Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Reel Retrospective: The Long Goodbye (1973): A Dick Who Doesn't Give a Damn

Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel) must be the only detective story where the cat is more important than the crime. But then, did anyone expect predictability from that most maverick of directors, the one who created MASH?

If that opening sentence is somewhat bewildering, let's set the scene. Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is woken in the middle of the night by his cat's incessant appeal for food. What follows is a shuffling, mumbling 10 minute attempt by our hero to rustle up some moggy food. When he pops to the store and finds that his normal brand isn't in stock, he attempts to supplant it with an inferior kind (Whiskers it presumably ain't). Naturally, the cat has none of this.

This leads absolutely nowhere but maybe the most eloquent ever construction of the shabby, lonely private dick archetype. Yet, typical of Altman, it's hardly a familiar one. His Marlowe is a perpetual midnight soul whose time spent investigating others has resulted in his own life stagnating. Following the opening kitty scenes are what would normally be the catalyst for the criminal plot: Marlowe is asked by his old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) for a lift to the Mexican border. On the return home, Marlowe is rumbled by two cops who accuse Lennox of murdering his wife. From here the mystery can only deepen...

Not that any urgency is obvious from the demeanour of our protagonist. Gould's Marlowe is a washed up shambles adrift in the modern world - Altman seems conscious to make the formerly 40s based character a fish out of water in a contemporary 70s setting. Typically the director has great fun deviating from the story at hand as he fiddles with other noir conventions, in the process honing his famous, semi-improvised style (at one point Gould, improvising the character, smears black ink on his face making a mockery of the policeman interviewing him).

The Long Goodbye then falls somewhere uneasily between a social film and a detective film. It is both of them and none of them, but then this genre tampering has the director's stamp all over it. Foreshadowing his later work, he gets great mileage out of the Hollywood setting, casting it as an alien world where the inhabitants can't draw the lines between reality and movie reality: scene-stealing Ken Sansom, glibly credited as 'Colony Guard', queries visitors at his tollbooth as a variety of different characters, testing their movie knowledge before letting them through.

When the movie finally gets on track to solving the mystery, it seems perfunctory, an add-on, although Marlowe's closing act of violence (giving full reign to the movie's tagline 'Nothing says goodbye like a bullet') is a real jolt. Of course violence has simmered all the way through, from John Williams and Johnny Mercer's ballad crooning its inevitability to thuggish Mark Rydell smashing a glass in his moll's face (upping the violence of The Big Heat tenfold). Still, at least none is committed on the cat, right?

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