The Long Goodbye (1973) - July 3
Philip Marlowe is one of those fictional characters whose place in the pop culture lexicon seems fixed: he's shorthand for the prototypical film noir hero--tough but likeable, smarter than the bad guys, always in control and armed with a witty wisecrack or comeback on the tip of his tongue. In fact, you're probably picturing him in your head as you read this. And I'll venture a guess that he doesn't look like Elliott Gould.
Raymond Chandler sat down to say goodbye to Marlowe with the aptly titled novel The Long Goodbye in 1953, but as Robert Altman remarked when he started filming, his adaptation would "put Marlowe to rest for good." And if you've read the novel or seen some of the 1940s adaptations of Chandler's work, Altman's 1973 film will likely shock you. Because it's not Raymond Chandler. It's not even a typical noir. And that's what makes it such a compelling movie.
The plot revolves around Marlowe investigating the accusation that his friend, Terry Lennox (played by Ball Four writer Jim Bouton), murdered his wife. Marlowe eventually finds himself in the company of the film's femme fatale (Eileen Wade, played by Nina van Pallandt) and her hard-drinking husband, played by an actor who actually belongs in a noir, Sterling Hayden. As Marlowe tries to unravel the mystery, he begins to question whether or not he can truly trust anyone. And in the end--and I won't spoil the film's controversial final moments--he's right. The film may not be authentically Chandler, but it is a genuine Altman film--all the hallmarks are there, including the overlapping dialogue and a steady blend of comedy and darkness. The result is that the characters go through the film with some degree of aloofness and uncertainty. They are genre characters living in a genre-less world.
Humphrey Bogart is cinema's best-known Marlowe. And Elliott Gould is no Bogart-- but he doesn't try to be. His Marlowe is not the hardboiled detective of the 1940s but a bumbling, wisecracking version of Gould's characters in other Altman films. This Marlowe is the exceptionally rare protagonist who behaves as if he's uncertain if he's really supposed to be the hero of the story.
Like Chandler's novel, the film is set in Los Angeles, but it's now the Hollywood of the 1970s, complete with swanky detox centers, neon lights and sex shops right on the boulevard. Altman is not so much adapting Chandler's work as he is adopting it, putting it through the prism of the 1970s and finding that the Marlowe of the 1940s simply has no place in this contemporary world.
And I suspect that's how many Americans of Chandler's generation felt during the 1970s-- out of place and vaguely lost in a rapidly changing modern world. In The Long Goodbye, Elliott Gould is there to remind them that even in this strange new world, the morality of old isn't entirely gone. Perhaps it doesn't quite belong but it's certainly not forgotten.
by Ben Mankiewicz