[The following is a belated Blind Spots entry.]
The precision of Raymond Chandler’s prose is rendered almost sleepily in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, trading the laconic for the lethargic. “Rip van Winkle” is what the filmmaker termed his version of Chandler’s most iconic creation in reference to how Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is a 1953 detective carrying on according to his period as he roams the radically different America of 1973, yet the sobriquet could equally apply to how punch-drunk, confused and tired Gould plays the part. Chandler’s books may have been mysteries, but like the best of pulp fiction they were intensely focused. The Long Goodbye, on the other hand, ambles along in confusion, puncturing Marlowe’s hard-boiled competence as both the narrative and even the cinematography seem unable to focus on anything, much less the task at hand.
Classic noir is aesthetically rooted in chiaroscuro, of course, but the shadows that fall over the foreground of Altman’s film transcend moral shading for downright incomprehension. Faces and figures are not silhouetted but swallowed whole in a blanket of soft-focus murk, and colors have been faded into anachronistic pastels that look as out of place among the post-hippies with whom Marlowe comes into contact as the detective himself. Vilmos Zsigmond previously put forward a hazy world reminiscent of an early, candlelit photograph for Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and with The Long Goodbye he captures not the aesthetic value of a moment in time but that of a mental state, a fog of doubt that clears only when the worst has already happened. As Roger Ebert astutely noted in his Great Movies entry on the film, it is only after a major character commits suicide that the frame sharpens, Marlowe’s head at last given something to fixate on to direct his wandering.
That roaming is hammered home by Altman’s camera, which was not yet at the apex of its drifting elegance (that would be attained three films later with Nashville) but was rapidly approaching it. The opening sequence, in which the camera follows Marlowe around his apartment, and then outside it, as he contends with a cat that turns its nose up at everything it is offered, including the “wrong” brand of cat food, illustrates this beautifully, animating the befuddlement that lies under Gould’s sardonic exterior. The camera, panning, tracking and zooming after Marlowe as he grouses about, then submits to his feline companion—not even his own pet, as he loves to remind people—emphasizes how little sense of direction he has, and his laconic speech comes to resemble less the taciturn allowances of a man in total moral control than the only thing this bumbling, repressed klutz can keep straight and to the point.
The film wastes no time in getting to the plot setup—Marlowe, having just dropped off his friend, Terry Lennox, in Tijuana, returns to town to find himself wanted for the murder of Terry’s wife, a case he tracks through strange and perilous alleyways to solve one his own name is cleared—yet narrative order is as indeterminate here as in The Big Sleep, whose co-writer, Leigh Brackett, also penned the screenplay for this film. Set off in search of the true killer, Marlowe is almost instantly diverted, first by Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a Hemingway-esque writer stewing in alcoholic torpor, and his suffering wife Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt), whose open resentment of her declining sot of a husband raises even more suspicions than Roger’s vague connection to the Lennoxes. Then there’s Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), a vicious gangster who has so many outstanding debts owed him that when he accosts Marlowe for his connection to Roger, he may do so simply because he assumes that Marlowe is just one other person who has an IOU to pay. Run-ins with these characters only take Marlowe farther away from the trail he thinks he has on the killer, leading to sequences so distended and disorienting that even when the characters’ relevance is made (relatively) clear, one cannot trust that their revealed connection to the case is true.
No, The Long Goodbye does not excel for its narrative drive but for the manner in which Altman uses the setup to undermine the noir genre. In keeping Marlowe, written by Chandler as invulnerable to the moral and sexual foibles that could ensnare other hard-boiled PIs, rooted in the ‘50s as the world around him is of the present, the film mercilessly pits the morally upright (and uptight) man across the way from a gaggle of young women who practice nude yoga out in the open, a sight that makes Gould activate his sarcasm as a defense mechanism but also shades a mild sense of bewilderment at the women.
Less amusing are the dips into violence which are new insertions designed to draw out the reality of Marlow’s predicaments. In one of the most revolting, stunning acts of violence I’ve ever seen in a movie, Augustine smashes a coke bottle across his mistress’ face just to intimidate Marlowe. “That’s someone I love,” he snarls. “You, I don’t even like.” As likable as Gould is in the performance, with his abashed, mumbled delivery, this moment tears down his sense of disconnect from the world around him, grinding glass into a woman’s face to rub into Marlowe’s own that however much he thinks himself above what he investigates, his actions have dire consequences. The finale is a massive departure for Marlowe as he was written, but it is an act of despair by a man cognizant of the fact that he no longer meets his ideals, and he reacts horrifically toward those he holds responsible for pushing him to this point.
Above all, The Long Goodbye’s vision of a modern Los Angeles is one thoroughly postmodernized by its tangential relationship to Hollywood. A security guard does impressions of James Stewart and Walter Brennan, and Tinseltown’s business practices in general give the L.A. outskirts an allegorical vibe as much as they would Nashville’s commercial country scene. James Ellroy infamously regards Chandler as an inferior writer, but if the author’s written Long Goodbye were more a reflection of what Altman does with the material, Ellroy might have had to admit a clear influence for his own oeuvre of Hollywood-infused pulp narratives. Yet if so many characters embody some aspect of conventional moviemaking, it’s no wonder that a maverick like Altman refuses to let any of them clarify anything, instead constantly roving among them, preventing a real picture of forming until one emerges and makes everyone look so garish all of a sudden, so awfully unreal in the faces they put on for one another as the camera darts between them until a truth is pieced together from slivers. As vexing as it can be to follow along this circuitous journey, it soon becomes intoxicating, and all one can do is sit back and enjoy a detective slouching his way toward epiphany.