Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Long Goodbye

"The Long Goodbye" (Robert Altman, 1973) Wise-acre. Ass-hole. Cutie-pie. Philip Marlowe's called a lot of names, but in Robert Altman's version of "The Long Goodbye," he's also "The Marlboro Man, The Duke of Bullshit."

Elliott Gould's Phillip Marlowe says again and again "It's okay with me."

It was supposed to be a straight-ahead adaptation of the
Raymond Chandler novel. Leigh Brackett, who had written a lot of Howard Hawks' films (including his adaptation of Chandler's "The Big Sleep") changed the ending, added some characters and complications and Hawks was contacted to direct. Nope. Then Peter Bogdanovich, who also passed, but who mentioned Robert Altman for director. Altman loved the new ending, mentioned Elliott Gould for Marlowe and a deal was made.

And that's where the changes come in. Because the last adaptation of a Chandler Philip Marlowe story was the somewhat irrelevent "Marlowe" starring laconic James Garner in the title roll. Created deep in the 60's, that film feels old-fashioned and a bit musty (even with Bruce Lee kicking apart Marlowe's office!). But for "The Long Goodbye," Altman was going to drop Marlowe into early 70's era Los Angeles, where everybody wore caftans and bushy sideburns, were into macrobiotics, EST and pot—a post-hippie era of conspicuous consumption that had trickled down from Marlowe's beat (problems with the rich) to the exotic dancers and truck-drivers of the pre-disco era.* Marlowe and his code of honor would seem out-of-touch in such a world.

Then throw in
Elliott Gould's rat's nest interpretation of the character and you get a completely other sensibility—one begins to suspect Marlowe of being incompetent in such a world, unable to function (he can't even find his own cat), but he does, snapping to whenever some dies (or is about to). And another nice touch is Gould's mumbling patter along the way, supplying his own first-person narrative, ala Chandler.

L.A. in twilight is still the same and the supporting cast of hoods and thugs as menacing as the time the Marlowe books encapsulated (late '30's to mid-50's), but now they're more than just socially deviant, they're demonstrably sociopathic in the form of Marty Augustine (director Mark Rydell), with twisted justifications for their actions, which can sometimes be just a sadistic play of power. And that's what makes Leigh Brackett's screenplay a bit different than the tone she took away back in 1945 when she and William Faulkner adapted Chandler's "The Big Sleep" for Howard Hawks and Bogey and Bacall: there's no sense of right and wrong, it's a sense of right and wrong for "me." And Brackett allows Marlowe to make a final statement condemning that world. It's the only way that this this world...can "make it right."

There are problems—some stunt-casting—
Nina Van Pallandt (mistress of Howard Hughes scammer Clifford Irving) and Jim Bouton (former Seattle Pilot and author of "Ball Four!")—call more attention to the actors than the characters and Altman regular Henry Gibson has no steel core to speak of for his predatory doctor, but throughout, Altman and ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond bring a formal off-the-cuff look to everything in L.A., culminating in two beach shots reflected in windows that present two perspectives on conversations, while in a push-focus the audience is clued in to happenings going on at the surf's edge, one inconsequential, the other, irretrievable. It's a fine example of Altman's ability as a seamless film-maker making his movie in the camera and relying less on the unique art to film-making of editing.

Two posters/One film: Two stories
The original film-poster that confused L.A. audiences into thinking they'd be seeing a straight-ahead thriller. The film was withdrawn for six months and re-instated with the above
Jack Davis-designed "Mad" style poster for the New York run, where it was very successful.

* And in a running gag, the percolating presence of a mordant "Long Goodbye" theme (written by Johnny Mercer and John "T." Williams--two years before "Jaws") pervades everything in Los Angeles—right down to the mantras and door-bells. Good thing there weren't cell-phones back then.

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