Monday, November 7, 2011

CANON OF FILM: "THE LONG GOODBYE"

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett based on the novel by Raymond Chandler

I've written numerous times before on Robert Altman, and everytime I watch one of his films I get struck by how strangely realistic and believable his films come off, no matter what the subject or genre. His inventive use of sound design, where he mikes everybody, and allows for improv so the meandering of faraway conversations subtlely float in and out, creating a real world where his movies take place. It's strange because Altman also mastered every genre of movie he could. You'd think this style would only work selectively, but it doesn't. War comedy in "M*A*S*H", a western in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", the multi-narrative film that sometimes we just call "Altmanesque," ("Nashville," "Short Cuts,") the British Murder Weekend film ("Gosford Park"), he even did the strange, what-the-fuck thriller that's seems to predate David Lynch ("3 Women"). In "The Long Goodbye," he takes on one of cinema's most classic genres, the film noir. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character had been made into a feature-length film many times before, most notably Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in Howard Hawks's "The Big Sleep". Here, Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is transported in the modern world of early '70s L.A., literally waking up in this world as though he just entered it. (Gould secretly like to joke that the film was "Rip Van Marlowe")  He lives alone with his cat, (at least for a minute he lives with his cat), he has next-door neighbor hippie chicks who do naked yoga and make candles. He's a whip-smart wise-cracker, in a world where nobody cares that he cracks wise. He often just cracks a joke to himself. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), drops by in the middle of the night unnanounced, and asks for a ride to Tijuana. He's clearly in trouble, but Marlowe oblides. Cops soon barge into his home, thinking Marlowe had something to do with killing Lennox's wife. In a normal film, they'd mess everything up, and simply send a message, but Terry's wife has been killed. He spends three nights in jail, only released when Terry himself is dead in Mexico. Like all of Chandler, the film is episodic, as Marlowe stumbles into one situation after another, which don't seem to be linked, but apparently they are. They aren't always if you think things through, afterwards but Chandler's plot always rush forward into an ending that is at times inevitable, yet still leaves you thinking back and wondering, "how exactly did we get here". His first stop is a new client, Ms. Eileen Wade. (Nina Van Pallandt) Her husband, a famous author is missing, (Sterling Hayden) probably trying to dry himself up at a local resort run by a very suspicious experimental doctor (Henry Gibson, a favorite of Altman). After the police come to take him out, he gets an unexpected visit from the local gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell). He's one of the most interesting gangster characters I've ever seen in film. At one point, he demands that everybody take all their clothes off, including himself, to show that nobody's wearing a wire or a weaporn. The most memorable scene involves a sudden burst of shocking violence in Marlowe's apartment. It's sudden because he's not an over-the-top gangster we've seen in other gangster films, sometimes great gangster films. He's an Altman gangster. He's talks softly and carries a big Coca-Cola bottle. He even seems pleasant enough to be around, almost too crazy to be a lead gangster, but Terry's was working for him, and he was supposed to bring him some money that hasn't been dropped off yet. The girl he's working for also knew Terry's wife. They lived near each other, and now that her husband's home, she can't seem to want to get rid of Marlowe quite yet, and at times, neither does her husband. The movie has a sly running joke, where all the music that's played is different versions of the song "The Long Goodbye," played on the radio, sung by different artists, it's even played by a funeral procession in Mexico. You can see the band has taped the music on the back of the person in front of them. Is this an error? Maybe, but why would the band know the song to begin with? If they don't know it yet, show that they don't know it yet. It's these strange little choices that Altman makes that pepper his film. For a  regular filmmaker, they're mistakes. For Altman, they're happy accidents, and real life has accidents, even if real life exists in a world with Popeye and Olive Oyl, or one where Philip Marlowe exists, twenty years after he's supposed to be living, and he can't even go through the night without pissing off his cat. Altman made many great films, and this is certainly one of his best, but the most interesting thing about his films is that he could transfer his style and tells any story he wants. The same way an actor can effectively play Hamlet at ages that range from teenager to middle age- to even old age, Altman, seems to always be Altman, no matter what genre he inserts himself in.
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