Sleepy Hollow

1999’s Sleepy Hollow marked the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been devoured by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to shift from vision to mere lacquer.

To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to the tremendous contributions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton gives them plenty to work with as he gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with explicit nods in the direction of Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). But if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton’s best films locate witty and brash ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, pursuing emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest Sleepy Hollow comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but is little more than a thin assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The character’s tragic backstory remains awkwardly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative. It does little to inform the character or the film itself.

Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.

Blade Runner 2049

Through both intention and accident, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a fascinating oddity of Hollywood cinema, wrenched Hollywood spectacle away from classic Hollywood storytelling and produced a new cinematic vocabulary. That this vocabulary has been largely exhausted by Blade Runner‘s numerous heirs has not diminished Blade Runner‘s place as a singular cinematic experience, in part because Blade Runner–a film that was discovered in the messy and confused process of its own making–allows that cinematic vocabulary to have free reign in a way that its successors do not. Blade Runner has always been a beast that its own creators birthed but could not tame. Its nature is its own.

Director Ridley Scott shepherded the development of the sequel, but ultimately saw fit to hand it over to filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (best known for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival), who directs the film from a screenplay crafted (in part) by original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher. Blade Runner 2049 builds a narrative web that expands upon the thematic impulses of the original film, finding new roads into the same dilemmas of memory, identity, and artificiality that ran through Blade Runner‘s veins. But, at its worst, Blade Runner 2049 also feels schematic to the point of becoming canned. Unlike the original, its pieces have all been designed to fit within a clear vision.

Blade Runner 2049‘s best sequences avoid tracing the lines of Scott’s original, embedding its existential anxieties in new narrative and visual conceits. Many of these moments involve a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent app marketed to the lonely citizens of the film’s dystopian Los Angeles. Joi serves as a kind of nexus for all of Blade Runner 2049‘s meditations on desire and authenticity, an embodiment of the gray area that lies between programming and personhood. In one tender scene, Joi’s holographic avatar freezes in mid-embrace on a rainy rooftop, her intangible caresses interrupted by a phone call that arrives through her same application interface. The moment is sad, funny, and a little unsettling, all the anxieties and longings stirred by human technology incarnate in one beautiful image.

Alas, too often Blade Runner 2049 chases after its predecessor. In the 1982 film, its vistas of dystopian Los Angeles and its inhabitants comprised the actual essence of the film, but here, they often seem more like glossy window dressing, filling up time as the film shuffles us from one plot point to the next. Roger Deakins may be one of the greatest cinematographers working today, but his cinematography here feels unusually flat, as though his efforts were overwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049‘s effects work and the extensive pre-visualization demanded by it.

Given that Blade Runner follows a protagonist whose sense of self unravels as he finds himself enmeshed in the mysteries of the past, it seems unfortunate that Blade Runner 2049 never quite breaks away from its narrative engine to give voice to the emotional tempest at its center. To its credit, its mystery plot, which involves a replicant named “K” (Ryan Gosling, who was born to play an artificial human) avoids many of the more obvious pitfalls that often befalls Hollywood storytelling, but the third act, in which the drive for action beats and competing character agendas become hopelessly entangled, ends up distracting from and diminishing Blade Runner 2049‘s fundamental concerns.

The original Blade Runner had no true antagonist. Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, a desperate replicant-on-the-run, was a second protagonist whose narrative ran on a parallel track with Deckard’s story until the two tracks converged in its climax. Blade Runner 2049 does not replicate this structure, instead offering up something of a traditional antagonist, a supervillain character named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Leto cannot make Wallace work, and, admittedly, I am hard-pressed to think of any actors who genuinely could. Wallace is the sort of character who speaks in riddlespeak pronouncements laced with Biblical language, who arbitrarily kills just to let the audience know that he is, in fact, a Bad Guy. He has Big Plans too, plans that require a lot of sinister action on part of his henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who, to her credit, attacks her part with uttermost conviction). The more prominent Wallace becomes to the story, the more Blade Runner 2049 moves away from the longings that charge its best moments.

Still, even at its worst, this Blade Runner 2049 does no real disrespect to its predecessor, and the new territory it explores is sufficient to justify its existence. At least some of that new territory belongs to Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard. Even as the film threatens to reduce his character to a mere MacGuffin, Ford delivers his strongest performance in many years, full of palpable regret and resignation. His bittersweet, tearful reaction to an artifact of the past serves as a strong reminder that the greatest spectacle that cinema can ever offer us is the spectacle of a human face.

The End of Twin Peaks

So, the final chapter of Twin Peaks has aired, a defiant rejection of closure that confirms that Twin Peaks has always been, in essence, a horror story. Twin Peaks is a journey into the void left by one girl’s inexplicable murder, a mystery that, like Laura Palmer’s eternal scream, echoes across time and space and imagination.

For all of its disconcerting dread-laced strangeness and temporal shifts, the finale does mostly explain its chain of narrative events through bursts of exposition from Gordon Cole and the cryptic pronouncements from Phillip Jeffries and the Fireman (though these statements are more comprehensible in retrospect that they are upon an initial viewing).

Dale Cooper, acting on a secret plan he worked out with Gordon Cole and Garland Briggs, as well as on the guidance of the mysterious Fireman, wishes to “kill two birds with one stone”–save Laura Palmer and confront and defeat Jowday, a.k.a. “Judy,” an extreme “negative force” that gave birth to BOB and seems to have possessed the Palmer house and its lone inhabitant, Sarah Palmer.

Gordon Cole cautions that he’s uncertain if this plan is working, though Cooper certainly seems confident enough when he returns to Twin Peaks and bears witness to BOB’s destruction. The fabric of time begins to tear as Cooper travels back to the moments before Laura Palmer’s murder and rescues her. Before he can restore Laura to her home (presumably hoping to dispel the darkness from it once and for all), Laura is whisked away from him, her scream echoing throughout the woods.

Cooper seems saddened by this, but was apparently expecting this, or a version of it, given that the direction he received from the Fireman and Jeffries leads him from this moment to a place beyond the boundaries of the dimensions we have known so far in the world of Twin Peaks. Cooper and Diane travel into an alternate timeline, a universe that is apparently the domain of Jowday/Judy. In traveling between these worlds, Cooper seems aware that he might lose something of himself. He notes to Diane that they will be different when they arrive at their destination.

Dislocation and disintegration follows. At a motel waystation between worlds, darkness overtakes Cooper and Diane; their romance dissolves before our eyes. Cooper wakes the next morning to find that she’s no longer with him, reading a note addressed to “Richard” from “Linda” (presumably Cooper and Diane’s identities in this alternate universe), in which Linda tells Richard that he is no longer recognizable (echoing Audrey’s remarks to Charlie earlier in the season; Audrey, too, has apparently lost herself in a false universe). Using Jeffries’ guidance, Cooper (who now seems colder, more ruthless, not unlike his own BOB-inhabited doppelgänger that was destroyed in chapter 17), locates Laura’s doppelgänger, a waitress in Odessa with a rotting corpse in her home, and tries and fails to remind her of her life. Together, they head to the Palmer home in Twin Peaks.

The drive from Odessa to Twin Peaks proceeds slowly. Cooper and Carrie/Laura arrive at the Palmer home. The Palmer homestead no longer seems to actually be the Palmer homestead; Cooper responds with puzzlement as he hears from its current inhabitants that the house previously belonged to an Alice Tremond, and before her, a Mrs. Chalfont (a note that suggests the house is still in thrall to evil, given that Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont has appeared previously in Twin Peaks as a mysterious figure with with links to the Black Lodge).

A defeated, confused Cooper proceeds back into the street with Carrie/Laura. Cooper’s chilling final utterance–“What year is this?”–gives voice to Cooper’s awareness that he has lost the thread. Carrie/Laura suddenly seems to recall her traumatic memories. Her face contorts in horror as she utters, once again, that universe-shattering scream. The Palmer house seems to come to life: all its lights blink out, just seconds before an electric crackle sends the entire world into darkness.

It’s hard to imagine a bleaker conclusion for Twin Peaks. In bringing Laura to the Palmer homestead, Cooper has not conquered Laura’s trauma, but forced her to relive it. Cooper has lost himself, and Laura with him, presumably forever. Cooper and Laura are orphaned from all worlds, no longer belonging anywhere in space or time, trapped in the grasp of unspeakable evil. Laura’s scream echoes in the void, displaced in darkness.

The final shot of Twin Peaks–Laura Palmer, whispering an inaudible secret to a visibly distressed Dale Cooper in the “Red Room”–speaks to the way in which they share in–and have been enveloped by–the unspeakable mystery of evil.

Notes on the passing of Walter Becker

My father’s two favorite bands were the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He listened to their records with obsessive devotion, so growing up I was inundated with their tunes. I didn’t share my father’s passion for the Doobie Brothers, but I was quickly hooked on Steely Dan. As early as age five, I was laughing along to “Monkey In Your Soul,” the final track from 1974’s Pretzel Logic.

That same album served as my gateway into Steely Dan fandom and Steely Dan became one of the few things my father and I shared. My father took me to see them in Camden just after the release of Two Against Nature. It was my first concert. I would see them six more times after that.

Walter Becker was the less visible half of the Steely Dan equation. Lead singer Donald Fagen had the spotlight and the more prolific solo career, but Becker was every bit Fagen’s partner. Their songwriting career was really just a series of in-jokes between two weirdo soulmates who saw the world through with same skewed humor.

Love or hate Steely Dan, they were utterly and defiantly unique. Their funky, literate, hilarious lyrics and rigorous musical perfectionism resulted in textures that belong only to Becker and Fagen. Their prophetic vision of American life bridged Watergate to the rise of the digital era, a blackly comic nightmare with an irresistible groove.

The last time I saw Steely Dan was during a miserably wet and chilly evening at the Mann Center. My wife and I wore ponchos and froze to death as the band rocked on. During “Hey Nineteen,” Becker delivered a rambling monologue that had become a kind of Steely Dan tradition. Bootleg recordings of it exist, but they fail to capture its good-hearted feeling, the way it existed in a feedback loop with the audience’s own enthusiasm. You just had to be there.

Walter Becker will never be there again. As with the death of any beloved artist, his passing carries an awful finality. That’s all there is, folks. I still hoped that we might get another Steely Dan album. But a good run is a good run, and it was a very good run indeed.

Here’s to you, Walter.

Inherent Vice

There’s nothing novel or clever in noting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, Inherent Vice, owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but you also can’t ignore their relationship. They’re variations on the same theme, fragmented detective stories that see the noir trailing off into the ill-defined haze of 1970s America. They share visual motifs, too, such as their fascination with the inscrutable, overwhelming ocean, filmed in wide shots where human beings appear extraordinarily fragile.

Anderson’s attentiveness to that fragility has been his great strength as a filmmaker, but his films have struggled to build discrete moments of human observation into works of dramatic and thematic momentum. In Pynchon’s novel, Anderson finds a structure that makes sense of his appetite for controlled chaos, allowing him to chase the emotional and psychological undercurrents that have always been his primary fascination within a functional (if chaotic) narrative structure. 

Inherent Vice offers a portrait of political and personal confusion charged by the energies of human irrationality. Its vision of American history is uncomfortably recognizable: a random collision of desires and agendas that forms a comprehensible chain of events but denies us the comfortable coherence of unified conspiracy.

In the midst of the madness, desperate people try to survive and maybe even find peace of mind. That Inherent Vice suggests that there might be a way to get past the darkness with some humanity intact stands in contrast to Altman’s bitter Long Goodbye. This also has the effect of making Inherent Vice the more melancholy, moving film; tragedy hurts more when it doesn’t feel inevitable.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part X

The high-stakes poker game has only just begun, but now Casino Royale takes a break from the card table. Somewhat burdened by blockbuster expectations–the days in which Bond could deliver a low-key, relaxed thriller like From Russia with Love now firmly in the series’ rear-view mirror–Casino Royale never lingers too long on the card game itself. Accordingly, this film adaptation of Casino Royale fails to capture sonething of the atmosphere that Fleming’s novel conjured up with its memorable opening lines:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Of course, Fleming knew he couldn’t sustain his thriller on atmosphere alone, and threw in some narrative devices to heighten the suspense (including a failed bomb attempt, and a tense moment involving a gun disguised as a cane). Fleming’s devices are more subdued and better-integrated into the game itself than the film’s equivalent sequences. To the film’s credit, this next action beat serves as an indispensable component of the film’s structure, and proves to be one of the defining sequences of the entire Daniel Craig era.

With the help of Mathis, Bond bugs Le Chiffre’s inhaler, grabs Vesper, and collects his gun from the front desk. Bond’s intent here remains very vague, but Bond clearly intends to use Vesper to maintain a viable alibi for whatever follows.

Surprising both Le Chiffre and Bond, Obanno has arrived to threaten Le Chiffre and recover his money. Never before has a Bond film so thoroughly humiliated its primary antagonist as Casino Royale humiliates Le Chiffre here, and it’s a credit to Mikkelsen that Le Chiffre can both seem utterly out of his league against Obanno while still retaining an air of menace.

Le Chiffre’s relationship with his henchwoman/lover Valenka has a chilly air; they interact as though they’re robots. Le Chiffre certainly doesn’t care enough about her to stop Obanno from nearly mutilating her, and while Valenka seems loyal (even after Le Chiffre shows that he’s willing to sacrifice her to save his own skin), she doesn’t display any affection for Le Chiffre.

When Bond and Vesper are discovered (their cover is blown when Bond’s earpiece is spotted), they become entangled vicious close-quarters brawl in a stairwell. Just how vicious the brawl feels depends a bit on which cut of the film you’re seeing, due to minor edits that were made for the film’s theatrical release in major markets.

Casino Royale is not the first Bond film to allow a Bond girl to be distressed by the violence of Bond’s world (GoldenEye has Natalya confront Bond about it), but it is the first to suggest that this violence can result in legitimate psychological trauma. Vesper emerges from this encounter with Obanno somewhat broken by the experience. Bond doesn’t emerge unscathed, either, but he’s also a professional killer; he buries the memory with a glass of whiskey and re-emerges at the card table, exchanging barbs with Le Chiffre as though little happened. But Vesper isn’t part of Bond’s world. He finds Vesper, in a sequence seemingly inspired by Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, alone, sitting in the shower with her clothes on.

The scene was originally scripted (following after Alfredo Garcia) to feature Vesper in the nude. Eva Green smartly objected, and her argument with director Martin Campbell over the moment was settled when Craig also took her side. We’re lucky that Green won the debate, since the alternative possibility feels rather icky, particularly given the structures of masculine fantasy that undergird the Bond character and his world.

Bond joins Vesper in the shower, cleaning the imagined blood off her fingers with his mouth. It’s an awkward gesture that Craig plays awkwardly, and in its sheer strangeness and clumsy physicality it gives some weird humanity to Craig’s man-child Bond, as though he’s fumbling for a way to relate to Vesper in this moment of grief.

So Bond turns the water temperature up and together they sit beneath the spray, neither one knowing how to process the moment or its implications.

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. Despite the world’s violence and corruption, 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 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 Chandler’s 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 of The Long Goodbye—despite detours with the police and the elite rich and a gangster or two—is 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 by proving Lennox’s innocence (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, and has faked his suicide in order to start a new life. 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 by 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 added an air of Nathanael West to the classic Marlowe mystery, depicting 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 reconfigures the character of Marlowe for 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 comic midnight odyssey 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. He can’t square the truth with his convictions. 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 a 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 and alcohol dependency. To the extent that the story comes together, it comes together 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: his friend was a murderer and a traitor.

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, bearing 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 in Altman’s film), he stands 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, 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. 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, scarred by 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.