arkin. Henry Gibson is an absolute blast as “the albino turd himself” Dr Verringer, who won’t take any of Wade’s shit, confronting him at a party, slapping him and commanding “Write the cheque, Roger” repeatedly, remorselessly, until Wade complies. Arnie “cameos” in his undies. David Carradine is Socrates in a police cell. 

There was a deleted scene with Steve McQueen as Sam Spade, which might have seemed a little too cute. But you never know. As much as Altman can leave me cold (I’ve never “got” Nashville) his approach, particularly during the decade post-M*A*S*H, was liable to yield some quite remarkable approaches to genre, simply through being suffused through his vision. The Long Goodbye might even be his best film. Whether or not it’s a good Marlowe one, I’ll leave to the purists.

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