With the recent release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, this seems like as good a time as any to re-post a review I wrote for Chris and Phil Presents last year of Robert Altman’s 1973 neo-noir The Long Goodbye which is a clear influence upon it.
not least in that the Thomas Pynchon novel upon which is based features a character modelled on Sterling Hayden who has a part in Altman’s movie that is in itself a reflection of the troubled actor’s history.
The passage of time can have strange effects on a film. The tides of fashion and ideas erode the social and cultural landscape rendering what was the present ‘then’ unrecognizable from the point of view of the present ‘now’. Usually this merely results in a film feeling dated, but sometimes the effects give a movie a new contemporary relevance.
A great example of this is Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s classic British psycho-delic thriller Performance. In this most bizarre of British gangster films in which Chas, a brutal gangland enforcer, is forced on the run and seeks shelter with a listless retired rock star and the two play a series of weird drugged-out mind games. Changing fashions in youth culture saw the two protagonists passing the cool hat between each other. The hippy rock star may have been the hero in 1970, but in 1976 the alienated, inarticulate gangster in a sharp suit with his hair painted orange became the new counter culture hero.
Altman’s movie is another example of a film whose resonance has altered and matured like a seasoned Stradivarius. Freely adapted from Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel by screenwriter Leigh Brackett – an author of science fiction novels whose screenwriting credits are astounding, including The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1956) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – the script was further updated and tinkered with by Altman. Apart from some very significant changes to Chandler’s plot, the setting was updated from 1950’s Los Angeles to then contemporary 1973. This was controversial upon the film’s release especially as hard-boiled writers such as Chandler and contemporaries like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain had undergone a sweeping critical reassessment and were no longer regarded as mere pulp novelists.
Along with Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Altman’s film is one of the great neo-noirs of the seventies. Although plot and setting are updated, Chandler’s famous detective hero Philip Marlowe is not. In fact Altman described Marlowe as a character skating over the surface of 70s L.A. like a man who has woken up from a twenty year coma, ‘Rip Van Marlowe’ was how Altman and Brackett referred to him. This allowed the director to contrast the rigid code of the most morally straight-edged of hard-boiled detectives with the venality and corruption of the seventies. Although to be fair, Chandler’s hero is a morally superior character regardless of the decade.
The plot is in typical Chandler fashion labyrinthine to the point of abstraction but unlike some of his stories (The Lady in the Lake springs to mind) it eventually pulls into perfect focus at the film’s finale. Late one night after a fruitless attempt to feed his cat (the film’s quite wonderful first ten minutes are entirely concerned with this quest) Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is interrupted by his friend Terry Lennox. Lennox is in some kind of trouble and asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, which he does no questions asked – because that’s the kind of guy Marlowe is. When the detective returns to L.A. he is picked up, questioned and detained by the LAPD. Lennox’s wife has been found murdered and Marlowe’s friend is the key suspect.
After mutually antagonizing each other the crumpled private dick is released by the police and informed Lennox has committed suicide in Mexico. Concurrently an apparent second plot begins when Marlowe is hired by a the rich wife of booze sodden novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden*) to find her errant husband. As Marlowe tracks Wade down in an expensive and vaguely fraudulent detox clinic, he discovers the Lennox’s and Wade’s knew each other and several heaped spoons of Bisto are added to the bubbling plot.
Altman was one of the key auteurs of seventies American cinema, and – as director Alan Rudolph has noted – probably the one with the keenest eye for Americana. This eye is fascinatingly employed in The Long Goodbye, an early scene finds the desolation of seventies consumerist culture under the strip lighting of a 24 hour supermarket. The photography by Zilmos Zsigmond is superb, alternating between dark night time scenes and blazing Californian sun and surf, the image is always crystal clear and beautiful. Altman and Zsigmond make a lot of reflective surfaces shooting through glass and moving focus between subject and object without reacquiring cuts. Altman also includes a number of subtle visual gags, Marlowe reads a newspaper report of his arrest that includes a mug-shot with a cigarette and his scowling visage that is a mirror image of his face at the time. This scene is followed by the plumy English trophy wife who hires him remarking that he looks ‘nothing like his picture’. He looks exactly like his picture.
Gould’s portrayal of Marlowe came in for criticism on its initial release. It is certainly true that his disheveled, mumbling Marlowe is a long way from Bogart’s interpretation, but it’s not necessarily that far from Chandler’s. The author kept specific descriptive details vague and sometimes contradictory in his novels. Forty years of distance from its release have rendered Gould’s Marlowe a more contemporary figure, even the ageing jalopy he drives taking on a more ‘vintage’ cool (rather than being the piece of old junk it probably appeared to be in the seventies). While the film is full of terrible contemporary fashions (hippy chicks in diaphanous flowing kaftans, gangsters in horrible floral print shirts) Marlowe in his rumpled dark suit and ironic US flag tie (rendered dark red by the photography) looks cutting edge. Like Chas in Performance, Marlowe evokes the counter culture to come (he could easily be mistaken for a guitar player in The Strokes).
*Not only does Hayden’s character in The Long Goodbye reflect the actor’s troubled private life, but Thomas Pynchon clearly modelled a character in the novel Inherent Vice upon him. Hayden often expressed a distaste for his own profession, served in the Marines during World War Two, reportedly joining the OSS, and most notoriously was briefly a member of the Communist Party and an informant for the House Un-American Activities Committee.