An insufferable movie snob wanders off the beaten track, comes back and talks about what he has seen.
The Long Goodbye
June 9, 2015
Robert Altman is a film historian and aficionado, albeit one with a wry sense of humour. He often tackled tested Hollywood conventions, but generally twisted them away from the stereotypical. It wouldn’t be unusual for a director to do an updated version of a Film Noir. It WOULD be unusual for someone to lift a classic noir plot and character from the forties and drop them into sun-drenched hippy-era Malibu, but that’s precisely what Altman does with his great 1973 rendering of Raymond Chandlers’ The Long Goodbye.
Chandler was one of the giants of American pulp writing, and as such, one enters one of his stories with preconceived notions. His heroes are smooth, smart, and in control, as exemplified by Humphry Bogart as Philip Marlowe in the 1946 film version of Chandlers The Big Sleep. It is the peculiar genius of Robert Altman to present 1973 Marlowe as Rip Van Winkle; as a 40’s pulp detective plopped down in the modern day. That is simplistic, and is not meant to be taken literally, but the concept is real and deliberate.
Take, for instance, the casting; knowing full well that the film would live under the spectre of Bogart, Altman cast the most un-Bogart like actor imaginable in Elliot Gould. Whereas Bogie played Marlowe as clever and sharp-edged, Goulds’ Marlowe is a bit of a schlub, with his rumpled clothes, his cat, and his muttering to himself. It’s only when you see Marlowe jump into his car that you appreciate Altman’s wink to classic Marlowe – Goulds’ Marlowe drives a 1948 Lincoln.
Altman also has a bit of fun with Marlowes apartment; Instead of a cold, seedy quarters that would shout Noir, Marlowe lives in a bright loft where his neighbours include a bevy of hippie girls who seem to do nothing but lounge around doing naked yoga. If Marlowe is enticed by the girls, he doesn’t show it; He seems sexually disinterested in them, perhaps another hint that he is a man from the past.
When his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) pops by late one night with his face and hands all scratched up, Marlowe doesn’t dig into the other man’s affairs. Lennox announces that Marlowe needs to drive him to Mexico that very night, and Marlowe goes along with it, seemingly with no questions asked. This scene is significant, because it’s a window into how Marlowe lives his life. He trusts, and is there for his friends. The viewer is distrustful of Lennox immediately, but he and Marlowe are old friends, so when Lennox says that “People are going to be looking for me”, and the sensible thing would be to back away, Marlowe doesn’t.
The next day, Marlowe gets hauled to the police station for questioning, and what is really notable about this sequence is how unseriously he takes it. Think about it: Lennox has shown up at his door bearing wounds from a physical struggle, and needs to get away right now, and the next day, Marlowe is brought in for questioning. It’s possible that he still thinks he is covering for his pal in a simple domestic dispute, and that’s why he is so cheeky and uncooperative with the police. For their part, the police don’t say right away why he is there, and when they finally show him a photo of Lennox’ murdered wife, there is a visible change in Marlowes expression. He still maintains that Terry didn’t do this, but you can see him doing an inner re-evaluation.
When the police tell Marlowe a couple of days later that Lennox’ body has been discovered in Mexico as an apparent suicide, the case should be closed, but there is something that just casts a doubt over all this. The little we saw of Terry Lennox leaves the impression of a guy who is always working on an angle. Something just seems too neat and final about this suicide, and Marlowe seems to think so, too.
The film would not be possible but for a phone call that Marlowe gets from Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallendt), who is trying to track down her husband. When Marlowe visits her, he discovers that she is a neighbour of Terry Lennox. The case initially doesn’t seem to have any connection to Lennox – Eileen says she barely knew Lennox, and there is no reason to doubt her.
Altman (and Chandler) engage in a bit of misdirection with the case of Eileens’ husband Roger Wade (The great Sterling Hayden). The search for him is dealt with in a cursory manner, as he is found quickly in a rehab facility managed by the mysterious Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson). Roger Wade and Verringer look to be vital cogs in the plot, but they are actually a bit of skullduggery by Altman, which only becomes evident later on. I think that Marlowe is meant to be seen as a bit clueless about what is going on, and throwing two very offbeat and colorful characters into the mix muddies things up, for him and us.
Early on in TLG, the name Marty Augustyn comes up. Lennox may or may not have been working for him, but the general message is that Augustyn is someone that you don’t want to mess with. We think back to Lennox in Marlowes’ apartment; “People are going to be looking for me”. One of those people turns out to be Augustyn (Mark Rydell), and his appearance changes the tone of things drastically. As portrayed by Rydell, Augustyn isn’t physically imposing – He looks more like a golf pro than a gangster. When he shows up at Marlowes, his menace is primarily conveyed by his hoods. Augustyn is friendly, but chillingly insistent; Lennox has skipped town with $350,000 of his money, and he wants it back. The interrogation comes to a head with a jarring bit of violence that comes completely out of leftfield and is directed at an innocent party. And so, when Augustyn says to Marlowe “That is someone I love….You, I don’t even LIKE”, the tone of the film is changed, and so is Marlowe. Again, Altman has used misdirection on the viewer, and to a horrible effect.
It’s essential to keep this idea of distraction and slight-of-hand in mind when considering the trip that Marlowe takes to Mexico to investigate the suicide of Terry Lennox. Everything seems in order; the police corroborate the story, and even show Marlowe photos of the body. The presumption that the details check out and look unimpeachable somehow doesn’t rinse away the bad taste of this affair. It always seems that there is just a little more information than what we are seeing.
One of the joys of watching this film is the performance of Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade. The man is a loud, bigger-than-life novelist, likely patterned after Ernest Hemingway, and Hayden digs into the role with gusto. Wade is a prodigious drunk who struggles with writers block, and ultimately, the measures he takes in order to write overcome him. Marlowe has a short meeting with Wade at his Malibu home, where Wade sheds a bit of light unto how he and Eileen are connected to Lennox and Augustyn. Wade makes the revelation that Augustyn owes him money, a claim that his own wife disputes later on in the film. She claims that Roger owes Augustyn money. Thing is, it doesn’t really matter – This is more smoke and mirrors.
The thing that becomes evident as you work your way through The Long Goodbye is that except for Marlowe, nobody in it tells the truth. Lennoxs’ story of his violent encounter with his wife smells fishy right from the get-go. Eileen first says that she barely knew Lennox, then inadvertently calls him “My friend” when she means to say “your friend”. Wade may or may not owe Augustyn money. It’s almost inevitable that Marlowe gets a note from the supposed dead man Lennox. And when another meeting with Augustyn is interrupted by the arrival of his money, and Marlowe sees Eileen drive by immediately after he has left the meeting, some truths start to become apparent.
The arc of the film involves 3 trips to Mexico. First, Lennox arrives at Marlowes’ door needing to be driven to Tijuana. In the middle of the film, Marlowe goes to Mexico to investigate Lennox’s death. The films conclusion finds Marlowe in Mexico for the last time. Tired of the lies, he bribes the police for info on the suicide and learns that the whole thing was faked and that Lennox is living at a secluded villa. The mood of the final meeting between Marlowe and his old friend can only be described as one of abject sadness and disillusionment. Marlowe trusted this guy, and stuck his neck out for him, and all the while he was being lied to. The final violent act is based not on anger, but on sadness on the betrayal of an ideal. That ideal is that you don’t use your friends. Marlowe, being a man out of time, doesn’t realize until too late that that idea is out of fashion. As out of fashion as a 1948 Lincoln, driven by Humphrey Bogart.