* * * *
I love when a great movie begins; a whole world springs to being out of nothing, a universe forms from pixels on cathode. This is especially true if the film begins without preamble, without title card or even credits.
In the beginning of this particular world, a man (Elliot Gould) spends ten minutes chain-smoking and trying to find the proper food for his orange tabby cat. Whatever he’s got, the cat don’t want. It isn’t until feline finickiness takes him to a grocery in the wee hours to try to find the preferred chow that the man runs into somebody who recognizes him, and a seismic shift occurs.
“Hello Mr. Marlowe,” this person says.
Wait a dad-gum minute, now. Mr. Marlowe? Mr. Marlowe!? The gumshoe, the shamus, the legend? The tough-guy with a conscience, the cool drink of water, the one with all the answers? Phillip Marlowe is getting pushed around by his cat? No, back up further. Phillip Marlowe has a cat? What in the name of Raymond Chandler is happening here? And, and, and, wait a minute, now – what’s Marlowe doing in what is so clearly the seventies? I mean, I’m pretty sure there weren’t a ton of nudist hippie yoga chicks sweating the balcony circa 1938, even in L.A. Certainly there wasn’t disco music.
These questions are no small potatoes, and if they make no sense to you, run to the library. For real, run. Run. Chandler’s seminal noir yarns, eight thin novels and assorted short stories, carved out a lasting chunk of pop culture single-handedly. (All right, give an assist to Dash Hammett, among others, but Chandler refined the myth.) It would not be a stretch to call him the Louis Armstrong of the American crime novel. No Phillip Marlowe? No Bogie in a fedora, then. No Chinatown or Bladerunner, no L.A. Confidential, either. Hey, maybe even no NYPD Blue. You find me a hard-bitten urban character trying to do some good in a tough world, I’ll show you how Marlowe’s his grandpappy.
Seriously, run to the library.
To those who know and love these books, Robert Altman’s reinterpretation will be jarring, bordering on sacrilegious. Imagine a film version of Sherlock Holmes in which Mickey Rourke plays the sleuth as a robot pimp - or Kid Rock as James Bond, Caveman Lizard Boy. Yeah, it’s something like that, especially since we’re talking about The Long Goodbye, arguably the finest and saddest of Chandler’s novels, the one that most adequately sums up the noble melancholy, the disgust, the uselessness and honor of being the sole man of integrity in a rotting town. Also, it’s a wonderful story masterfully told, the Chandler plot that holds together the best. It is the book that Chandler purists are apt to be most protective of, which is why Altman’s moves here strike so jarring a chord. Marlowe is a quintessential 1930s icon, hard-drinking, heavy smoking, no-bull. The time-warp to the 70s - with Elliot Gould, anti-Bogart, in the lead! - has a gnarly first taste, like gravy on cheesecake.
What is interesting, then, is how groovy the aftertaste is. Altman has made a career of confounding expectation, and here he peels back the legend that is Marlowe to help us see his soul. This film does Marlowe – and Chandler – the great favor of breaking the character out of Bogart’s long shadow. The qualities that make Gould seem such a strange choice – the slight stammer, the quiet nature, the shy grin – all go against the grain of the film icon, not the literary one. Bogie’s go-to-hell insouciance defined the character in The Big Sleep, but he also seems like he could kill you without thinking too hard about it or feeling too bad about it. It served him better as Hammett’s satanic detective Sam Spade, but Bogie's Marlowe is nearly as hard-edged. Chandler once wrote: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself necessarily mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." It is with Altman and Gould that cinema finds that man.
Elliot makes a surprisingly appropriate Marlowe after all. He uses his shyness as a sly shield, disguising a mind as quick and as sharp as a shiv. His tabby cat may dictate terms to him, but that’s the only cat that can. When the police show up at his apartment and try to break his balls, he breaks right back. Marlowe’s pal, Terry Lennox has ditched town, leaving a dead wife behind him. They think Marlowe is in on the game. The deadness of the wife is news to Marlowe, but he did help Lennox escape to Mexico (perhaps to get a prescription for Surinamese coffee, eh? Eh?). The cops are half right, but they get the private eye’s dander up – he doesn’t think Terry is capable of murder, and he wants to know why the fuzz is so set on pinning the rap to him. Gould’s Marlowe may be instinctively withdrawn, but loyalty and his smart-guy retorts land him in the clink. Like the literary Marlowe, he makes his bread by his brains, not his gun and fists. He survives by being the smartest guy in the room – any room, and cool enough to play a wicked bluff. This is one brother who doesn’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind blow, and he knows that Occam didn’t study human nature. In his world, the simple answer is rarely the right one.
When his investigation takes him to the home of beautiful Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) and her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), a once great writer gone to souse, he quickly susses out the nasty secrets of their marriage, though it is not until the film’s conclusion that we realize he is putting the pieces together far quicker than we. (It should be mentioned that the character of Roger Wade, as essayed by Hayden, is a large, white-bearded, gruff, blustering man’s-man type, and is such a send up of a certain boozy lion of 20th century lit. that he will be referred to by me ever hereafter, in this article and all others, as ‘Bernest Bemmingway’. Hayden makes a great Bernest. He’s sad and hilarious. He’s Bemming-rific.)
The plot, as with all Chandler, is labyrinthine, and of secondary importance. Fans of the book may take interest in the gradual ways in which the film strays from the page, but these changes – even the most shocking final one – do not change the story’s meaning. The whodunit takes a back seat to scene and mood, and examining the rot uncovered is more integral to the tale than is the tale of discovering who it was covered the rot up in the first place. The city seethes with money and breathes out filth, and the last sane man living in it and fighting against it is embraced up in it by a kind of sunny disenchantment. What Altman manages, by displacing the hero in time, is to capture Marlowe’s ethics with a kind of clarity that a classical setting might have lacked. Los Angeles may have graduated to the seventies, but our hero is still a creature of the 30s. When he is invited by Bemmingway to relax, remove his tie, and have a drink, he agrees to the drink, but he won’t remove his tie, not even in the age of butterfly lapels and polyester leisure suits. The contrast highlights this basic truth about Marlowe’s character; that he will never change. His code is his law.
The seventies have turned what was merely corrupt into the insane. Los Angeles is filled now, as ever, with dirty cops and dangerous hoods (one of whom perpetrates one of the more disturbing acts of violence in film history), but now a new breed has descended, love for today types, lotus-eaters whose only care is for their own temporary joys, unencumbered by even the petty scruples and cares of crooks. Untethered by morality, they cannot imagine what harm there can be in a murder in which nobody gets caught. “It's OK with me, girls,” Marlowe mumbles to the perpetually topless ladies who live across the way. He has asked them to keep an eye out for his cat, now AWOL, but they are gone too far into a trance (or perhaps their own navels) to hear him. “It's OK with me.” But it's not OK with Marlowe, of course. And he has lost far more than his cat.
Altman’s camera is a second Marlowe, savvy and cool, but not impartial. Long shots and deep composition often tell us more than just thing, and its gaze hold for unflinching minutes at a time. It isn’t fancy, and it isn’t afraid to see a man walking into the crashing waves.
Goodbye’s final shot is an instructive tribute to The Third Man, but Marlowe is no sad chump like Holly Martins. He may not have gotten the girl, but he doesn’t want her, knowing the compromises she has made. He may have dug into the heart of darkness, but his illusions aren’t shattered by the betrayal he finds. He never had illusions in the first place.