Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Long Goodbye

directed by Robert Altman
MGM, 1973, 112 minutes
Cast: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Henry Gibson, Mark Rydell

It's Fall, my favorite season and the time of year when I revisit the things I love Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. Spying a new edition of Chandler's best, most mature work The Long Goodbye (1953) at Daedalus Books & Music, I quickly devoured it. It was one of the few Marlowe novels that wasn't pieced together from short stories Chandler had previously published in pulp magazines (a cherry-picking technique he called "cannibalizing" his own narratives).

Chandler's late great masterpiece

The following week at Daedalus, I saw the DVD reissue of Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, starring Elliott Gould at the height of his anti-Establishment, anti-hero popularity (Little Murders, Getting Straight, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, M*A*S*H), and picked it up, remembering only that I liked it when I saw it some 20 years ago. It's a command performance, Elliott's favorite in fact, but with Chandler's rich prose still fresh in my mind from reading The Long Goodbye, I was somewhat irked at the liberties taken with the source material.

Style Over Narrative

Then I realized that Altman, like Chandler, was always someone more interested in style - and especially language and characterization - over narrative. For his part, Chandler even admitted as much when, during the filming of The Big Sleep (1946), a confused Howard Hawks (besieged by his head-scratching script-writers William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett) contacted Chandler to ask who exactly killed whom and the author famously replied that he himself wasn't sure! Likewise, Altman was only attracted to the script of The Long Goodbye when he was given the assurance that he could cast Elliott Gould as Marlowe and that he could tack on his own, anti-hero ending. So, purists beware, if you want adherence to Chandler's novels and dialogue, watch Bogie in Hawks' The Big Sleep or Dick Powell in Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944). (Interestingly enough, The Long Goodbye and Hawks' The Big Sleep shared the same scriptwriter, Leigh Brackett - though she passed away before Altman's film was released in 1973).

And Altman, who wasn't interested at all in faithful adaptations of someone's else's work, was more interested in the idea of what it would be like for an Old School '30s and '40s-era hard-boiled romantic like Philip Marlowe (for that's what Chandler considered him and Marlowe even describes himself in The Long Goodbye as "a romantic...I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what's the matter") to be placed into the middle of the sexually liberated, New Agey hippie landscape of 1970s Southern California. In fact, "Rip Van Marlowe" was his working title for The Long Goodbye. And he gave Gould, like all the actors he worked with in his career, free reign as far as improvisation. "I make them do the what they're trained to do, to act," he said.

So after Elliott Gould has been finger-printed at the police station and wipes the ink all over his face while doing a blackface impression of Al Jolsen, it's a total ad-lib. Gould's Marlowe is an update for sure, but his sarcasm and attitude are firmly in the Marlowe tradition of the '30s and '40s. But even in his day, Chandler considered his P.I. a throwback, a "man out of time" who is out of synch with the values surrounding him - or in Chandler's words, "this strange and corrupt world we live in." "Nobody understands me," Marlowe tells Mrs. Loring in The Long Goodbye. "I'm enigmatic." Another character in the novel, the Latino thug Mendy Mendez, seems to sense this too when he refers to Marlowe as "Tarzan on a big red scooter" - that is, someone out of his element, stubbornly clinging to his archaic vine (and values) in a mechanized modern age.

And the rest of the casting is inspired as well, with Nina Van Pallandt as the blue-eyed ice-princess wife Eileen Wade, Sterling Hayden as madcap alcoholic writer Roger Wade (a second, but excellent, choice following the death of Altman's good friend Dan Blocker), the menacingly meek Henry Gibson as the quack Dr. Verringer, and former Major League Baseball pitcher (and Ball Four bad boy author) Jim Bouton (great '70s Jiffy-Pop bouffant!) as Terry Lennox. But Altman's most brilliant casting coup was signing Mark Rydell to portray the loony sociopathic Jewish mobster Marty Augustine (this character was a complete Altman-Brackett invention, standing in for and expanding the novel's Hispanic gangster Mendy Mendez). I love Rydell's first encounter with Gould when he tells him he "should be keeping shabbos" instead of wasting his time with a schmuck like him. And, of course, the scene in which he and his thugs take their clothes off - while attempting to force Marlowe to - so that no one has anything to hide behind in their interrogation (a scene also featuring a non-speaking but pectoral-flexing, cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bodyguard!). I wonder if Gould's quip in this scene - after Rydell says he used to be self-conscious about taking his clothes off because he didn't get his first pubic hair until 15 - about how Marty must have felt like one of the Three Little Pigs, was also an ad-lib. Hilarious scene and vintage Altman.

And speaking of traditions, the Hollywood studios have a long one of mis-marketing their releases. The Long Goodbye was no different. When the film opened in Los Angeles and Chicago, the original poster for the film showed Gould holding a gun and looking like a classic Bogart-era gumshoe with the tagline "Nothing says goodbye like a bullet." It was an anachronistic pitch to a genre (and audience) that just wasn't happening in the post-Easy Rider 1970s American cinema.

Another poster showed Gould with a cat on his shoulder and cat food in his hand, a gun sticking out of his pants and a ciggie stub sticking out of his mouth, and Nina Van Pallandt walking her dog in a doorway. The tagline was "I have two friends in the world. One is a cat. The other one is a murderer." This tough guy neo-noir pitch tanked with audiences as well.

The cats, dogs, gats and blondes poster

Altman complained about the posters and the producers came up with the idea of getting Mad magazine's legendary cartoonist Jack Davis to come up with a hipper poster. One that reflected the irreverent, sarcastic "no heroes" spirit that Elliott has mastered in th early '70s. The result, shown below, was used for the film's New York release where, suddenly, the film "killed," in Altman's words.

Jack Davis' poster for "The Long Goodbye"
ensured its cult status

"We did great box office but by then it was too late." And so The Long Goodbye missed out on being a commercial success but gained its long-running status as a cult film in the process. Thank you, Jack Davis!

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Anonymous Scott Wallace Brown said...

Adele has the Jack Davis poster framed and hanging in her hallway. Needless to say, I was impressed when I visited her place for the first time!

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