[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabeandMrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.
[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, TheUndergroundMan, 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.
“Desperate men and dangerous women, smooth talk and barbed wisecracks, cheap perfume and gun smoke, dreams and dead ends. The night, shaped like movies. The world’s longest-running film noir series celebrates its thirty-fourth season with an opening night feast of black and white doughnuts, courtesy of Top Pot Doughnuts.”
The words and the address are inimitably Greg Olson’s; he’s been Seattle Art Museum film programmer for more than those 34 years. This autumn, for “Heart of Darkness: The Film Noir Cycle,” Olson’s managed to retrieve a night from the SAM powers-that-be, who last year cut back his series from ten films to eight. 2011’s noirfest features nine titles, to run Thursdays from Sept. 29 through Dec. 8 (omitting Oct. 14 and Thanksgiving), at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium.
It’s the best batch in several years, starting off with two pungent classics from noir’s golden age. Fact is, I used to open my own University of Washington film noir classes with PhantomLady (Sept. 29), the 1944 Robert Siodmak picture that Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy once called “the Citizen Kane of B-movies.” Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a feverish hour-and-20-minutes in which sweltering urban heat, the pervasive cheapness of Universal production values, and director Siodmak’s jaggedly Germanic style combine to create a near-hallucinatory experience. A respected engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of his wife’s murder; his only alibi is a nameless woman with whom he shared an innocent evening at the time the crime was committed. Washington-born Ella Raines plays the loyal, and of course secretly adoring, secretary who embarks on a quest to locate the woman and save her boss. Have no doubt that she gets herself into sundry seamy and queasy situations—none seamier and queasier than an after-hours flirtation with a leering jazz drummer, an indelible portrait by Elisha Cook Jr. Others in the cast include Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Fay Helm (in the title role). Longtime Alfred Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison produced.
[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]
It’s a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.
Film noir—thephrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.
More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it’s about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they’ve learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.