Friday, January 10, 2014

The Long Goodbye (1973) ****

When people talk about director Robert Altman, they tend to bring up the movie “Nashville.”  When the subject of movie adaptations of Raymond Chandler books comes up, most people immediately think of “The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  For my money, though, the best Altman movie AND best Raymond Chandler adaptation is “The Long Goodbye.”  Starring Elliott Gould as timeless detective Philip Marlowe, the film beautifully translates the 1940’s detective into Altman’s early-‘70s L.A.
When the hapless Marlowe gives his friend Terry Lennox a late-night ride to the Mexican border, his world gets turned upside down.  Next thing he knows, Marlowe is being questioned by the police, and Lennox is being sought for the murder of Lennox’s wife.  When Lennox commits suicide in a Mexican hotel room, leaving behind a full confession, the cops turn Marlowe loose and call the case closed.  Marlowe, however, doesn’t buy his friend’s guilt, and he sets out to find the real killer.  The trail leads him through the usual noir rogue’s gallery of thugs, shady characters, and femmes fatales.
Philip Marlowe is the prototype for a legion of fictional private-eyes.  He walks through a world of scum and villainy bearing a code of honor that would probably have been called old-fashioned in the 1940’s, let alone the 1970’s.  He approaches a case nonchalantly, but keeps pushing and asking questions until, battered and bruised, he gets to what is always an ugly truth.  Some would say that Marlowe is such the prototype for this style of character that the genre is a cliché, and “The Long Goodbye” has some fun with the more familiar tropes of the genre.  In a scene with two police officers, Marlowe asks, “Is this the part where I ask, ’What’s this all about?’ and your partner says ’I ask the questions here.’?”  For the most part, however, Gould plays the character straight.
While there are aspects of the plot that may not hold up to scrutiny, the story is mostly engrossing.  It’s also very easy to look at.  Altman puts L.A.’s modernist architecture to work, setting every scene in some fascinating-looking building.
At the end of the day, though, what makes this film great is the Philip Marlowe character and Gould’s excellent, laconic, chain-smoking portrayal of him.  With his suits, his vintage car, and his code of honor, Marlowe is very much an anachronism.  Robert Altman has suggested that that was his vision, referring to the character as “Rip Van Marlowe.”  It really does feel like the man fell asleep in 1949 and awoke wearing a suit and tie in the amoral, casual world of 1973 with no idea what had happened in between.  His seeming indolence is just an act, though.  When it’s time for action, Marlowe is always where he needs to be.  When, in the end, Marlowe is told that when it comes to his moral code and his concern for the truth, “Nobody cares,” he is rock steady in his reply of “Yeah, nobody cares but me.”

4 stars out of 5

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