(American, 1973, 112 minutes, color, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
By 1973, and the making of THE LONG GOODBYE, the old Marlowe wouldn’t have recognized L.A. Endless, glutted freeways strangled the city. It sprawled endlessly, out into the Valley, and the desert. The old downtown of Marlowe’s heyday was no longer busy and exciting. Now, it had turned dusty and vacant. Bunker Hill, the shabby-genteel rooming house slum that Marlowe had haunted in the 1940s was now a gleam in developers’ eyes. By the end of the decade, it would be the centerpiece of a ‘new Los Angeles’ that would have had no room for low-rent idealist like Marlowe. Desperately polarized by race and class inequalities, Los Angeles’ postwar ‘prosperity’ was a brittle thing, made of pasteboard dreams and paper capital, and it had cost much in human terms to invent it. Police brutality and corruption had angered the 1940s Marlowe; now, it was endemic, a fact of life. By 1973, even the movie industry was ailing. The world of Los Angeles in the 1940s seemed like a dream now, in which truth was at least possible, where a man like the threadbare-but-honest Marlowe still mattered.
Into the smoggy twilight of 1973 wandered screenwriter-director Robert Altman, with his adaptation of THE LONG GOODBYE. Altman seemed a character out of Chandler, for like Marlowe, he was an outsider who seemed to relish being a pariah, and a man who made the lack of trappings of success into proof of his own integrity. For Altman, the new Los Angeles, and its rusting hulk of a movie industry, was a modern ruin in which his leaden vision of humanity could frolic, and where he could endlessly riff on the ironies of a hollow world of material pretense and spiritual poverty. Chandler had written in 1950 a description of an artist who could very well be Altman: "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities . . . It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization." THE LONG GOODBYE captures the Absurdist universe that was always latent in Chandler’s best work, at the expense of the Romanticism the movies drew out of that same work. Here, Altman deconstructs Marlowe thoroughly, and as he does, he shows us a new L.A. If the Marlowe of old had raged against an L.A. that was too often heartless, this Marlowe can only shrug at a new L.A. that is simply spineless, gutless, and bloodless.
THE LONG GOODBYE ignores movie history, and makes Marlowe a schlemiel, rather than a hardboiled saint. (Many years before, Chandler himself had proposed Cary Grant for the role, but had loved Bogart’s turn as Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP.) Elliott Gould, the decade’s every-schnook, first appears, wrinkled and disoriented, struggling to find his finicky cat something to eat. In the rest of the film, he will be similarly confused, albeit by bigger events and far more absurd characters.
THE LONG GOODBYE is filled with Altman grotesques, characters that are only thin coverings for the petit-celebrities Altman loved to cast. There is the broken-down baseball pitcher and author of a tell-all book on the game, Jim Bouton, as "Terry Lennox," the mysterious Tijuana-bound fugitive. There is Nina Van Pallandt, a marginal figure in the early 70s jet set, as femme fatale "Eileen Wade." And there is even a refugee from Olde Hollywoode, Sterling Hayden, as "Roger Wade," one of Chandler’s best corrupt patriarchs. Hayden, once a screen glamour boy, is now craggy and messianic, and his own strange life as an ocean-going recluse, a Sausalito bohemian, and a regretful "friendly witness" before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, is inscribed in the deep creases around his sad eyes. For seasoning, there is even a lesser movie director, Mark Rydell, tossed into the mix as gangster "Marty Augustine." This is L.A., but it is emphatically Altman’s L.A., a melange of exotic has-beens in a desolate cultural landscape. THE LONG GOODBYE is a rough draft for the country music Gomorrah of Altman’s NASHVILLE two years later, of his military-hospital-as-madhouse in 1970’s M.A.S.H., and of his deranged Wild West tent show in BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (1976). In Altman’s world, every citizen is an inmate, and society is only a way to multiply the psychological infirmities and pathologies of its members.
Marlowe’s trademark line throughout the film is "It’s OK with me." Where the Romantic Marlowe incarnated by Bogart had been a man of reaction, Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is a man entirely of reaction. Altman has said that he thought of the Marlowe character as "Rip Van Marlowe," a relic of old L.A. who’d been asleep for 30 years. Early on, critics interpreted this to mean that the old Bogart Marlowe had simply gotten out of step with the new realities and the new metaphors of Los Angeles. In fact, Altman may have meant exactly what he said: Marlowe is simply asleep throughout much of the movie, a sleepwalker in a place where sleepwalking is the preferred mode of existence. Altman remanufactures Marlowe, replacing the detective with a guy whose real purpose is to witness the vagaries of the world around him.
Gone, for instance, is the old Marlowe’s sexual aura. In THE BIG SLEEP, Bogart’s Marlowe had made lady bookstore clerks, taxi drivers, and millionairesses swoon. Now, Gould’s Marlowe has trouble even recognizing when he’s being seduced. He’s much better at watching than doing, better at being than becoming. Perhaps Chandler, in his 1940s salad days, when the writing was easy and the checks were big, might not have acknowledged this Marlowe as his own creation. But in the 50s, when his typewriter seemed not to work but the bottle always did, when he spent months grieving over a dead house cat, and when he wandered the world in search of new material and old friends, he might very well have nodded a greeting at this Marlowe, and smiled.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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