By Melvin Cartagena
The Long Goodbye – 1973 – dir. Robert Altman
“If being in revolt against a corrupt society constitutes being immature, then Philip Marlowe is extremely immature. If seeing dirt where there is dirt constitutes social maladjustment, then Philip Marlowe has inadequate social adjustment. Of course Marlowe is a failure, and he knows it. He is a failure because he hasn’t any money…A lot of very good men have been failures because their particular talents did not suit their particular time and place.” – Raymond Chandler
In the first shot of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe (Elliott Gould) wakes up as if from a deep sleep. In time he demonstrates he is a stranger in a strange land, an intruder from a different time attempting to grok the free-floating morality of the sprawling city of twenty-four hours supermarkets and Laundromats, and neo-flower children practicing yoga naked, and new-age healers. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) punctuates this temporal dislocation in Marlowe when he refers to the gumshoe as Rip Van Marlowe, the victim of a long sleep that has thrust him into a time and place that has no love for a man of ethics, a man who cares. This is more than can be said for the police, who in typical noir-pulp fashion first arrest Marlowe, then grill him relentlessly for three days about Terry Lennox’s (Jim Bouton) escape to Mexico hours after the brutal killing of his wife Sylvia, and finally cut him loose after Terry’s confirmed suicide down in Mexico. One more for the books in the precinct, but this makes no sense to Marlowe, so it’s up the world-weary knight in tarnished armor to set things right in his mind.
Here the similarities between Chandler’s Marlowe and Altman’s reinterpretation of the freelance private dick end. The consensual decision (agreed on by Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Bracket and roundly approved by Gould and the rest of the cast) to turn Marlowe from a tight-lipped, stiff-backed, sure-footed, silently dignified eunuch loser into a gangly, stubbly, ill-dressed, smart-mouthed, clod-hopping loser was sacrilege on a par with the one committed by Susanna Maiolo when she knocked down the Pope, and for this the film was vilified by critics, and destroyed at the box office.
“I see Marlowe as a loser. But a real loser, not the fake winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.”
– Robert Altman
Chandler, working within (and influenced by) the tenets that informed the age of pulp writing, always found a way to give Marlowe back the respect that crooked cops and other bent types of Bay City whittled away during his latest case, through nothing but sheer Machiavellian determination and will, even as the players thought they were playing him. Altman, freed from the constraints of pulp (and not possessing a pulp sensibility to begin with) lets Gould run loose inside the skin of Marlowe. Always with a lipped cigarette in his mouth, wrinkled clothes and blue-black stubble on his face, muttering to himself while driving a gas-guzzling ’48 Lincoln, Marlowe is indifferent to the indifference around him. In his quest to learn what really happened to Terry, Marlowe puts up with abuse from everyone and everything he comes into contact with; from his cat, who walks out on him after Marlowe tries to feed him a cheaper brand of cat food; from the Wade’s Doberman, who singles out Marlowe from all the other guests at a Wade’s beach to bark abuse at; from gangster Marty Augustine, himself a throwback to the Vegas-type big shot informed by the style of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra. A man so drunk on his own myth of power that he reminds us, in spite of the film’s throwaway comedic feel, that violence and death lurk just off-camera, when he smashes a Coke bottle across his girl’s face. (“Her I love. You I don’t even like.”)
It’s an unexpected, shocking moment that nevertheless gets topped when Marlowe uses the five-thousand dollars Terry left him earlier to bribe the Mexican coroner, and after confronting Terry with the truth about the faked suicide, shoots him dead. This single action should redeem Marlowe from the perceived passivity critics have leveled at Gould’s performance. Altman’s Marlowe is no wimp, just patient, biding his time, letting the pieces fall into place as his anger builds, and his final meeting with Terry confirms what he already suspected. We go from Marlowe the puppet master, who would have tried to set someone up to pull the trigger for him, to Marlowe the patsy, who has no problems pulling it himself, both from a sense of justice and pure rage. That a man can be used by his former friend in such a way, and that such an action is common currency in this City of Angels is reason enough.
The transition from the Marlowe of the neon-lit mean streets to the Marlowe coexisting with the holdovers of the days of flower-power and proto-yuppies was one Chandler worshippers were not ready to accept. It was up to time to do justice to a film that’s turned out to be more than self-conscious New Hollywood deconstruction of an icon.