Thoughts on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973)

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Allison and I had a wonderful time yesterday, our first real summery day – with cherry blossoms waving over 11th Street – a gorgeous canopy – and everybody busting out the tank tops and flip flips in celebration of the weather. We headed down to the Film Forum (I inhaled a slice of pizza as we walked) to see Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye – a movie neither of us had seen.

I found Roger Ebert’s in-depth analysis of the film – and posted it below the fold.

Thoughts:

— we loved the naked yoga girls across the way. We loved how certain scenes in his apartment would be going on – and you could get glimpses of their goings-on out the window. Every time we caught a glimpse of their contortions, we would just lose it.

— awesome opening scene with that cat.

— Mark Rydell is fantastic. Director of On Golden Pond, among other things, he also runs Actors Studio West out in LA … in addition to all of that, he is a terrific actor. With the benign baby face, it’s very interesting, because he plays such a terrifying guy here. Unpredictable. Horrible moment of violence that comes from out of nowhere, and yet is completley logical – makes you realize the danger of this guy.

— Allison and I totally loved Harry, the inexperienced guy hired to follow Philip Marlowe. At one point, Gould is walking – and Harry is right there behind him – and Gould turns and says, “Harry … when you follow me, I’m not supposed to see you.” Like – giving him helpful tips. Also, Harry is on a stake-out outside Marlowe’s place – but he gets completely distracted by the flower-power hippie girls, meditating nude on the balcony … Marlowe comes out to go to his car and he and Harry chat for a while (which is hysterical, because Harry is supposed to be stalking Marlowe). Harry is agog about the naked girls. “So … who are they? What are they doing?” Marlowe, cigarette in his mouth, says, “They’re doing yoga.” Harry, stunned, “What’s that?” Marlowe, “I don’t know … Yoga. They do yoga.” Harry can’t believe it – he glances back up at the balcony and says, “I remember when people just had jobs.” Hysterical line.

— Gould is great. Kind of oddly sexy. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part. I mean, many great actors have played Philip Marlowe, obviously – but I can only imagine Gould playing this particular Marlowe.

— Hilarious time-travel moment. Marlowe is defending himself in one scene – as the threats become larger – as he walks off, he is saying, “I’m gonna call Ronald Reagan …” Meaning: the governor. People in the audience laughed … it’s just one of those funny moments … but then in a later scene, when Mark Rydell is threatening Marlowe, he has a bunch of goons with him, big scary-looking guys … and one of them is a young and silent and ENORMOUS Arnold Schwarzenegger. You couldn’t keep your eyes off him because he is now so famous … and he stands there, without his shirt on, flexing the muscles in his chest-plates – from side to side. Left, right, left, right …

— Obviously Altman has a point of view. By just choosing where to put the camera, he has a point of view. He chooses to make his shots long and meandering – a slow zoom in, or a slow pan across, etc. But it’s not like other film directors who use close-ups for expediency, where they tell you explicitly where to look. Altman doesn’t do that. It’s always been an interesting experience watching his movies because of that. In my opinion, he makes most other movie directors look shallow. He is willing to have us, in the audience, have moments of, “Hmmmm … now what is going on here …. why is he shooting through a window with a reflection of the ocean in it … and why is he using a two-shot here … where’s the closeup?” Close-ups are no longer used so sparingly. If you see Bringing Up Baby there are maybe, MAYBE, 15 close-ups in the whole movie. So every time there’s a close-up it truly MEANS something. Now directors just use them because it’s easier, it’s easier to tell your story. Altman is not a close-up director. His camera appears to have no opinion (although, again, that is an illusion). There are violent dark scenes in Marlowe’s apartment – and out the window we see naked girls dancing with each other … but it doesn’t make a fetish of their naked bodies, it doesn’t cut away to a shot of them to make sure we “get it”. Both scenes go on at the same time. I love it. It’s three-dimensional film-making.

— Roger Ebert’s thoughts below are really interesting. Philip Marlowe IS a 1950s guy in a 1970s world.

— An interesting thing about this particular Marlowe: he does not appear to have a sex drive. He is uninterested in women. He’s not indifferent – the way he treats the naked girls is kind, humorous, and casual. He picks up brownie mix for them, because all they do is practice yoga and make pot brownies. He doesn’t appear to sexualize them, even though they stand there, talking to him, naked breasts pointing at him. He barely notices. He is distracted, he is self-involved – he talks to himself (Ebert’s thoughts about that are very interesting below). It’s interesting, though – to see a handsome virile guy like Gould abdicate that part of his personality for the role. It’s strange. You keep waiting for a romance to be part of the story (again, because we, as audience members, are trained for that) … and when it doesn’t happen, it’s disorienting.

I love the disorientation of watching Altman movies. Even when they are not totally successful, I prefer his stuff to almost anybody else’s.


ROGER EBERT, “THE LONG GOODBYE”

Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) attacks film noir with three of his most cherished tools: Whimsy, spontaneity and narrative perversity. He is always the most youthful of directors, and here he gives us the youngest of Philip Marlowes, the private eye as a Hardy boy. Marlowe hides in the bushes, pokes his nose up against a window, complains like a spoiled child, and runs after a car driven by the sexy heroine, crying out “Mrs. Wade! Mrs. Wade!” As a counterweight, the movie contains two startling acts of violence; both blindside us, and neither is in the original Raymond Chandler novel.

Altman began with a screenplay by Leigh Brackett, the legendary writer of “The Big Sleep” (1946), the greatest of the many films inspired by Marlowe. On that one her co-writer was William Faulkner. There is a famous story that they asked Chandler who killed one of the characters (or was it suicide?). Chandler’s reply: “I don’t know.” There is a nod to that in “The Long Goodbye” when a character who was murdered in the book commits suicide in the movie.

Certainly the plot of “The Long Goodbye” is a labyrinth not easily negotiated. Chandler’s 1953 novel leads Marlowe into a web of deception so complex you could call it arbitrary. The book is not about a story but about the code of a private eye in a corrupt world. It is all about mood, personal style, and language. In her adaptation, Brackett dumps sequences from Chandler, adds some of her own (she sends Marlowe to Mexico twice), reassigns killings, and makes it almost impossible to track a suitcase filled with a mobster’s money.

I went through the film a shot at a time two weeks ago at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, sitting in the dark with several hundred others as we asked ourselves, What do we know, how do we know it, and is it true? Many of our questions center on the rich, sex-drenched Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt). Does she desire the death of her husband, Roger Wade, an alcoholic writer played by the gruff old bear Sterling Hayden? Or does she only want free of him? What about that seductive dinner she serves Marlowe (Elliott Gould) on the night Wade walks into the ocean? Does she intend to sleep with Marlowe? She does in the novel, and he is later part of her alibi when she kills Wade and makes it look like suicide. But here she doesn’t kill Wade. What is the link connecting Terry Lennox (the baseball star Jim Bouton), Eileen and the gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell)? Does Augustine owe Wade money, as he claims to Marlowe, or does Wade owe Augustine money, as Wade implies in a Freudian slip? What is the exact connection between any money owed to anyone and the money in the suitcase? Only a final, blunt speech by Lennox, Marlowe’s unworthy friend, answers some of our questions.

Elliott Gould says on the DVD that Altman made many changes to Brackett’s screenplay, but that when she saw the movie not long before she died, she said she was “more than satisfied.” One change is to make Philip Marlowe, that laconic loner with a code of honor, into what Altman and Gould privately called “Rip Van Marlowe.” When he awakens at the beginning of the movie, he’s a 1953 character in a 1973 world. He wears a dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie in a world of flower power and nude yoga. He chain-smokes; no one else smokes. He is loyal to Terry Lennox and considers him his friend, but the movie establishes their friendship only by showing them playing liar’s poker, and Lennox is no friend. Marlowe carries a $5,000 bill for most of the movie, but never charges for any of his services. He is a knight errant, and like Don Quixote imperfectly understands the world he inhabits.
The earlier movie Marlowes (Humphrey Bogart, James Caan, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell) are terse and guarded. They talk, as Chandler wrote, “with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” And they talk a lot, because they narrate the novels. Gould’s Marlowe has these qualities, but they emerge in meandering dialogue that plays as a bemused commentary to himself. In the novel, Marlowe has no pets, but here he has a cat, and in the famous pre-credit opening sequence he attempts to convince the cat he is supplying its favorite cat food, but the cat is not fooled. In a movie that throws large chunks of plot overboard, there is no reason for this sequence, except that it establishes Marlowe as a man who is more loyal to his cat than anyone is to him.

The plot can be summarized in a few words, or endlessly. The rich playboy Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana. Marlowe does, and is questioned by the cops and jailed after Lennox’s wife is found beaten to death. Released by the cops after Lennox’s suicide in Mexico, Marlowe is visited by the gangster Marty Augustine and his goons. Augustine thinks Marlowe has money Lennox was carrying. In one of the most shocking moments in movie history, he commits an act of cruelty and says, “Now that’s someone I love. Think what could happen to you.”

Marlowe follows him to the Malibu beach house of the writer Roger Wade and his wife Eileen, and is later hired by Eileen to track down Roger after he runs away to a shady drying-out sanitarium. How are Lennox, the Wades and Augustine connected?

I don’t think the answer to that question concerns Altman nearly as much as the look and feel of the film. He wants to show a private eye from the noir era blundering through a plot he is perhaps too naive to understand. The movie’s visual strategy underlines his confusion. Altman and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, “flashed” the color film with carefully calculated extra light, to give it a faded, pastel quality, as if Marlowe’s world refuses to reveal vivid colors and sharp definition. Most of the shots are filmed through foregrounds that obscure: Panes of glass, trees and shrubbery, architectural details, all clouding Marlowe’s view (and ours). The famous Altman overlapping dialogue gives the impression that Marlowe doesn’t pick up on everything around him. Far from resenting the murkiness in his world, Marlowe repeats the catch-phrase, “It’s all right with me.” The line was improvised by Gould, and he and Altman decided to use it throughout the story as an ironic refrain.

There is another refrain: The title theme, which is essentially the only music heard in the film. Altman uses it again and again, with many different performers (even a Mexican marching band, with the sheet music pinned to the shirt of the man in front of them). At Boulder, the musician Dave Grusin, who worked on the film, and told us Altman gathered a group of musicians on a sound stage and had them spend an evening playing around with different arrangements of the song. Why did Altman only use the one song? I�ve heard a lot of theories, of which the most convincing is, it amused him.

The visuals and sound undergo a shift after the suicide of Roger Wade. There is a scene on the beach where Marlowe pesters people with questions and accuses them of dishonesty; he sounds like a child, a drunk, or both. But then color begins to saturate the pale visuals, the foregrounds no longer obscure, characters start talking one at a time, and finally in the vivid sunlight of Mexico, Marlowe is able to see and hear clearly, and act decisively.

Casting is crucial in film noir, because the actors have to arrive already bearing their fates. Altman’s actors are as unexpected as they are inevitable. Sterling Hayden, a ravaged giant, roars and blusters on his way to his grave. As his wife, Altman cast Nina Van Pallandt, then famous as the mistress of Clifford Irving, author of the celebrated fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. She could act, but she did more than act, she embodied a Malibu beach temptress. Mark Rydell, the director, seems to be channeling Martin Scorsese’s verbal style in a performance that uses elaborate politeness as a mask for savagery. And Elliott Gould is a Marlowe thrust into a story were everybody else knows their roles. He wanders clueless and complaining, and then suddenly understands exactly what he must do.

“The Long Goodbye” should not be anybody’s first film noir, nor their first Altman movie. Most of its effect comes from the way it pushes against the genre, and the way Altman undermines the premise of all private eye movies, which is that the hero can walk down mean streets, see clearly, and tell right from wrong. The man of honor from 1953 is lost in the hazy narcissism of 1973, and it’s not all right with him.

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14 Responses to Thoughts on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973)

  1. steve on the mountain says:

    Love Altman. Love Chandler. Loved that movie. But this is why I always hear Bogart’s voice when I read the stories of Chandler:
    “He had a belted suede raincoat on. He tore it open carelessly and got out a wallet that was not quite as big as a bale of hay. Currency stuck out of it at careless angles. When he slapped it down on his knee it made a fat sound that was pleasant to the ear.”

  2. red says:

    Yum. I love that writing.

  3. ALLISON says:

    hey, did you see that the woman who played eileen wade was this mistress of the guy who wrote the fake hughes biography (the subject of the hoax which we were supposed to see last friday?) strange….loved reexperiencing the movie through your post and roger’s review.

  4. red says:

    I know, allison – I saw that!! (about the Hughes biography) – wild, huh??

    I still want to see the Hoax with you.

    Such a nice day yesterday. And you got a swanky new sweatshirt out of the deal.

  5. red says:

    Oh and Allison – here’s another bit of my autism:

    You know the crazy doctor (the one in the photo above with Gould?) Did you see Magnolia? He plays the flamboyant dude in the bar – where William Macy goes to flirt (despairingly) with the buff bartender … Do you remember that guy? He’s corrupt, and a vicious queen – he remembers William Macy as the quiz show whiz kid … and taunts him about it … Macy has an argument with him, as he gets more and more drunk … and the guy is just blase to Macy’s pain. It makes the catharsis at the end of the movie – when Macy is saved (literally and spiritually) by the kindly John C. Reilly.

    It’s a pivotal scene … I recognized the actor immediately even though he’s gotta be in his 60s now. Still a bizarre little old-school character actor.

  6. mitchell says:

    he’s my FAVE character actor..he became famous on Laugh-In with Goldie and Arte and Lily and Ruth etc…he is BRILLIANT …his name is Henry Gibson…rewatch Nashville..he is unreal..he’s the big huge old school country star who si the king of the town…sooooo goood!!

  7. red says:

    Mitchell – wow – Of COURSE you know his entire resume. That was him in Nashville? It has been years since I saw that movie – what an incredible career. He sure was unforgettable in Magnolia – and the second I saw him show up in The Long Goodbye I knew exactly who it was.

  8. DAW says:

    Henry Gibson! Oddly enough, the first thing I think of when I read that name was his part in Kentucky Fried Movie.

  9. Love Altman, too. Love this incarnation of Marlowe. The ending reminded me of The Third Man, but I dont’ know if I was imagining it. Adam Brody (The OC, Mr and Mrs Smith) reminds me of a young version of this Gould. I just finished and really enjoyed a 5 issue comics mini-series called Criminal by Ed Brubaker. Issue 5 has a long spiel by a bunch of creators on their favorite noir movies, and this one was named multiple times.

  10. red says:

    GirlDetective – funny, I flashed on Adam Brody too, watching Gould in this movie.

    There’s this way Gould has of wincing with one eye closed – as he’s looking at someone else during a conversation – it’s so specific, so HIM. Perfect for the character, asymmetrical – and … he just seems totally unselfconscious in those moments, unaware that he actually is kind of handsome. He’s just not thinking about such things.

  11. allison says:

    sheila,
    autism, indeed. and given mitchell’s exposition of the actor and his past, i now understand why you two are friends. and here i’ve been thinking all along that there couldn’t possibly be more than one of you. i love that i can point out some obscure extra in the background of a scene in any given movie–someone, say, animatedly chatting with his table-mate–and you immediately kick in to imdb mode and spew forth with his entire acting career credits. without pause you’ll say, “oh, you might remember him as ‘pimp with gun’ in blah blah blah movie.” you’re scary that way…but you know this.

  12. red says:

    You might remember him as ‘pimp with gun’ – hahahahahaha

    I have no idea why I remember all this stuff – but Mitchell is WAY worse than I am! He’s definitely on my “call a friend” if I am ever on who wants to be a millionaire – I should give out his phone number to everybody who ever appears on that show.

  13. mitchell says:

    hahaha…u can definitely give my number to Allison!!..who i cant BELIEVE i havent met yet!!!!!

  14. mark lentine says:

    Can someone help me? I just happened to find this website, and I’m looking for sheet music to “The long goodbye.” John WIlliams wrote the music, and Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. Thanks very much.
    Mark Lentine
    samspade1@comcast.net