Friday, September 29, 2006

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is woken up by his cat in the middle of the night. The reasons for the awakening are as mundane as possible --- the cat needs to be fed --- but the events that tail Marlowe's sudden awakening seems to be more nightmarish than real. After bringing home from the thrift store some cat food that doesn't match to his cat's taste, an uninvited friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, allegedly escaping some bit of trouble he has caused. The trouble seems to be a bit bigger than what was described when upon Marlowe's return, he is harrassed by the police who is investigating the murder of Lennox's wife. He is incarcerated for three days, and after release, is hired by a wealthy wife (Nina Van Pallandt) of an alcoholic novelist (Sterling Hayden) to locate and rescue the husband from the clutches of a quack psychiatrist (Henry Gibson).

The Long Goodbye is perhaps too bright to be a noir, but when night strikes and the mysteries start unraveling, it is almost indubitable that the film has noir roots. Set in Los Angeles where America is slowly mutating into a colony of new age fanatics. Marlowe lives in the penthouse of a tall compound building. His neighbors are a bunch of marijuana-smoking, yoga-practicing, and perpetually half naked women who seem to be catching the attention of Marlowe's frequently uninvited visitors. The Long Goodbye's Los Angeles is a town of degenerate weirdos, with Marlowe the biggest weirdo of them all. He frequently talks to himself when his only companion cat is in absentia. He is far too smart to be a private eye, and he states that his practice does not delve into divorce stuff --- probably the only client base private eyes have during the seventies. Like the gate guard of the exclusive beach side community who imitates noir screen actors and actresses, Marlowe seems to be living in a perpetual era of crime thrillers and murder mysteries when in fact, the seventies are slowly transforming into an age of police procedural and artless, mystery-less murders.

Leigh Brackett's dialogue, adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, is populated with topnotch wit that oddly seems out-of-place underneath the bright California sun. The domestic drama between the writer and his wife is heightened by a sterling approach to the subtle emotions sparking between the two. The writer says that his writer's block is almost equal to his impotence, and the wife quickly alludes to the fact that their marriage has impotence written all over it. The net of connections between the original murder mystery and the beachside literary couple seems to be a lot looser than the noir of the forties or the fifties, but the written work, in the hands of Robert Altman flows with earnest ease, and welcomes parody and commentaries within the tense structure of the genre.

The Long Goodbye is supplemented by a repetitive playing of John Williams' somewhat incomplete song of the same title. The song never reaches a refrain or a second stanza but is often repeated in different styles and rhythm, and from different sources. Like Altman's film, the Williams song is smoky and nebulous in form. Altman's visuals inhabit a somewhat aerial form, often drifting in and out of locations then steadily concentrating on the face of Gould (and Gould's face isn't exactly one that matches the hardened faces of the anti-heroes of noir). It's an effective visual style, coupled with Altman's aural mastery. It's a dizzying roller coaster ride of perhaps the last murder mystery that Hollywood will make which is in the vein of the original noirs of old. Other films will follow suit, but I doubt they can replicate Altman's extraordinary vision and wit in telling this crime tale.

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