Cine-East Film Club Presents #64: 1973, The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

by George_East on May 31, 2015

Terry Lennox: ‘Well, that’s you Marlowe. You’ll never learn. You’re a born loser’

Philip Marlowe: ‘Yeah, I even lost my cat’.

He only played the role once and the way in which he did so bore little resemblance to the character created by Raymond Chandler, but for all intents and purposes Humphrey Bogart was Philip Marlowe. That iconic wise-cracking performance in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (Cine-East Film Club Presentation #53) is one of the defining moments of the golden age of Hollywood – ice cool, razor sharp and one step ahead of the opposition. Bogart’s Marlowe not only got the girl but what a girl (in Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Routledge) – matching him innuendo for innuendo, flirt by flirt.

It would take a brave director to tackle the character again. It helped, of course, that Chandler’s last Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye, hadn’t been adapted for film despite it being published in 1953 – perhaps for the very reason that with Bogart dying in 1957, it was so hard to imagine anyone else playing the role. Yet in 1973 that is precisely what Robert Altman, then at the peak of his creative powers did – reinventing Marlowe completely in the process. It is The Long Goodbye which is this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation.

Altman’s Marlowe is so far removed from the Hawks’ Marlowe that neither the studio that produced it, United Artists, or the audience on its first release had the first idea what to make of it. Elliot Gould, cast in the role of Marlowe, was portrayed on the posters for the movie as a Bogart like figure with a cigarette in his mouth and pointing a pistol at the viewer, under the tag line ‘nothing says goodbye like a bullet’. Yet The Long Goodbye isn’t that film. Not by a long chalk. Only one bullet is fired and Gould’s Marlowe drifts through the film being more used than comprehending what is happening to him. Having stuff done to him rather than being the protagonist. He’ll figure it all out at the end but more by luck than design. Bogart he is not.

When this didn’t work, the studio tried again – this time the poster for a second launch of the film was in the style of Mad Magazine. This implied that the film was a comedy, a pisstake of the hardboiled private eye typified by Bogart’s Marlowe found in 1940s film noirs – like Our Man Flint was to the early films of the James Bond franchise perhaps?   But this was equally wrong. The Long Goodbye is not pastiche or even homage. It is not even a film riffing on Bogart’s portrayal of the famous private detective.   Rather Altman’s vision of Marlowe was of a man out of time. As Altman would have it, his Marlowe was like a man who had fallen asleep in the late 1940s only to wake up 25 years later in a world he didn’t understand. His Marlowe is the only man with an old fashioned sense of morality in a 1970s world of corruption and self-indulgence.

The Long Goodbye opens with Marlowe’s cat landing on him while he sleeps, waking him up.   Marlowe will get up and finding he is out of cat food, leave his Hollywood Hills apartment to go out and buy some cat food. He cannot find any of the brand of cat food that his cat likes and so buys another brand, when he returns to his apartment he tries to con the cat by putting the food in an empty tin of the cat’s favourite brand. The cat sniffs the food, rejects it and leaves through the cat flap.   You can’t lie to a cat. But you can lie to a person. And everyone significant will pretty much lie to Marlowe from here on in. This opening sequence tells us everything we need to know: this is a film about deceit and its consequences, and it is a film in which Marlowe’s most significant relationship is with a cat. He is the anti-Bogart.

There are no smart lines from Gould’s Marlowe, who wanders through the film mumbling to himself, repeating ‘it’s okay by me’ in a sense of bewilderment at the world around him. He is the only man in the film in a suit, the only one with a tie (which he only removes once). He drives a curvy automobile straight out of the era of The Big Sleep in an LA full of square shaped cars. This is part of Altman’s genius, whilst he reimagines Marlowe in the 1970s, the man himself and his mindset is of an earlier decade.

The plot, as is typical of Chandler, is convoluted (though not quite to the level of The Big Sleep which Chandler himself famously said he didn’t understand the plot). It involves the wife of Marlowe’s best friend, Terry Lennox, being murdered, an alcoholic Hemingway-esque novelist suffering from writers block whose wife hires Marlowe to find when he temporarily disappears, a half-crazed Jewish mobster, Marty Augustine and a missing $350,000 of mob money and a quack-new age hippy clinic run by a somewhat sinister doctor. But as with The Big Sleep the plot is not really the point. This is a film of mood and atmosphere.

Altman, aided by extraordinary cinematography from Hungarian master, Vilmos Zsigmond (whose credits also include Deliverance, The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as the great revisionist western McCabe and Mrs Miller for Altman), creates a 1970s LA in hock to the mob and seeped in corruption (in that sense it makes a great companion piece to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown). Altman’s LA is a city in which no one can be trusted (except a cat and Marlowe). Shot in pastel hews and muted contrast, the film feels like we are observing what is going on from a distance, with a constantly moving camera and employing camera angles where the key things going on are not always front and centre.   Like Marlowe the effect is to distance us as the audience and make us feel like we are only semi-welcome voyeurs.

Running throughout the film and virtually the only music we hear is a single superb song, written by John Williams and sharing the movie’s title. It sounds like a song that has (like Marlowe’s car and sense of morality) come straight out of the romanticised 1940s world of film noir. The song is heard again and again in different versions, from a classic lounge jazz number through a mariachi band in Mexico to even the notes of a doorbell. The song is a glue which helps set the mood of the film: it is a tune that can be imagined permanently to play in Marlowe’s head.

Featuring probably Elliot Gould’s career best performance, a stunning late career turn by (another of my Dad’s favourites) the legendary Sterling Hayden (himself of course a noir icon from his starring roles in films like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing) as novelist, Roger Wade, and a wonderfully unhinged turn from Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine, The Long Goodbye makes compelling viewing.     It also has superb production design from Marlowe’s incredible Hollywood Hills penthouse apartment accessed from an external lift, to Roger Wade’s opulent Malibu colony beach house (which was Altman’s house at the time) to the Mexican village setting of the shocking ending.

The most extraordinary thing of all though given how different they are is that The Long Goodbye shares with The Big Sleep the same screenwriter in Leigh Bracket – a woman who was clearly capable of imagining very different Marlowes.

The Long Goodbye’s only real weakness is Marlowe’s neighbours – a group of young women with a penchant for topless yoga on their balconies.   That is all a little too early 1970s in its implausibility and indulgence of male fantasy.

But this minor complaint cannot detract from what is a masterpiece and another example of why Hollywood in the early to mid 1970s (before the infantilisation of Jaws and Star Wars) can stand against any other national cinema at any time in the history of film – indeed it is right up there with Hollywood in it greatest decade of all: the decade of Bogart and Hawks: the 1940s.

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