The Long Goodbye (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 08/19/08 at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA

The most novel thing about going to see Robert Altman’s interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was that it was in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, the hallowed ground of Bay Area cinema to which I had never been before.  Whereas some cinemas (like the Castro) offer the character of place and charm, the PFA is all about the movies.  Their schedule, which was just running out, was jaw-dropping in comparison with any other cinema around here.  Would that it was in San Francisco!  I may have to change my ways and venture out there more often.  I really should.

I’d seen The Long Goodbye back a few years ago at the Castro.  It’s a modern (1970’s modern) take on the character of Philip Marlowe and the noir world of Los Angeles.  Instead of Humphrey Bogart, we’ve got Elliott Gould, mumbling witicisms and wisecracks like Popeye the Sailor.  He’s not hard-boiled, he’s a smart-aleck.  And the Los Angeles he inhabits (in a crazy apartment way up on a hill) neighbors some drug-addled, topless hippie chicks who do non-stop yoga and meditation and drugs (apparently).

Not only is the physical Los Angeles different from the 1940’s, even though Altman uses many locations that would have fit of that era, but the filmic style is a stark contrast to the Hollywood style of the era.  The point in contrast is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) with its luminous black-and-white, classic Hollywood style.  Altman’s pacing, camera-work, entire approach is looser, sloppier, and somewhat improvisational.  The style has some of the distancing qualities of the French New Wave, but echoes again with the time of the film’s present.

It’s an active discourse in the film, the aging edifices and traditions of Hollywood, played with in enumerous ways throughout the film, from the opening and closing quips of the song, “Hooray for Hollywood” to its use of its own freshly composed theme song “The Long Goodbye”, composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, a jazzy retro number that Altman plays throughout the film in a multitude of versions, lush vocal renditions, a mariachi death march, hummed by the film’s villain…  It’s everywhere.  It’s misty.  But it’s de-mystified.

Altman also features a security guard who specializes in mimickry of old movie stars.  The whole of Hollywood has been reduced to these odd job quirks.

The film is actually quite funny in many places, filled with running jokes like Elliott Gould striking matches off of the scenery and lighting cigarettes constantly.  Even in its humor, there is an air of sadness, the dying relationship of the famous author and his wife as he strives drunkenly toward suicide.  There is tragedy and deceit and a villain who is vicious for no good reason.  Gould’s Marlowe is almost effected by what he sees.  He, like the traditional Marlowe, is a moral center in an off-tilt world and is motivated by rectifying things.  But he’s also pretty carefree.

The film comes from Altman’s richest period when he made MASH (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1973), and Nashville (1975), among others.  It’s an odd film in looking from a noir tradition.  Not really a send-up, per se, but a definite re-working, though working with some of the traditions, even with screenwriter Leigh Brackett who had also co-written the 1946 version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, another reconnection with the Hollywood of the past within the Hollywood of its then-present.