Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye

You can easily lose yourself in the labyrinthine corridors that lie just beneath the facade of the American dream. Philip Marlowe, private investigator, has been there and back. He’ll guide you through the maze, if you’ll let him. All you have to pay is the price of a paperback novel.

But what if the the labyrinth changed? What if familiar landmarks Marlowe recognized had worn away by the ravages of history? What if the old tunnels collapsed in on themselves, while new passageways appeared amidst the rubble? In such a strange landscape, maybe even the great Philip Marlowe could lose his way. This is the scenario of Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

In the Raymond Chandler novels, Philip Marlowe serves as a counterpoint to a withering world dominated by the hunger for money, power, and sex. He’s a clear-eyed lone wolf with an incomparable wit. He’s perpetually indifferent to money, has nothing but distaste for power, and will take sex when offered but will not be mastered by it. For all the world’s violence, Marlowe remains genuinely sentimental, an idealist-turned-cynic. In choosing a life of near-poverty, he has also chosen to be insignificant. As a lowly bum investigator, he has more power than the police detectives he encounters in his journeys. He doesn’t have to play politics, he doesn’t have to make peace with the system. He can choose his own road.

But being your own man doesn’t buy you happiness. Marlowe ends nearly all of his tales melancholy and alone. The Marlowe stories are an ongoing chronicle of tragic desire. The cases Marlowe solves inevitably reveal the sad and petty motivations behind the desperate actions of troubled people–even the most savage people have their passions. In this regard, Chandler’s novels never spill over from cynicism to actual misanthropy.

Of Marlowe’s many misadventures, The Long Goodbye stands tall as the true masterpiece. Of course, Chandler’s Marlowe stories are so united in voice, tone, and theme that they are very much of a piece, and therefore any stated preferences regarding Chandler’s work likely says more about the individual reader than the works themselves. But while The Long Goodbye does not spin the most exciting or impressively-constructed yarn of Chandler’s career, this intimate portrait of relational decay nevertheless marks the apex of the existential melancholy that anchors all of Marlowe’s odysseys.

The focus in The Long Goodbye—despite detours with the police and the elite rich and a gangster or two—remains on failed romance, the subject of the novel’s two major intersecting plot threads. Story A deals with Philip Marlowe’s interaction with rich playboy Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe’s who escapes to Mexico (with Marlowe’s help) after the murder of his wife, Sylvia Lennox, for which he is a prime suspect. Once in Mexico, Lennox commits suicide. Story B involves Philip Marlowe’s interaction with bestselling writer Roger Wade, whose brutal alcoholism threatens to get in the way of his next bestseller. At the behest of Roger Wade’s editor, he agrees to help keep Wade functional, stepping into the midst of Roger Wade’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Eileen. Marlowe’s motivation is therefore twofold: Marlowe seeks to defend the reputation of Terry Lennox, whose innocence Marlowe seeks to prove (despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary), and to find what dark secret has driven Roger Wade mad.

Lennox, the story reveals, did not kill his wife, but has faked his death to start a new life (a move he made once before); like Mad Men’s Don Draper, he prefers reinvention to confrontation. Roger Wade is a sadder case. He was having an affair with Sylvia Lennox, prior to her murder, and in his most drunken moments, he believes he may have murdered her. Moving from lucidity to near-madness, Wade disintegrates until he is murdered by his wife Eileen, who, it turns out, was also responsible for the murder of Sylvia. Eileen, the third piece of the triangle, is more elusive than the other two major figures, a beautiful phantom whose motives only come into focus at the very end, when it is revealed that she was romantically betrayed at the hands of both Terry Lennox and Roger Wade.

Throughout all his interactions with these pathetic people, Marlowe keeps to his unwavering belief that Lennox was innocent, partly because he’s got a “reasonable amount of sentiment invested in him,” and partly because he has a gut-level feeling that Lennox could never commit the savage act of murder that resulted in Sylvia’s death. The novel rewards Marlowe’s belief: Lennox is innocent. But it’s far from a full vindication. Lennox is not, the novel reveals, simply a fool with a heart of gold. He’s also a runaway that has left a string of collateral damage. When Marlowe writes at the end of the novel that “he never saw any of them again,” there’s a sense of relief beneath the words.

This undercurrent of disillusionment made The Long Goodbye a good fit for the despairing American cinema of the 1970s. While Altman’s The Long Goodbye may be the best (or at least, the most interesting) riff on Chandler to emerge in the 70s, it was scarcely alone. Following in the years thereafter was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (not a Chandler adaptation, but certainly fashioned after the Marlowe stories in shape, form, and tone, with an emphasis on political conspiracy that suited the era of Watergate), Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (which played like a Marlowe mystery as written by Nathanael West: a ghostly world of decaying Hollywood glamor), and then, the worst of them all, Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep (which strangely changed the setting from Los Angeles to London, but nevertheless got some mileage out of Chandler’s dark undercurrents).

Robert Altman’s film adaptation remains, in its broadest strokes, faithful to Chandler’s text: it, too, features a Philip Marlowe who helps rich guy Terry Lennox escape after the murder of his wife, only to then get wrapped up in the domestic drama between Roger and Eileen Wade. But Leigh Brackett’s script dramatically rewrites the finale, giving it an even more cynical reveal: Marlowe was a patsy all along. Lennox did kill his wife, and, on top of it, was having an affair with Eileen Wade, which subsequently drove Roger to suicide. Lennox used and abandoned Marlowe without a second thought. This change simplifies and radically alters the thrust of Chandler’s text, subverting Marlowe as a hero. Marlowe’s violent response to these revelations resituates the character in the decade of Dirty Harry.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye opens and closes with renditions of “Hooray for Hollywood,” which self-consciously situates the film in the cinematic tradition of hardboiled detective stories (the most famous Chandler adaptation remains Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep). But Altman has little interest in recreating the period of studio Hollywood: the world of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is the Los Angeles of the early seventies, lost in the haze of pot smoke.

Altman’s cinema commits to a kind of naturalism and realism, insofar as it pursues grounded production design and naturalistic performances. But it revels in strange, found moments, and purposefully obscures or omits key narrative details. In Altman’s films, narrative breaks down and collapses (for examples, look no further than Short Cuts, where life seems little more than a string of strange coincidences and unmotivated changes, or at 3 Women, where identity is fluid and motivation is stubbornly unclear). For Altman, life is too random and overwhelming to be tidy or explicable. The Long Goodbye does not tip over into the narrative beffudlement that characterizes Altman at his extremes, but it nevertheless thrives on a sense of disorientation and dislocation.

The bravura opening introduces Philip Marlowe (played by Elliot Gould) waking up in a dreary apartment, stirred by the cries of his cat. What follows is Marlowe’s humorous midnight odyssey to the store to get cat food, intercut with footage of Terry Lennox driving to Marlowe’s place after the murder of his wife. What makes this modest sequence memorable, aside from Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffuse cinematography, is the brilliant soundtrack. The entire film is haunted by a single song played in endless variations, an imitation jazz standard entitled “The Long Goodbye” (written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer). This tune reappears again and again in endless variations, from muzak in the food store to a doorbell chime to a Mexican funeral march. Altman and editor Lou Lombardo construct this opening sequence in such a way that each of the various versions segues into the other as the location changes: the version on Marlowe’s radio segues into the version playing in the food store. It’s as if this has all happened before and will all happen again, with the lyrics almost goading Marlowe’s investigation onward, continually posing the question “Can you recognize the theme?”

Of course, Gould’s Marlowe doesn’t recognize the theme, because he can’t square the truth with his intuition and beliefs. As the ending of the film makes clear, he’s a sentimental leftover from an earlier era. If Chandler’s Marlowe was an insider, a verifiable expert on the tragedies of human life who nevertheless clung to the virtues of decency, then Altman’s Marlowe is an utterly lost man. His masculine appeal has dried up (a grocery store clerk mocks him for having a cat instead of a girl), his wisecracks seem more desperate and goofy than cool, and he turns out to be a terrible judge of character. He reacts to the pot-saturated world around him with amusement and befuddlement. He doesn’t even know how to handle the Wades’ guard dog.

Accordingly, The Long Goodbye avoids any of the immediacy and urgency that typically defines the detective story. It’s willfully, delightfully breezy, a vision of a sun-baked Los Angeles lost in the throes of drug-use and occasional brutality. To the extent that the story comes together, it comes together only in impressionistic bursts: an interaction with a greedy gangster or a brief argument between Roger and Eileen Wade. When the reveals finally stack up, it’s clear that the only reason that there has been any mystery at all is because Marlowe failed to see the obvious and ugly truth, that his friend was a murderer and a traitor, and has therefore been asking all the wrong questions.

Society, too, has turned ugly. The police are cynical and flout the details of the law to get their way, doctors are predatory monsters seeking to profit from rather than help their troubled patients, and hoodlums are out to shake down anyone they can for their money (in a deviation from Chandler, we don’t meet the elite upper class; in the 1970s, the rich family dynasties no longer had the presence that they once did). The youth are rendered completely powerless and indifferent by their constant consumption of pot, more interested in yoga than in anything going on around them. Everyone stumbles from one moment to the next, and in the midst of that confusion, there can be great brutality.

The film’s most savage moment occurs when a hoodlum shaking down Marlowe for cash—cash owed by Terry Lennox—demonstrates the depths of his depravity by smashing a coke bottle into the face of his mistress. The hoodlum claims to love her, and suggests that if he’ll do this to someone he loves, Marlowe can imagine what he’d do to someone he doesn’t even like. Love doesn’t mean much in The Long Goodbye, and the Coke bottle–an icon of commercialization, and its promises of “the real thing”–becomes a tool of vicious, shocking violence.

One man in The Long Goodbye knows and recognizes the truth about America, but it isn’t Gould’s Marlowe. The Long Goodbye actually belongs to Sterling Hayden’s Roger Wade. Of all the characters in the film, Roger Wade seems to be the one most directly lifted from the Chandler original. His enormous voice, his drunken rants, his existential despair: all of this goes straight back to Chandler. But with all the supporting characters withered or minimized (including his wife, Eileen, who was the master schemer in Chandler’s original, but becomes a more timid, fragile accessory to a crime rather than  a voracious femme fatale in Altman’s film), he stands even that much taller, more a force of nature than a mere man. Sterling Hayden’s ferocious performance ensures that he dominates the frame in every scene he appears, particularly when he’s dealing with the comparatively feeble Marlowe.

One of the film’s most memorable images depicts the gulf between them: a lonely Marlowe standing on the Wades’ beach, looking out on the incomprehensible ocean. But the drifting camera adds another layer: this is simply a reflected image in the glass doors of the Wades’ home. Behind the glass, the Wades argue. As seems to perpetually be the case in Altman’s film, Marlowe misses the significant moments, but Wade remains in the middle of it all, a miserable participant. He’s the insider, not Marlowe, and he acutely recognizing and feeling the pain of betrayal.

In the film’s bleakest moment, Wade commits suicide (another deviation from Chandler’s original, in which Eileen murders him). Wade throws himself out to that same overwhelming sea, and despite Eileen and Marlowe’s attempts to save him, he is swept out into the darkness. All that remains is his cane, which the ocean deposits back onto the shore. Marlowe cannot comprehend Wade’s motivations, and only moments later, Marlowe foolishly pleads with the police to reopen the Lennox case, believing he’s cracked it. They quickly shut him down.

Marlowe returns to the Wades’ home to find that Eileen has moved. His requests for her address are denied. He later sees her driving down the street with a strange, serene smile on her face, an inappropriate look for a distressed widow to wear. He chases after her, but is hit by a car. Again, he’s left in the dust by those who know the real story. To the extent that he survives The Long Goodbye, he does so by blind luck. When nearly killed by the money-hungry hoodlum, he’s saved by chance: the money is returned to the hoodlum by another source at the very moment when he is about to be killed.

In the world of Chandler’s America, which had been bent under the weight of two world wars, a hero could at least have a hint of sentimentality and survive. America might be decaying, but its ghost was still there. In Altman’s America, the America of Vietnam and Watergate, sentimentality makes you a fool.

How can a hero survive in such a world? Marlowe eventually does realize that Terry Lennox’s suicide was faked and that he’s alive and well. What Marlowe does in response to this discovery is his first bold, decisive act of the film: the cold-blooded murder of Terry Lennox. It would have been an unthinkable action for Chandler’s Marlowe, but Altman’s Marlowe has tired of being a patsy, a victim of predatory people. The only way to make sense of a brutal world might be an act of violence, whether against others or, as in the case of Roger Wade, against the self.

Having passed through the world of the 70s and re-emerged as a vigilante killer, Marlowe is celebratory, playing on a harmonic after his revenge-murder of Terry Lennox. He pays Eileen Wade no mind as she drives by and “Hooray for Hollywood” takes over the soundtrack. Marlowe walks down the road, having conquered the modern America. Perhaps he’ll return to the past; he’s more at home there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s