“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.” – Edgar Allan Poe
As meandering and bumbling as its chain-smoking protagonist, Robert Altman’s transplanted neo-noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s sixth novel chronicling the investigative exploits of Philip Marlowe serves up ample helpings of period style, palpable mood, and odd humor, but can’t help coming out a little light on substance. Clearly a notable influence on more recent exercises in the genre, primarily the LA set THE BIG LEBOWSKI, INHERENT VICE, and twin Shane Black films KISS KISS BANG BANG and last year’s THE NICE GUYS, it entertains with focus on character, setting, and absurdity of circumstance leaving the plot to amble along, checking in when necessary, less preoccupied with solving the crime than with the strange journey that entails. And while Altman’s attempts here are noble and quite fascinating, THE LONG GOODBYE can’t help but feel like it stops just short of being truly satisfying.
The Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) of Altman’s world is a man out of time, perpetually dressed in a suit and tie, oblivious to the blazing sun and changing times. He’s almost lost in a dream of a bygone era, perhaps a tad naive in his marriage to a somewhat dated code, and shocked by the unforgiving brutality he’s slowly waking up to. Marlowe is less hardboiled here, something Altman instills in the opening sequence, where his dedication to his cat forces him on a late night grocery store trip at three o’clock in the morning in an attempt to provide the cat with its favorite meal. On his way out, Marlowe is unfazed by his neighbors, topless young women who are constantly outdoors practicing their yoga (something he later admits to having absolutely no understanding of), though he offers to bring them back some packages of brownie mix, possibly unaware of their intended use. He simply shrugs and wanders off, mumbling to himself, “It’s okay with me,” something that becomes an ironic mantra throughout. It’s a wonderful sequence that highlights how out of touch he really is while allowing us to warm to those forgotten elements of the past he embodies.
Gould is positively terrific and winning as this schluppy, wise-cracking fool, lovable in his relationship with his feline and pinheaded in his relationships with his acquaintances. But, to be honest, there’s perhaps something oddly disconnecting in the fact that Marlowe’s only real connection is with his cat. His interactions with other humans have very little shared history, something that purposefully isolates him further, but, in turn, isolates him from the audience. Yet his charms are undeniable, a sauntering smokestack that uses every surface imaginable to ignite a match, and his bemused mutterings to himself give us a personal touch, even if their sound quality feels as if recorded separately or out of place. And Gould works the arc beautifully, arriving at a point of hardened bitterness for the trials he’s been through by the film’s conclusion. There’s a bit of shocking brutality there only preceded by one executed by gangster Marty Augustine, portrayed terrifyingly by Mark Rydell as a man whose seeming politeness gives way to startling and unpredictable violence. There’s some other great supporting turns as well, particularly an unhinged and wild Sterling Hayden as an unproductive writer who seems to be attempting to drink Hemingway under the table, and Nina van Pallandt is alluring and mysterious as his troubled wife. And, yes, that’s certainly a young Arnold Schwarzenegger providing us with a taste of his trademark unbelievable screen persona in the shot above.
Visually it’s unsurprisingly gorgeous, the dark nights and brilliant days captured vividly by Vilmos Zsigmond, a cinematic painter whose credits in the 1970s feature the most stunning of the works of Spielberg, Cimino, and Altman himself. His framing is spectacular, finding unique compositions through panes of glass, reflections, and various foliage, always as an observer, from the outside looking in. The images are frequently packed with information, often highlighting eccentricities in the background amidst something equally engaging in the foreground. And maybe that’s where Altman truly kind of lost me, his attempts to transpose the confusion and sporadic nature of Marlowe onto the audience’s view becoming too unfocused to draw me into the characters and the story. Rarely ever shooting in close-up, there are very few opportunities to feel truly connected, and the pans and edits seem almost meaningless, or, even worse, purposefully meaningless. There’s plenty of ways to perplex the viewer while still being absurdly entertaining, unfortunately Altman’s flourishes forced me to a state of indifference and occasional boredom.
There’s plenty worth recommending a viewing, and I understand and agree with the lauding by its strong fanbase of its unconventional take, beautiful camerawork, and wonderful performances. Gould and Zsigmond are the real treats here. Its effect and imprint on recent neo-noirs with stumbling, puzzled, out of touch investigators is significantly felt, yet I frequently wished I was watching them instead. The likes of the Dude in the Coen’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI or Doc Sportello in INHERENT VICE are in no way admirable, but it isn’t just their antiquated mentalities in a world changing around them that’s fascinating, it’s also their interpersonal relationships and histories that, god love ’em, help chisel their way into our hearts. The final moments of both leave in their wake deep and complex feelings that reflect on those very ideas and connections, ones that return immediately upon reflection. Maybe that’s why THE LONG GOODBYE never quite grabbed me, leaving me surprised but not impacted or enriched by the experience.
(They Shoot Pictures is a series of posts dedicated to viewing films from the yearly updated 1,000 greatest films list “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”, compiled from rankings by critics and filmmakers alike at theyshootpictures.com)