Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Long Goodbye

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Long Goodbye



This review contains spoilers about the book and the film.

One of the most unique neo-noirs of the seventies, The Long Goodbye displays both the advantages and pitfalls of free-association adaptation. Both critics and defenders of the film tend to miss the point. Goodbye boosters point to Altman's rich invention and thought-provoking subversion of genre tropes, but tend to take for granted the conventionality of the source - Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Marlowe had become in '73 and remains today a cultural icon as the prototypical private eye thanks to Chandler's series of detective stories and novels spanning the thirties and forties and (especially pertinent here) the films based on this material. Meanwhile, the film's critics notice what Gould's and Altman's Marlowe is missing but don't seem to appreciate what is added to, or even improved upon, from the book. The latter group have become more obsolete these days, as the distance from Chandler's era increases and the movie becomes more and more a part of the cinematic firmament it once seemed to subvert - a fixture rather than an outlier. In the mean time, I sense, less and less people commenting on the film have actually read the book it's based on, or realize how much the film's sense of subversion, disappointment, and distance shares with the novel itself - and what the film misses in some of its broader departures.

In a sense, this is not very surprising. When Leigh Brackett adapted The Long Goodbye, Chandler's penultimate (and to many eyes, best) Marlowe novel, it had been twenty years since the book was written and few eras have been as tumultuous as that which passed between 1953 and 1973. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who had worked on the most famous Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, in the mid-forties) felt a need to update the book, claiming that parts of it were implausible and "unsatisfactory." She wanted to update it to the seventies, recognizing that codes of masculinity and social behavior had been transformed; she sensed that it would seem silly or stilted if the postwar milieu was preserved in amber (as indeed it does in the contemporaneous period adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely). Brackett eliminated the femme fatale (Eileen Wade remains disingenuous but is no longer deadly), updated the setting, and most importantly made Terry Lennox, Marlowe's friend and the engine of the plot, into a narcissistic villain whom Marlowe murders himself in the dramatically-altered conclusion. Altman want even further with Brackett's revisions, using improvisatory methods, free association additions, and cinematographic invention (heavy use of zoom lenses, camera movement, and film-flashing) to dilute the remaining influence of the old noirs until Marlowe - driving an old forties car, and wearing a suit - came to seem a fish-out-of-water, a relic of Old Hollywood adrift in the New; although his hipster demeanor and lack of emotional control mark even him as a post-sixties figure.

What results is a fascinating but at times disappointing revision of Chandler's The Long Goodbye. The film is best seen as a collection of bold and vigorous gestures and details, moments that may seem out of place or off-kilter - in that sense, of a piece with Altman's thrillingly unsettling oeuvre. As a collection of such fragments, The Long Goodbye is a very rich picture. But as a totality, it loses much of the novel's psychological complexity, emotional resonance, and structural integrity - unsurprising as Brackett seems to have missed much of the novel's appeal, and Altman himself claims to have read the open and close of the book but little in between. In Chandler's version, the connection between Marlowe and his friend Terry Lennox is established right away and allowed to develop before Lennox comes to Marlowe and asks him to assist in a flight across the border to Mexico. We learn not only how friendship developed between the two very different men (Lennox is a morose alcoholic, Marlowe a private eye with impeccable self-control), but begin to suspect why - despite Lennox's weakness and Marlowe's strength, both men are sensitive, sad, and out of place in the surrounding world. Lennox sees in Marlowe a better version of himself, while Marlowe sees in Lennox a trap into which he could easily fall. Thus we understand why Marlowe, without asking any questions, assists Lennox in an escape from the police after Lennox's rich, promiscuous wife has been killed (perhaps by himself).

In the movie, Lennox is a glib playboy. Unlike the figure in the book, a war hero with a scarred face, this Lennox seems to be an untroubled figure, not haunted by any demons or memories. We don't really understand why Marlowe is friends with him - he just is - and Marlowe's later loyalty, it is indicated within the film and without (through comments by Brackett, Altman, and others), is a foolish gesture of chivalry, out of place in the modern era. When Lennox turns out to be a scumbag, having actually murdered his wife and put Marlowe on the spot, we aren't surprised and Marlowe's defense of his friend seems old-fashioned and silly as Lennox himself points out, and as Marlowe eventually admits (by shooting Lennox for his betrayal). It's been indicated that this is a subversion of Chandler's own code, an acknowledgement that his vision of the detective as latter-day knight was overly romantic and unrealistic, but in fact this is a gross simplification of the Marlowe ethos. Marlowe is a romantic, but he isn't a fool - and the book, with its flavor of disappointment, its already-existing indication that Marlowe is a man out of place and time (and moreover, that he knows it), hardly needs to be subverted for the benefit of "modern" sensibilities (as if those didn't already exist in 1953).

Chandler closes the novel with Lennox returning to L.A. and visiting Marlowe in disguise. Marlowe recognizes him and returns a $5000 bill which Lennox sent and Marlowe kept, unused, as a souvenir. He realizes that Lennox, while not actually a murderer or untroubled conscience (as in the movie), is cowardly and self-serving and that even Marlowe's seemingly realistic sense of loyalty and friendship were chimerical concepts. The conclusion, in which Marlowe does not shoot Lennox but rather gives him the cold shoulder, is far more powerful than the Mexican shoot-'em-up at the end of the movie, and is far more charged with disappointment and a sense of loss, because more is at stake. Altman's conclusion was celebrated and defended as a more realistic, subversive, and moral conclusion than Chandler's, but I'd argue it's exactly the reverse. Indeed, it's a far more "Hollywood" ending than Chandler's and it's rather remarkable that it could be accepted as anything else (some writers have tried to pass it off as an ironic gesture, reflecting but not endorsing the era's obsession with vigilante gesture, but Altman's own statements on the subject seem to contradict this reading).

Brackett and Altman are far more successful with two other characters - one major and one minor - for opposite reasons. Roger Wade, the alcoholic novelist who is murdered in a fake suicide in the book, and actually commits suicide (by walking into the sea) in the movie, remains a blustering, melancholy triumph of characterization on page and screen. It's been suggested that Marlowe, Lennox, and Wade represent a tripartite self-portrait on Chandler's part, manifestations of the disciplined, pathetic, and grandiose aspects of his personality respectively. While missing the Chandleresque overtones in Lennox and handling Marlowe with mixed results, Altman immediately recognized Wade's similarities to the author. By casting Sterling Hayden, old-school actor, repentent informer, and recovering alcoholic (recovering apparently with copious helpings of hash), Altman enhances the sense of Wade as a figure from the past, a movingly tragic figure in a world that has forgotten the meaning of tragedy. The only major misstep in the Wade sequences involves not Wade, but Marlowe, whose drunken, teary tirade after Wade's death is completely out of character, even for the less disciplined seventies version of the sleuth onscreen. On the other hand, there is a brilliant transformation of Dr. Verringer (Wade's quack doctor) into a spiteful little troll who humiliates Wade at a party by asking the much larger man for money and then slapping him across the face.

This is where Altman is best, finding cinematic gestures to get across literary devices - instead of dialogue, we get action demonstrating Wade's loss of dignity, a visual moment that is both surprising and infinitely right. It is echoed by what may be the film's most famous moment, also an addition with no correlation in the book (or Brackett's screenplay): when gangster Marty Augustine smashes a Coke bottle across his demure girlfriend's face, in order to show Marlowe what will happen if he doesn't turn over Lennox's money - "Her, I love. You I don't even like." The character of Augustine, barely adapted from Chandler's Marty Melendez (probably the weakest, most cliched character in the book), is the film's best invention and largely the work of director/actor Mark Rydell, who didn't like Brackett's characterization in the screenplay, and whose suggestions Altman enthusiastically embraced. He is both funny and nasty, at once a larger-than-life cartoon of a swingin' seventies mobster and a reminder of the dark reality hovering around the playful genre games of the movie (this is the aspect Altman highlighted most). Augustine is one of the areas where the film actually improves upon the book.

The Long Goodbye is in many ways an excellent picture - and it's unarguably inventive, from its innovative photography, to its loose performances, to its clever use of a single song (in multiple forms on the soundtrack), and most importantly for its willingness to embrace wildly irreverent and bracing asides (Marlowe's blackface in the interrogation room, Augustine's Coke bottle violence and bizarre clothes-stripping "redemption," the humping dogs caught in a Mexican montage, that brilliant harmonica flourish which helps redeem the ending). Its use of stormy seas at Malibu vs. the lifeless enclave of the books' "Idle Valley" seems more resonant to me (though as a beach bum, perhaps I'm biased). It succeeds as a collection of knickknacks and odd-ends and since this is, to a large extent, how cinema thrives - the termitic charms of the medium, to borrow critic Manny Farber's formulation - this is a very good thing. But it still seems a pity that Altman and Brackett seem so uninterested in the very heart of Chandler's book, the thing that makes it more penetrating and timeless - despite its ostensibly "old-fashioned" setting and the familiarity that has set in around its tropes and icons (although it's worth remembering that the book is actually intended as a subversion and departure from the earlier detective fiction in and of itself).

The book is about the author, reader, and characters, engaging in the long goodbyes of life. The film - except for the scenes with Sterling Hayden as Wade - is more about a world in which the long goodbye has already been said, and now we can't even remember why.

See also Spade & Marlowe, Private Eyes for my take on the classic Hollywood interpretation of the literary sleuths.

In researching this piece, I had help from the following books: A Cinema of Loneliness, by Robert Kolker; Creatures of Darkness, by Gene Phillips; Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff; Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, by Patrick McGilligan; The Raymond Chandler Papers, edited by Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane; and Raymond Chandler, by William Marling.

8 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I love Altman, Joel, but I could never connect with this film, so I'd agree with your disclaimer that it was in part a disappointment, and an unsatisfactory transcription of Chandler. I can't right now put my finger on it as I haven't seen the film in years, but I found it listless and tedious. But yeah I'm in a big minority.

This is quite a triumphant return here my friend!

Joel Bocko said...

I'm probably easier on the film than you, though the first time I saw it, it mostly mystified me. Now having read the book I can kind of see where it missed the mark on some aspects (mostly the Terry Lennox area). Really, I think it's kind of a failure as an adaptation but a success as a genre-riff. I wonder if part of the reason its reputation has improved over time is that fewer people are coming to it with knowledge of Chandler. At any rate, I'd never read anything by him a few months ago but since then I've been on a binge - a lot of the pulp stories and several of the novels, with The Big Sleep probably next. I also read The Maltese Falcon and am considering doing a bunch of detective-film posts in the next few weeks, albeit continuing at this relatively slow pace for the time being.

Paul J. Marasa said...

First of all, Joel, this is compellingly written--a real page-scroller (ahem). Someone should be paying you for such labors.

While I've softened on Altman's film over the years, in defense of my lingering dissatisfaction let me point out what a dyed-in-the-wool auteur Altman is--in that the things he does that turn me away occur in most of his movies. There are things even in M*A*S*H and Nashville that I find off-putting, to say the least. Maybe there's too much of a sense of heart-on-the-sleeve--or perhaps, as Orwell puts it in "Why I Write," the motive of "sheer egoism" seems to push forward more than I'd like.

In any case, you're absolutely right about the flourishes of brilliance. The Coke bottle scene stands out--and I'm not enough of a compleatist to know if the gangster's punchline is original to this film or occurred before--but it certainly has been imitated in later films. And while there's something creepy in Gould's brand of narcissism, I think he does some things well.

Your most significant comment, though, lies in your recognition of the film's reluctance, to put it mildly, to examine the heart of the novel. I learned long ago not to complain when a movie isn't "just like the book." (If we had world enough and time, I'd bore you with a routine I saw Martin Mull do live in the '70s about fans wanting live versions of songs to sound just like the album. What the heck, I'll bore you: He agreed completely, and then commenced to put off beginning the song for a long time--minutes passed--by interrupting himself to further comment on his desire to make the song sound just like the album, his disgust with performers who didn't do so, and on and on. It was a (Andy) Kaufmanesque experience: audience members got impatient, some muttered; it was funny and uncomfortable--I guess, in true '70s fashion, funny because it was uncomfortable.

Where was I? Oh, yeah: the heart of the novel. That's all I want from a "faithful" adaption--which is why Jackson's LOTR trilogy is such a success. The geeks mourned the loss of scenes and shook in impotent rage over the changes and "excesses"; and, while I'm one of those geeks--having first read the books in high school in the '70s, during what I believe was the first wave of poster-teeshirt-calendar-etc. mania--I think Jackson loved the books and understood both their heroic and tender hearts.

Altman's movie misses that. Yes, excellent touches, as you dutifully point out. But, to go to the Big One, I cannot forgive the ending. As you note, Marlowe is no fool--but as he slogs his way through the muck and mire, he is determined not to let his cuffs get too muddy/bloody. Altman's ending is the Marlowe equivalent of an orgy. He may be many things, but Caligula aint one of them. He knows what Lennox is--but you're right: It's better for him to be sad in that knowledge, and to treat Lennox as already dead. It reminds me of Lao-tzu's comment about the leader going to war: He does not go in joy, but as if he is attending a funeral. The book's ending has that ethos; to deny it is to tell us that, at its worst, the movie was made in contempt of Marlowe. Ah, the '70s: the little decade that couldn't.

Well, I've wasted enough of your time. Thanks for visiting my blog--and yes, I saw The Dinner Game when it was first released on DVD, and was amused by Dinner for Schmucks' all-out assault on the original film's decidedly more low-key approach. And also thanks for recalling my Marlowe comments on WITD. I'll have to check them out myself to see what that wise young man was going on about. Take care.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for the awesome comment, Paul -I knew when I ran across that Wonders thread thatI wanted to hear more from you on the subject. For me the killer change is not so much the glib ending alone as everything that leads up to and includes it. The book boiled down to it's essence is a tale of unrequited friendship. Marlowe thought he found another lost soul like himself albeit one more helpless than he but in fact he was only projecting his own tragic persona on to a pathetic and self serving character unworthy of such sympathy. Nonetheless we can see how he made such a mistake. In the film there is absolutely no reason for us to share Marlowe's sympathy for Lennox and indeed Lennox hardly even exists onscreen as a character. It almost makes one wonder why Brackett's and Altman even adapted the book in the first place instead of just starting with something new - they seem thoroughly uninterested in what makes the book work or tick in the first place. Almost like they thought well really any Chandler will do. Other than Wade, nothing vital from the book really carries over - all the best bits are new inventions. Perhaps they really should have just started from scratch - it would make their reinvention of Marlowe seem less duplicitous. Side note about Wade though - I just realized typing this now that he's the character Marlowe should honor with his friendship; he's the real deal Marlowe thinks Lennox is but ironically it's Wade he mistrusts. This may be the full extent of Marlowe's tragic flaw - an error in the application of his judgement. Right sentiment, wrong character. If he'd met the characters in the right order who knows what would have happened. In that sense it's almost like a love story - one potentially rich and beneficial relationship spoiled by the one that came before. How often does that happen in real life?

Paul J. Marasa said...

Yes, the focus on friendship, even--gasp!--love is much more sure-footed--OK: makes more sense--in the book.

As for the decision to do Marlowe at all, I am not as generous as you in imagining them decide that "any Marlowe will do." No, I think something else is at work, which I mentioned earlier: "contempt." I think they wanted to not merely deconstruct but demolish the genre--while taking advantage of its best qualities; and what better icon to smash than Marlowe? The wolfish Sam Spade is too close to their approach as is; and, although you rightfully point out the subversive element in Chandler--I'm fond of recalling a moment (from which book I can't say) in which Marlowe, after someone mouths off to him, observes that everyone's hardboiled these days--as if he knew he were in a hardboiled novel. (There's also the references to crime movies that are as postmodern as you need in genre fiction.)--Marlowe is nonetheless iconic, the template for most noir that comes after, both film and print.

Come to think of it, it's the people who were closest to the era that interrogated it most thoroughly--I'm thinking of something like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly back in 1955, at the almost-tail-end of the High Noir Period. From its opening scene the movie critiques its hero (and thank you, IMDb, for giving me the following): Sizing up Mike Hammer, Cloris Leachman's doomed Christina Bailey observes, "You have only one real lasting love. ... You. You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard." She figures him out in five minutes, and Ralph Meeker carries that judgment with him through the rest of the picture as he works his sadistic character like a boxer. This movie does more to expose the hardboiled detective's weaknesses more than Altman-Brackett-Gould could ever hope.

And once more: Nice touch, to note that "it's almost like a love story." Much hay has been made about the homoerotic subtext (I must roll my eyes even as I type it, but there it is) in Chandler. And it is fascinating. Do all noirs have such a subtext? I'll bet there's much more than meets the eye--and the ones that don't play this up probably insert characters like Joel Cairo to safely project noir's mad love onto the disreputable and the contemptible. But, as they say, it's in there.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah I think what bugs me about the idea of subverting Marlowe is the assumption that he's an icon rather than an iconoclast. It seems a lazy reading on their part for many of the reasons you point out. Besides if you're subverting a hard boiled detective why have him kill someone - I.e. become MORE hard-boiled? - in the end? Doesn't make sense.

Doug Noakes said...

It's a hard movie to like in some places but I agree there is something audacious in telling the story in such a deliberately off-putting way. Now that I know more about Altman's life I see this version as a springboard for something going on in his own personal world--the dissolution of an artist (Hayden's Wade) despite his reputation expanding. I think that is the character Atman relates too, not Marlowe. Just a hunch on my part. Excellent review by the way Joel. Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

Great point. I haven't read much about Altman's life though at the time of writing this piece I had a book checked out from the library about him. Wade is certainly the most powerful, and deepest, character onscreen.