[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
Brought to film, such bleak but potent pilgrimages often turn blackly humorous, with the strongest emphasis placed on the private eye’s unflappable interaction with the colorfully eccentric denizens of his underworld. Frequently, the goal of ultimate clarification is lost or subsumed in the cinema’s appreciation of individual scenes of visual and verbal perversity, the mythic ability of the hero to hold his own against impossibly evil and urbane villains, glamorously shifty heroines, and of course the pantheon of lesser but equally quirky opponents. What really matters in The Maltese Falcon (after Dashiell Hammett) is character, confrontation, and environment—Bogart at wisecracking, obfuscating odds with Greenstreet, Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., and Mary Astor as the endlessly elusive Brigid O’Shaughnessy—not so much the drive to discover that which will set this world in order, or at least momentary perspective But still the black bird exists, with all of its long history of murder and multiple theft, the primum mobile of the tangled plot. In The Big Sleep (out of Chandler) plot is almost totally subservient to character and atmosphere, the object of the pilgrimage/solution to the case much less important than the tortured convolutions of the itinerary, and Marlowe’s exotic fellow-travelers.
The film noir of the Forties pretty much turns the quest business into a Kafkaesque endeavor. Although the private eye or his amateur surrogate may eventually unearth the rationale for previously incomprehensible events and behavior, he rarely sets the world in order, or in any kind of moral or metaphysical perspective. The world of the film noir is permanently unreliable, whether caught in harsh sunlight or, more frequently, in the distorting or obscuring shadows and darkness of its night zones. The urban web becomes an inescapable trap with no exit—except betrayal or death. The private eye takes on more and more of the characteristics of the modern existential hero, his environment a wasteland devoid of ultimate meaning, blanketed by the foetid air of gratuitous guilt and menace, his only armor the maintenance of his own personal parameters—whether for good or ill. In a late film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is as much a rat as anyone else in the slimy environment, but better at it—so much better, in fact, that after a series of violent murders and brutal betrayals it is he who ends up with the prize. And the prize blows up in his (and our) face, a nuclear holocaust that puts a period to noir paranoia and begins an era racked by another kind of suspicion: the fear of communism and nuclear warfare. How far from film noir to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Ah, that’s a whole other story….
Recently, the private-eye movies—some of which could be categorized as film noir, others not—have been replaced by another breed of crime drama. Marlowe and Spade have given way to tough cops whose aggressively independent behavior, usually at cross-purposes with their own departments’ modus operandi, marks them as descendants of some branch of private dickdom: thus, Coogan’s Bluff, Bullitt, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Magnum Force, and the less savory Badge 373 and The Stone Killer. Whereas a fatalistic pessimism characterized the film noir, a kind of institutionalized cynicism pervades these contemporary policiers. Instead of an oppressive sense of disorder and uncontained corruption, these modern cops combat a bureaucratized and impersonal criminality, as well as the pressures of a society which frequently seems to have lost sight of all but the gravest shades of ethics and morality. If the world of the film noir reeks with the odor of spiritual and moral decay, current films fail to create any really metaphysical contrast between good and evil: bad guys are in business like everyone else; crime is no worse, perhaps better, than “respectable” ways of making a living. In The Godfather the Cosa Nostra comes off as just another form of American big business, with the added attraction of retaining its ethnic identity and independence. As for villains, compare the rich and varied decadence of a Sydney Greenstreet, a Peter Lorre, the archetypally devious amorality of a Dan Duryea or a Ralph Meeker, with the blank-faced, computer-voiced, unbelievably colorless Watergate conspirators. Or with the rightwing organizers of JFK’s assassination in Executive Action, who dispassionately discuss and plan the crime of the century as though they were dealing with the mechanics of a large-scale merger.
When the old private-eye types cracked wise at cop and crook alike, spitting into the very face of evil and pulling all the missing links together so that that evil made a kind of sense in the great scheme of things, maybe even got exorcized for awhile, they satisfied the audience in some basic way. Whatever constituted the sociological roots of film noir—all the ramifications of postwar disillusionment certainly played a large part—a rotten kind of romanticism made these films vital, foredoomed or not, expeditions into the dark night of the soul. Modern cynicism admits of no pilgrimages or expeditions, let alone myths. What it does require—indeed, demands—is periodic release from its own straitjacketing impotence. We need antiheroes like Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan to go off like bombs in the face of the status quo, to move in violently straight lines when everyone else—ourselves included—remains endlessly locked into circuitous qualifications and doubts. It’s not just a matter of guns, of richly deserved executions that might have been eluded on legal technicalities; the guns are frequently symbols—more than phallic—of our wished-for freedom from too much complexity, maybe even from moral or ethical responsibilities seemingly impossible to fulfill. Weapons establish territory, and territory, ground on which to take a literal or figurative stand, is hard to come by nowadays. Even if you can get it, it’s likely to turn into quicksand under your feet. Consider Magnum Force, sequel to Dirty Harry (in which Harry Callahan battled an uncommonly effective representative of urban evil despite the hamstringing of weak-kneed and fainthearted city hall liberals). In this latest film, Harry discovers a squad of crack Nam vets turned cops who are methodically executing underworld luminaries. Does Harry (do we) have a leg to stand on? No one needed a judge and jury in the war against communism—why drag them into the war against crime? (The film opens with a crimelord, of whose guilt there cannot be the slightest doubt, exiting from yet another trial in which he has been acquitted, flaunting the impotence of the courts in the very teeth of an enraged public.) Callahan has a rep for bringing them in more dead than alive—why not just bypass the bringing them in altogether? Director Ted Post makes it easy for us: the vets like killing too much; worse yet, they start shooting other cops. But the moral queasiness isn’t that easily quelled. (It should be noted that the drift of the discussion is thematically oriented; I am not in this context taking time to compare the relative artistic merits of Don Siegel and Ted Post, filmmakers who are worlds apart in terms of directorial ability.)
The automobile, motorcycle, or motorboat chases which have become (in most cases) stultifyingly de rigueur in post-Bullitt films constitute another form of explosive release from the generalized feeling of impotence and paralysis. In the best of these—Hackman’s frenzied pursuit of Frog No. 2 in The French Connection, for instance—physical frustration with actual obstacles, urban traffic, is intensified by Popeye’s overall frustration with his case, his department, the inertia and resistiveness of his whole milieu. Above him in the elevated train, the object of the chase moves in a straight line, relatively unhampered, while Popeye must make split-second judgments to avoid running down the innocent in pursuit of the guilty. A visually effective metaphor in the hands of a director like William Friedkin, but in other, more derivative films, the chase becomes merely a kind of tantrum, sloppily choreographed, without explosive resonance. The frantic quality of the destruction derbies in Live and Let Die, Lady Ice, The Stone Killer, Magnum Force is primarily puerile, superficial in motivation, execution, and resolution. The private eye’s pilgrimage has become at worst a traffic jam, at best a chase, spasmodic, destructive, ultimately fruitless. Popeye’s heroin syndicate is never really put out of business, Harry’s indecisively liberal mayor (in Dirty Harry) merely flips the moral coin and becomes (in Magnum Force) a chief of detectives who heads a death squad religiously devoted to expunging criminal heresy. Business as usual.
On the other side of the fence, the crooks act out their own brand of rebellion against the conglomerates that threaten individual autonomy—whether it’s police, big business, or even the Mafia. Bonnie and Clyde countered the wasting despair of Depression life by robbing banks; Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown combats the creeping ennui and anonymity of his own financial success by robbing banks, tilting with cops and insurance investigators; Dillinger (Warren Oates) carries on a personalized, almost affectionate, vendetta with the FBI; Ryan O’Neal (The Thief Who Came to Dinner) morally overwhelms insurance investigator Warren Oates with the theory that his thefts are no more—in fact, much less, because they are romantic, daringly individualized acts—culpable than the everyday larceny society condones and accepts. In Charley Varrick, Don Siegel calls his smalltime bankrobber “the last of the independents” and pits him (successfully) against both the cops and the Mafia, although paradoxically Varrick must become a “dead” man in order to survive.
The few films in the last six or seven years that fall within the actual purlieus of the private-eye tradition—Harper, Gumshoe, Hickey and Boggs, Shamus—are for the most part modern variations on the old themes. Harper came closest to the old school, when Paul Newman was ushered into Lauren Bacall’s sunlamped and crippled presence, one was inevitably reminded of General Sternwood brooding spider-like among his orchids, worrying about his daughter’s “corrupt blood.” The genealogy is legitimate, for Harper was an adaptation of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and, as mentioned above, corrupt blood is Macdonald’s thematic mainstay and obsession. Newman’s private dick lived seedily enough, met betrayal on the right fronts, and encountered a rich cross-section of weirdos and lost souls. But the look and feel of it all had too many memories of Hud hell-raising in his Cadillac. Newman’s persona was his own, established in the modern, post-Dean, post-Brando mold, and the world in which he operated was too lushly colored, too slickly appointed to admit of the darkest, most characteristic aspects of the genre.
In Gumshoe, Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) uses his Bogartian fantasy life as a defense against the realities of his glamourless, second-class existence. When the line between fantasy and reality disappears, Eddie plays the private eye shtick out to its bitter, not so wisecracking end, presumably “growing up” in the process. Here, the quest is toward personal equilibrium, not a generalized setting of the world in order. Like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam, Eddie Ginley must get beyond defensive roleplaying to be his own man. Ultimately, Gumshoe is a psychological drama, but it pays honest homage to the romanticism and vitality of the private eye tradition.
Director Robert Culp attempted to play it both ways in Hickey and Boggs, underscoring the anachronistic aspects of private eyedom in the Seventies, at the same time trying to make the genre work on a contemporary basis. But Culp’s preoccupations, stylistic and thematic, are too firmly rooted in the hip cynicism of his times. Hickey and Boggs turns into a relentless commentary on the amorality which pervades every level of society, the bankruptcy of nearly all personal relationships. After the obligatory carnage, Hickey and Boggs (Bill Cosby and Culp) mutually emphasize the meaninglessness of it all with the redundant epitaph “Nobody cares.” That numb resignation is a far cry from the romantically toughed-out pain of a Marlowe betrayed, or the voluptuous pessimism of the film noir protagonists.
Shamus was simply an exercise in vulgarity, a no-talent exploitation of the genre as a vehicle for Burt Reynolds’s much-vaunted machismo. Reynolds’s private dick was more effective as a make-out artist than as detective, and Dyan Cannon, replete with plastic pneumaticism, totally degraded the sort of role that Lauren Bacall, Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, or Mary Astor would have illuminated in the old days. All the wit, subtlety, the terrific sense of style on every level that characterized movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, is missing in this lumpish effort. Early on, Reynolds shivers through an interview with the film’s chief bad guy, who keeps the temperature of his luxurious study at nearly refrigerator level. Inspiring memories of Bogart sweating it out in General Sternwood’s overheated conservatory is no favor to Shamus—it only casts into bolder relief the film’s inability to manufacture its own myths, to invest its hero with anything more than ripped-off glamour and style.
And so it seemed that the private-eye genre—the genuine article, at least—was pretty much a burnt-out case, not a viable frame of reference for the modern sensibility. Then came the news that Robert Altman was to film Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, after a script by Leigh Brackett who had collaborated on the screenplay of The Big Sleep. Welcome news, this, for Altman had to his previous credit a revisionist Western—McCabe and Mrs. Miller—in which he managed to be an iconoclast without falling into the sterile, verging-on-vindictive, style of cynical deflations like Doc and Dirty Little Billy. Altman was not out to simply kill myths, but to build something new on the old ground. His McCabe was no empire-builder like Hawks’s Thomas Dunson (Red River), nor did he measure up to the heroic stature of a Fordian frontiersman, although he had more than a little in common with those rag-tag outcasts from respectable society whom Ford always subversively depicted as the very backbone of the West’s—and America’s—development. Building the town of Presbyterian Church never took on the mythic significance of say, Red River‘s cattle drive to Abilene, an event which loomed large in the manifest destiny of a whole nation. But Altman managed to invest the whole undertaking, and all of its unlikely contributors, with an authentic auspiciousness. A real sense of this-might-well-have-been-the-way-it-was pervaded McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in no small part due to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. John Ford’s grand vistas of cloud-filled or storm-riven Western skies and Monument Valley’s rugged mesa-punctuated geography seemed to reflect the dimensions of his characters’ lives and destinies. Similarly, in McCabe, Zsigmond visually contrasted the muted colors of a cheerless outdoors with innumerable islands of fire and lamplight, so that one experienced a nearly physical yearning towards McCabe’s warm new buildings rising like oases in the rainy gray cold of the Pacific Northwest wilderness. As Presbyterian Church acquired more and more modern accoutrements, expanded from a collection of ill-assorted shacks and shelters into a true town, progress was served: build one-hundred Presbyterian Churches and America is born. But McCabe and Mrs. Miller always remained firmly rooted in the physical realities, so that one never lost sight of what civilization really means on the most basic level.
Altman therefore seemed a good choice to direct the kind of film that might puncture some of the old private-eye traditions, might even subvert them, but would not stop there, would go on to push the old mold into new and varied shapes.
Another recommendation for Altman lay in his narrative style. The atmosphere of McCabe was one of seemingly random event, accidental encounters, casually overlapping conversations, so that at first glance the film appeared to move with narrative offhandedness, without conspicuous directorial motive or control. Totally deceptive this, for McCabe is as tightly organized and developed a film as you’re likely to see. At times—in Brewster McCloud and M*A*S*H, for instance—Altman failed to pull it all together, the offhandedness got too much out of hand, and the accidental quality of events and relationships became artificial, even affected. A second or third viewing of M*A*S*H makes one uncomfortably aware that those marvelously improvised three- and four-way conversations, those barely heard background cracks and comments, are not really very improvised, and in many cases are just noise with the right intonation. Also, the narrative pace of M*A*S*H is considerably crippled by the flattening of its patter. But watch Images as many times as you like—Altman never loses an iota of control of this psychological detective story; and here his narrative style is so convoluted and oblique that a lesser director might easily have ended up with a cinematic jigsaw puzzle that lacked some crucial pieces.
And so—the long-awaited The Long Goodbye. As expected, Altman goes after all the traditional mainstays of the genre, but once he’s toppled the old myths, he fails to fill the void with anything of his own making. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a self-admitted romantic, a tough, canny shamus who lives in a tawdry world about which he has few illusions—but what illusions he’s got, he cherishes. When he picks up Terry Lennox, an aristocratic drunk sprawled in a parking lot, he begins a strange friendship with a man whose life is worthy of considerable contempt, for whose personal sense of style and integrity Marlowe conceives a curious and unshakeable respect, Not much is ever said of friendship, of commitment, the two men actually meet infrequently, but when Lennox disappears, confesses to his wife’s brutal murder, then suicides, Marlowe does not buy the solution cops, interested crooks, and powerful magnates alike are all too willing to accept. Thus, he embarks on a dark, all but inadvertent journey—which we make with him—towards the truth. Threads of that truth reside in every stratum of society, but mostly they tendril down out of the past, choking the life out of Sylvia Lennox and a famous writer, as well as his lovely, but demented, wife. In the end, it is the past which Marlowe catches up with and unravels—in the process of which the present makes a blacker kind of sense and Marlowe, the romantic, is betrayed, bereft of yet another illusion. His response is commensurate with the tradition: he refuses to drink a ritual gimlet with the resurrected Lennox, and probably goes home to drink alone while he engages in yet another chess problem with a long-dead, but still potent, master of the game.
Not much of Chandler remains in Altman’s Long Goodbye. Elliott Gould turns Philip Marlowe into a laid-back, morally undiscriminating bungler who can’t even con a cat. When the petty or cruel non-sense of his environment impinges, he passives out with his oft-reiterated credo “It’s OK with me.” Marlowe in the Seventies has resigned from romanticism, has withdrawn into some private place beyond cynicism, beyond despair, where he cannot be touched, cannot be involved. Whatever’s cool, whatever’s going down, whatever turns you on—this middleaged flower child has abdicated from the quest business, has accepted the permanency of his world’s dementia.
In Altman’s film, Terry Lennox suffers a rather unsalutary sea-change as well. The Chandler character possessed a mysterious attractiveness and charm with his war-whitened hair and scarred face, the old-fashioned honor which he maintained as a kept man. What he is really guilty of in the novel is a lapse in style, not murder; because he opts out, refuses responsibility, people suicide and are murdered, but Terry Lennox sins only by omission. Altman’s Lennox (Jim Bouton) looks like a refugee from a muscle-building ad, has changed his name so as to fit more comfortably into the jet set (his entree, a rich marriage), and is blatantly guilty of his wife’s murder. As with the majority of the novel’s characters, Altman is bent on starving out any potential resonance or richness in Lennox’s personal mystique.
Chandler never allowed us outside of Marlowe’s mind, his point of view was always our own, thus we were never in a position to condescend or envy the man who vicariously moved us towards enlightenment. Early on, Altman betrays his Marlowe by letting us accompany Terry Lennox to his friend’s apartment. On the way, we are given clues that put us slightly one-up on Marlowe because we suspect long before he finally gets the point. Our respect for this modern-day shamus isn’t increased by his inability (or refusal) to take control of any situation: Marlowe seems always to be slumped in a chair with the weight of the scene hovering around and over him. Cops shove him around on their ground and his, and their contempt for him is patent. When he throws a drunken tantrum after Roger Wade’s suicide, and flings what he thinks is crucial new information about the Lennox case into a detective’s face, that detective casually deflates Marlowe and means it when he snarls, “Go back to your gumshoes and transom-peeking!!” Gould has no style, no personal presence; Bogart’s barbed wisecracks become a continual mumble of not very funny asides in Gould’s mouth: he talks to himself because hardly anyone else listens.
The action is always a little alongside Marlowe, a little beyond him. Marty Augustine (slimily incarnated by director Mark Rydell), the gambler whose $350,000 Lennox lifted, threatens Gould, but does actual physical damage to his own girlfriend—while Gould watches. Later, when Augustine gets around to ordering some real physical discomfort for Marlowe himself, the latter is casually saved by his “fairy godmother”—Terry Lennox, who has returned the gambler’s money. And Marlowe is immediately irrelevant, left standing alone in a room with the aforementioned girlfriend—another expendable pawn. Eileen Wade and her private eye patsy stand on opposite sides of a window facing out on the ocean. They talk, the camera moves inexorably between them, through the window to watch the lady’s husband walking drunkenly into the sea. It’s the lady who notices him first. Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork creates and reflects the loss of connection and involvement that characterizes the new Marlowe’s environment. Time and time again, the camera moves in on a face only to pull out or change direction before making visual contact. It’s never still, is always wandering around the action, never quite settling in on any individual or exchange. Like the movie, it seems in search of a form it never finds. When Roger and Eileen Wade (Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt) argue in the writer’s study, Altman and Zsigmond shoot through windows from the patio and Marlowe’s reflection is superimposed on the scene. The protagonists are all there, but never quite clearly seen or connected. In a film noir, this might have worked as a visual metaphor for the partial knowledge, the paranoia, of interrelated characters. Here the glass reflects Marlowe’s excludedness, and this serves to emphasize the artifice of the sequence. We as audience are neither with Marlowe nor the Wades—we watch the screen, refused access to any character’s point of view.
Later, while Marlowe interrogates a Mexican coroner and a police chief, the camera observes the three men from outside a barred window frame. It moves slowly back and forth from one side of the frame to the other, the iron bars interrupting our view. Then Zsigmond racks focus, and the bars become visual ghosts which slightly blur whatever lies behind them as the camera continues to move from side to side. Altman and his cinematographer won’t let us into the film, won’t let us forget the artifice of the private-eye genre or the art of filmmaking itself. As outsiders, without any point of view but that of the iconoclastic director, suspension of disbelief is impossible to achieve.
Altman invites us to share little cinematic jokes from time to time , but they are irritatingly juvenile and only serve to remind us yet again of how far outside this film we stand. When Marlowe arrives in the flea-bitten town of Yautepec, he passes out of frame while the camera pulls in on two fucking dogs and the soundtrack is suddenly filled with climaxing guitars and olés. Later, in hospital, he encounters a man bandaged from head to foot (a refugee from Catch–22?) who gifts him with a miniature harmonica. Absurd? Well, yes, but The Long Goodbye itches to absurd up everything it can, and occasionally Altman loses all sense of directorial proportion. To some extent, this is the problem with the character of Roger Wade, a writer of swashbuckling historical bestsellers in Chandler’s novel, a Hemingway figure as perceived through the modern consciousness in the film. Sterling Hayden huffs and bellows through this role like a garrulous grizzly, all his grand gestures and aphorisms truncated, lost in alcoholic blather of the fuckshitdeath school of pseudo-romanticism. When he and Gould sit down to talk and drink (in a pathetic, perhaps unconscious, parody of Bogart and Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon), no personal style or wit is forthcoming, only an incoherent imitation of communication, rapport. Marlowe—we as audience—never make any kind of meaningful contact with the film’s inhabitants; it’s all hype, jive, or “It’s OK with me, man.”
The dénouement of The Long Goodbye brings us up to date, makes us feel the full force of the antiheroic cynicism of current films—and perhaps our lives as well. In the novel, Terry Lennox seeks Marlowe out at some personal risk, not for any practical exigencies but because their relationship demands that kind of personal resolution. Characteristically, in the film Gould goes after Lennox to be told that he was used—”That’s what friends are for”—and that “Nobody cares” (shades of Hickey and Boggs). When Gould amends “…but me,” Lennox hits him with the kind of truth that Chandler’s Marlowe might have thought, but would never have said to his lapsed friend Lennox; “Well, that’s you. You’ll never learn. You’re a born loser.” So Gould shoots Terry, spits, and exits. In the old days, he (and we) would have gone away secure in the knowledge that, yes, men who commit themselves to something, who make romantic gestures, get betrayed, get hurt, and are losers. When Bogart lets Mary Astor take the fall, we know he’s been conned and used and that he is suffering the very real loss of the woman he loves, but cannot trust. But he is not diminished in our eyes; he is a loser only in the sense that he has suffered losses of terrible proportions. But Altman’s Marlowe is a real loser, for he’s never had anything of value. Having drifted through the proceedings, he’s never attached himself to any standards or ethics that we might admire or regret the betrayal of. What he’s lost is his cat, a pathetic reminder of the sterility of his emotional life. So maybe he shoots Lennox because the truth he’s discovered is his own reflection—how far is “Nobody cares” from “It’s OK with me”? Afterwards, he skips down a tree-lined road, playing his little harmonica, and grabs a Mexican passerby for a short pas de deux just as the soundtrack breaks into “Hooray for Hollywood.” And that, my friends, is how you thumb your nose at cinematic myth. For Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye has nothing to do with the painful farewells a man makes to his cherished illusions, while leaving a small chink in his armor open to new possibilities. Altman is saying his long goodbye to a tradition he thinks has outlived its time, and he clearly sees his film as the last nail in its coffin. But the form, though in decline, has certainly not been delivered a coup de grâce by Robert Altman—not in The Long Goodbye anyway.
Maybe our moral geography is so muddled that quests can only be dead-end ventures. Perhaps the Socratic dialogue has permanently broken down, been replaced by bureaucratic doubletalk or computer printouts. And maybe we’ve got to say our own long goodbyes to Hollywood, or whatever dream factory we’ve been wont to patronize. But unlike Elliott Gould’s Marlowe, it ain’t OK with me.
Copyright © 1974 Kathleen Murphy
THE LONG GOODBYE
Direction: Robert Altman. Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, after the novel by Raymond Chandler. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Editing: Lou Lombardo. Music Scoring: John Williams. Title Song: lyrics Johnny Mercer, music John Williams.
The Players: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Jim Bouton, Mark Rydell, David Arkin, Jo Ann Brody, Henry Gibson, Warren Berlinger, Jack Knight, Pepe Callahan, Ken Sansom, Steve Coit, Jerry Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger.