Robert Altman's offbeat '70s transposition of Chandler's noir classic
The ’70s stranglehold on 21st-century pop culture continues. If it’s not fashion-victim bands like Jet and Kings Of Leon, it’s Ice Storm/Boogie Nights-style movies set in the last decade, before corporate consolidation truly homogenised popular art. Welcome back, then, to actual ’70s cinema?of the offbeat and maverick kind, naturally.
Itself nostalgic for an earlier time?the ’40s of Raymond Chandler’s noir LA?Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye transposed the false paradise of that novel to the scuzzy, flared decadence of the year in which it was made: 1972.
In The Long Goodbye, sylph-like hippie chicks disrobe in the Hollywood hillside apartment opposite private dick Philip Marlowe’s own abode. A vicious Jewish gangster looks like a cross between Frankie Valli and Mickie Most. Marlowe’s buddy, Terry Lennox, resembles an Owen Wilson version of Dennis Wilson.
Here the rich and indolent fritter their lives away in the Malibu Colony. Women waft about in gauzy chiffon blouses. There’s chicken Kiev for dinner, and Grand-Marnier afterwards. It’s Steely Dan’s world, these characters just live in it.
The Long Goodbye, made in an era when not all leading Hollywood men had to be buff action-hero goyim, isn’t exactly Chinatown (1974). Roman Polanski’s film looks as seductive and troubling as it ever was, whereas Goodbye is just a touch quaint now. Some of that has to do with Chandler himself, whose LA novels have dated less well than those of, say, Ross MacDonald. (Sadly, no one as yet has managed to translate MacDonald, a hero of the late Warren Zevon, to the screen with anything that approaches his psychological complexity.)
Still Altman, with M*A*S*H and McCabe And Mrs Miller behind him, creates a beguiling mood for The Long Goodbye?and genuine suspense. We don’t desperately care about any of these people?Marlowe included?but there’s a shimmering southern-Californian vibe to the film that vaguely mesmerises.
A mix of comedy and creepiness, Leigh Brackett’s screenplay is unsophisticated next to the psychopathic retro-noir of Ellroy and LA Confidential. Elliott Gould plays an unshaven, unheroic Marlowe?picture a Jewish Tom Waits?who’s unravelling the threads that connect his fugitive friend Lennox to the shrill, ruthless mobster (Mark Rydell) as well as to a huge, Hemingway-esque drunk (Sterling Hayden) and his lissome Brit-blonde spouse (Nina Van Pallandt).
Not to mention sinister little Henry Gibson, subsequently a star of Altman’s Nashville and here playing a puffed-up quack whose relationship to Hayden’s dipso novelist is scarily redolent of Dr Eugene Landy’s to Brian Wilson.
The Long Goodbye has some fine montages and thematic repetitions. We see Gould on the beach, reflected in the window as Hayden rages impotently at Van Pallandt?the Patsy Kensit of her time. Later, at night, we see Gould and Van Pallandt in the same window as Hayden?a barking Nick Nolte in thrall to his own bogus machismo?strides suicidally into the dark crashing waves. The moment where Hayden’s Doberman emerges from the surf with his master’s walking stick is still dramatic and moving.
The movie also packs the predictable twist that we’re inured to these days. Again, it’s hardly on a par with Coppola’s The Conversation, but I remember being satisfyingly shocked by the ending when I first saw the film. There are shades of Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia in the closing scenes in Mexico.
Twenty years later, back from his wilderness years, Altman took a more sprawling look at LA in the epic Short Cuts. At its heart, one could feel the presence of the earlier, more compact film.
The reputation of Altman’s ’70s oeuvre has dwindled a little, but The Long Goodbye is worth more than a nodding acquaintance.