Even when I don’t love a Robert Altman film, I find myself fascinated by them. As I’ve gotten older and I return to his movies at different ages, they seem to be totally different each time. That’s not the case with every filmmaker, but there’s something about the way Altman’s signature allows you, as a viewer, real room for discovery. He was also very smart about making films that seem timeless, which keeps them feeling fresh even now, thirty years or so down the line.
Case in point: Altman’s 1973 take on Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” one of his Phillip Marlowe novels. I’m a detective fiction junkie, and Chandler’s one of the undisputed cornerstones of the genre. You can’t understand the history of our pop culture relationship with the private investigator until you grapple with Chandler and Hammet and Thompson and Cain, and Marlowe may be the most iconic character any of those guys created. I wouldn’t have called him a particularly elastic character in terms of conception, but when you compare Bogart’s portrayal to what Elliott Gould does here for Altman, you start to see just how durable and open for interpretation Marlowe really is.
Dropping a character like Marlowe, fully-formed, into early-’70s Southern California sounds like it’ll be dated almost by definition, but it’s not, and maybe that’s because of the friction between Marlowe’s personal code of conduct and the world around him, where everyone seems determined to live by their own personally-defined rules as well. Altman and his screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who’s best known to geeks as the original writer of “The Empire Strikes Back,” but who actually wrote one of Bogie’s Marlowe films back in the day) define Marlowe in a fairly traditional way. He believes in honor and decency, he’s happier using a well-timed sarcastic comment than a gun or a fist, and he holds friendship and loyalty as things valuable and inviolable. Yet even at the start of the film, we see how Marlowe’s a man who will bend his code of conduct if he has to. Watch how he deal with his cat, who will only eat one specific type of cat food, when he’s out of that particular brand. He tries to pull one over on the cat, putting another brand into the right can, but the cat’s not falling for it, and he bails. Permanently, it seems. Altman plays it as a joke, but he’s also showing you just how quickly Marlowe will sell out his own ideals. It’s sly character writing that really illuminates, and that’s true of the film as a whole. Ironic, since the entire film is about how hard everyone in Marlowe’s life works to conceal who they are. When his old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bonton) shows up and asks Marlowe to drive him to Mexico, that simple favor upends Marlowe’s entire life, plunging him into a world where everybody knows what’s going on except for him. He’s not trying to solve a case; he’s just trying to catch up.
This is the sort of movie where all the performances offer up particular pleasures, and where scenes unfold almost as mini-movies, complete in the way they define all these strange corners of LA subculture. Nina Van Pallandt wasn’t a professional actor, but she does nice work as Terry’s co-conspirator. Her real-life notoriety (she was in a relationship with Clifford Irving when his Howard Hughes biography hoax blew up in his face) informs everything she does here, and she seems authentically bruised. Sterling Hayden brings tremendous gravity to his role as her cuckolded husband, and there’s enormous depth of feeling to the work he does, even if he’s not in much of the film. But one performer in one scene steals the movie, and it’s one of the best sequences I’ve seen in any film in a while, one of the most casually catastrophic illustrations of someone’s capacity for violence. Mark Rydell plays a bland-faced Malibu millionaire Satan, and it’s the best thing he’s done out of any of his occasional trips in front of the camera. It’s so weird that this vile, creepy little freak is the director of “For The Boys” and “On Golden Pond.” Also, if you listen closely, you’ll hear Rydell drop a few lines of dialogue that should sound verrrrrrry familiar to fans of “The Big Lebowski.”
The extra features on the disc surprised me. There’s one short documentary about the way Altman and Gould crafted their take on Marlowe. It’s a nice look inside the process between two very entertaining artists at the height of their respective commercial powers. Younger readers may not be aware how big a movie star Elliott Gould was in the ’60s and ’70s, but he was… like a Tom Cruise or a Will Smith size movie star, the number-one box-office draw for several years in a row. I can’t imagine that happening now for a guy like Gould, but he was the perfect man for his times, when the shlub-as-hero archetype ruled supreme. Even more interesting is the piece about Vilmos Zsigmond’s “flashing” technique, used to give the movie its color-blasted look, as well as a reprint about the process from a 1973 issue of American Cinematographer. Zsigmond was at this most experimental at that time, and I love how the DVD pays tribute to the risks he took. Overall, it’s a great budget disc from MGM of a film that absolutely rewards repeat viewings.
My last thought about the film has to do with the way Altman uses the same song throughout, orchestrated dozens of different ways. It’s a nice way to thematically underscore the idea that Marlowe is, indeed, strong enough in conception to withstand any reinterpretation, and maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do… return to certain characters and ideas in each different era, not because they’ve changed, but because the way we approach them shines a light on just how much we’ve changed. Bogart could have never ended a film the way Gould does, but it makes perfect sense in context, and it still resonates decades after the fact.