Chandler/Marlowe and Altman/Gould marry up for a classic masterwork
Robert Altman's cult classic 70s adaptation of arguably author Raymond Chandler's best novel, The Long Goodbye, is an underrated and oftentimes underappreciated work of art from the late, great auteur.Altman suffered heavy criticism for his updating of the classic Marlowe tale to a modern day setting, regardless of the fact that, in spite of the contemporary LA landscape, his interpretation of the famous private detective - as played to perfection by the equally underappreciated Elliott Gould - was probably more faithful than anything even the great Humphrey Bogart brought to the table before, or that Robert Mitchum would bring in the years since.
Budgetary restrictions would actually dictate this change from a period setting, but Altman - working closely with screenwriter Leigh Brackett, co-scripter of The Empire Strikes Back, who had previously done a more straightforward adaptation of Chandler's The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks (and Bogart) some three decades earlier - saw it as a positive step, and one which only suited the material.Being the penultimate book in Chandler's bibliography, by that stage the author was at his most cynical and world-weary, and this was reflected in his depiction of an out-of-time gumshoe whose morals and principles belonged to a time long passed, and whose journey through a corrupt, relentlessly unforgiving 50s LA landscape was a bleak character study of human nature and steady self-realisation.
Altman felt that 70s LA was equally infested; political mistrust and governmental oppression were rife, and putting an out-of-time Marlowe into this environment - where everybody was, at best, out for themselves and, at worst, outright duplicitous - would be even more relevant and apt for the character. He was right.
“Nobody cares but me.”
“Well that's you, Marlowe. You'll never learn, you're a born loser.”
The movie starts with a shot of a sleeping Marlowe woken by his hungry cat. He then sets about trying, unsuccessfully, to satiate the cat's appetite. And then the cat leaves his flat. Altman summed up the entire film with this short introduction, symbolically showing how Marlowe's above-and-beyond loyalty would be unappreciated, unreciprocated and, ultimately, betrayed.
It further introduced us to his out-of-time character - a detective who Altman wanted to posit as having woken as if from a decades-long slumber, into a new age, and unable to comprehend the inadequacy of his traditional values and unerring principles in this new environment. He still drives a 1948 car, is noticeably the only character who practically chain-smokes throughout the piece, and he makes it abundantly clear that health food does not agree with him. And yoga? He knows what it looks like because the free-wheeling group of girls living opposite him practise it regularly - with or without clothes - but he has no idea, or interest, in what it is supposed to achieve. He's a dinosaur, at odds with the changing times and new LA landscape, out in the cold with nobody who appreciates - let alone returns - his loyalty and old-school values.
Hell, he doesn't even have anybody to talk to; nobody is listening - sure, he still cracks wise, but his jokes often devolve into inner monologue mumbles and, when they do get heard, frequently only get him into trouble. And so he spends the majority of his time alone, talking to himself, and casually repeating what soon becomes his seemingly self-assuring catch-phrase "It's ok with me", even when it blatantly isn't.
Elliott Gould turns in arguably a career-defining performance as Marlowe, not just distancing himself from all previous (and subsequent) interpretations of the character, but redefining him in such a way as to make everybody else feel inadequate in the role; as if the likes of Bogart and Mitchum (who was originally first choice for this film) were unable to grasp the difference between playing the detective as a pure pulp fiction character, and as a conceivably real-life personality. In that sense the Gould/Altman Marlowe achieved what nobody else would be able to pull off, before or since, and that was what author Raymond Chandler had strived for throughout his entire career: to break free of the constraints of his chosen pulp fiction genre.
Chandler would have been proud of this adaptation.
We follow Gould's Marlowe as he gets caught up in dual investigations: initially his best friend Terry Lennox asks him for a favour, and, not long after, Marlowe is informed that Lennox has not only committed suicide, but that he also killed his own wife first. Marlowe doesn't believe that either statement is true. The second investigation involves the disappearance of a grizzly, alcoholic author, Roger Wade, whose beautiful blonde wife is concerned about her volatile husband. Of course the two threads slowly blend together, in typical Chandler style, and, as hungry but ignorant police detectives close in, and a psychotic mob boss (who Lennox stole money from) puts the squeeze on him, it's up to Marlowe to get to the bottom of it all.
Altman's character study, complete with its underlying socio-political commentary and true dissection of human nature, is not only a masterpiece of authentic storytelling and refined script-work, but is also a technical wonder. One of those great, quintessential 70s classics - like Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The French Connection and, perhaps most comparably, Chinatown - only, unlike its counterparts, seldom celebrated as universally.The Long Goodbye is the kind of movie they get film students to study in order to learn what great filmmaking is all about. Altman, similarly, may not be quite as obviously celebrated as some of his counterparts, but his films - to those who have investigated them - display the kind of technical mastery that you could easily call 'Kubrickian'.
With world renowned cinematography from legendary, Academy Award-winning director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond - the man who lensed Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate; DePalma's Blow Out and John Boorman's Deliverance - Altman adopted a perpetually-moving style of filming which made you feel very much a part of the proceedings. The camera never stops, and often does not follow the characters in sight, drifting to the left or right as if you're watching the events unfold and your gaze has drifted onto something else happening in the peripherals. Whilst the idea of keeping the camera moving has since become popular, not just in movies but also TV, Altman's unique take on it makes you truly feel involved in the piece.
Altman displays a Kubrickian level of technical mastery.
Just like DePalma's trademark dioptic dual-focus shots, where two characters, at different distances, are brought into focus at the same time, Altman had his own trademarks and, beyond the perpetually rolling camera, he loved his reflections, frequently playing out two scenes at the same time through the use of reflections. We watch - and hear - the argument between Mr and Mrs Wade through the window front of their beachfront property but, in the reflection we see - and hear - the crashing waves behind Marlowe, who is kicking the sand on the beach. It's all about illusion and deception, the false veneer put up for everybody else to see from the outside, and Altman uses the technique wonderfully.
Zsigmond would, of course, have to handle the difficulties which arose from Altman's chosen style - most overtly the lighting issues raised through having a perpetually-moving camera - but he would deal with it through a technique that ended up giving the film a tremendous, inimitable look: flashing the negative prior to development in order to give the image a very natural, true-to-the-human-eye look. As the movie closes, the controversial shock ending - which Altman stipulated in his contract could not be changed by the Studios - takes on a pastel landscape look, almost like something out of a book of fairytales, and this was also due to Zsigmond's particular processing techniques. It's a wondrous, mystical, mythical shot.
For the score, Altman would decide to repeat John William's tremendous 'Long Goodbye'' title track repeatedly throughout the piece, only never in the same way - he has it played in a jazzed-up style, as Muzak in a supermarket, on the radio, by a jazz band at a funeral procession, or even as a doorbell ring - and his powerful blend of diegetic and non-diegetic variations further draw you into the piece, whilst also reflecting the tone of the scenes, the intentions of the characters and their personalities: Marlowe's is an old-fashioned variant whereas Lennox's is as jazzy and modern as his sports car.
A powerful supporting contribution from heavyweight Sterling Hayden (playing an alchoholic, disillusioned and self-destructive writer who was a not-so-thinly-veiled autobiographical version of Chandler himself) would bolster what was a largely unknown, but perfectly-chosen, cast: this was Nina Van Pallandt's first English-language movie and she nails the seemingly earnest and ostensibly vulnerable Eileen Wade; this was also director Mark Ryder's first on-screen appearance in years, but he channels Polanski as the psychotic mob boss (who can forget the shocking coke bottle scene?); and Major League Baseball player Jim Bouton's film debut, as Marlowe's best friend, Terry Lennox. Each and every supporting part, however big or small, contributed to the whole, even if, at the centre of it all was Gould's inimitable career-high performance as Marlowe, driving the whole piece with his mumbling, dishevelled, and simply unique take on the famous gumshoe.
Of course mismarketing would damage its opening night credibility, with frustrated, confused audiences wondering what happened to the Bond-style thriller depicted in the original theatrical poster. Thankfully the years since have been far kinder, with critics re-appraising the feature as the gem that it truly is, and Altman and Gould even planning a reunion sequel called It's Always Now, based on another Chandler/Marlowe novel, The Curtain. Unfortunately Altman's death would stop this project dead in its tracks, despite the script in place. Still, it would likely be impossible to capture the magic that was The Long Goodbye once again.
Indeed, now is the perfect time to (re-)discover this masterpiece.
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