“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars. When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” – Philip Marlowe, The Long Goodbye (by Raymond Chandler)
[My list of favorite films released in 2010 will be going up on Row Three in mid-January, so I want to do something a bit different here. This series will include any films I saw for the first time this year and loved, regardless of release date. It may also include films from this year.]
Director Robert Altman was easily my favorite “discovery” of the New Hollywood marathon I did throughout this year. Discovered isn’t quite the right word; of course, I knew about Robert Altman and had seen a few of his films, but this year I saw several more that I ended up loving completely.
I went into Nashville expecting to just put up with it, a begrudging viewing based solely on the film’s reputation and not any real interest in it on my part. I’m not into country music or politics, and I figured it’d just be a sprawling, overlong, not particularly interesting look at those things. Well, it is set in Nashville among a bunch of country musicians during the build-up to a political rally, but it is anything but uninteresting.
Altman is pretty well-known for his ensemble films, and this one proves why as much or more than any other (though he has plenty of other great examples). Loosely built around a coincidentally timed country music festival and a political rally for the fictional Replacement Party, the film is made up of a bunch of interweaving characters, each of whom has a well-developed and interesting arc. Often films like this suffer from not having time to develop any of the characters, or develops one or two at the expense of the others, making the film unbalanced, but Nashville contains at least ten or twelve characters that all feel real, that all seem to have back stories and arcs, and none of whom steals the spotlight from the others.
There’s the star vocalist recovering from a nervous breakdown, and maybe not quite ready to return to the stage, the waitress who wants to be a singer but doesn’t have the chops, the established trio whose interpersonal strife threatens the group, the gospel singer who feels more and more disconnected from her husband, the determined wannabe who overcomes all odds to get to the rally stage, the overeager reporter who’s equal parts naive enthusiasm and unwitting insensitivity, and several others – stereotypes in a way, perhaps, but they do not feel that way when you’re watching the movie. Everything just feels right and even though it is long, it’s perfectly paced and when the end credits rolled, I was actually sad the experience was over.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
This film snuck up on me while I was watching it. It takes a little while to get going, it’s a little low-key and quiet about getting there (reportedly there were sound problems on set that Altman never bothered to fix), and it’s tough at first to identify with anyone. But by the end, it got under my skin something fierce.
It’s truly a revisionist western in the sense that the main character McCabe (Warren Beatty) isn’t a classic western white-hat hero, but he’s not even really a morally complicated hero or anti-hero; he’s almost an a-hero. This is a world in which heroism basically doesn’t exist. The major conflict is purely commercial, and the major shootout isn’t fought in the open streets with the town watching, but sneaking around deserted buildings and through barns while the town is totally unaware.
It’s also not a typical love story, though McCabe and Mrs. Miller (the local brothel owner, played by Julie Christie) are one of those couples that are so clearly meant to be together and yet utterly not as well – they need each other, but for many reasons it wouldn’t work for them to be more to each other than they are. Their interactions with each other somehow carry the weight of tragedy. It’s a sad movie in many ways, but a great one that I can easily see myself revisiting over and over for years to come.
The Long Goodbye
I’m pretty sure I saw at least some of this movie in an undergrad film course I took, and didn’t care too much for the part I saw. Clearly there was something wrong with me then, because when I watched/rewatched it this year, I loved every bit of it. It’s a take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character that somehow manages to be irreverent, unique, and poke fun at the hard-boiled detective genre while also being loving and true to it.
The homages to classic detective films from the 1940s are peppered throughout, but with a sense of ironic world-weariness that is perfectly ’70s. Elliott Gould’s Marlow is a lackadaisical fellow whose catchphrase is “it’s okay with me,” a statement of bemused apathy that nonetheless is belied by his casual yet dogged pursuit of the truth about a friend of his accused of murder.
The film contains recognizable references to specific classic noir films, but also the detached style of European cinema of the 1960s, making it a quintessential New Hollywood film and perfectly poised to hit all of my buttons, and so it did. This time around at least, it was perfection.
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye was not on my original watch list for this marathon for a couple of reasons – I’d already seen it years ago in a college film criticism class, I already had a bunch of Altman films on the list and I wanted to diversify a little bit, and I didn’t particularly like it the first time around and wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit it, even though I suspected I would appreciate it a lot more if I did. But after I named Altman my favorite director of the marathon so far, multiple people recommended I give this film another look, and then it happened to be playing at a local rep cinema, and I figured it was a sign that it was time to rewatch Altman’s nearly revisionist version of Raymond Chandler’s 1940s crime novel. And I’m so glad I did.
I wrote recently about how much I love The Big Sleep, and I think my original distaste for The Long Goodbye was merely an inability to envision any other version of Philip Marlowe than Bogart’s, or any other take on Chandler than a straight-up noir detective film. But the brilliance of The Long Goodbye is precisely in how it takes the Marlowe character and the detective story and drops it into the extremely different milieu of 1970s Los Angeles, turning it into an ironic, knowing version of the very cinema that took Chandler straight in the 1940s.
Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a mumbling, ambling fellow who’s smarter than most everyone around him, but aloof enough not to bother pointing it out, except barely under his breath in a kind of on-going ironic mutter that feels more like an interior monologue than actual speech. He’s bemused at the spacey Yoga-practicing girls in the apartment across the way, has little use for the police, and spends a great deal of time trying to please his cat. The cat is something of a substitute for human engagement; his general response to any human interaction is “it’s okay with me,” a detached statement of passive affability and implicit refusal to get personally involved.
When a friend asks him for a ride to Mexico, he agrees with little hesitation, little realizing (or perhaps just little caring) that this action would embroil him in the case surrounding the death of the friend’s wife. The police think his friend killed her, but Marlowe won’t believe it, and the rest of the film balances his casual attempts to clear his friend and his work on a seemingly unrelated case for a woman searching for her alcoholic husband. The plot gets considerably more complicated, but through it all, Marlowe maintains his sardonic “it’s okay with me” attitude, allowing himself to drift where events push him and be held static by anything that shows any initiative (note that every animal in the film basically holds him captive until someone else intervenes).
It’s an interesting approach to a character who is often quite active in 1940s films. (They may be world-weary, but still don’t rest in their quest for the truth; this Marlowe is world-bemused and takes plenty of time to follow other pursuits, treating everything with a bit of a smirk.) This isn’t to say he doesn’t ever do anything – he does his job, he circumvents opposition when he needs to, he refuses to be browbeating by the police, he continues to check in on his client even after the immediate case is complete, etc., but he does so in such a lackadaisical fashion that he almost seems to be doing it because he doesn’t have anything better to do. Yet when it comes down to it in the final few minutes of the film, as he uncovers the truth, his “it’s okay with me” changes to “nobody cares but me.” This Marlowe is a fascinating mixture of detachment and engagement, yet his shifts between the two feel organic, never forced.
Yet though The Long Goodbye is a clear departure from the characterization and style of 1940s hard-boiled detective films, it knows them all. Various scenes pretty clearly evoke the noir of the 1940s-1950s, from the crime noir of The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly to the Hollywood melodrama of In a Lonely Place and A Star is Born. Casting Sterling Hayden, dependable lead of many classic noir films, in an important role is no accident, either, nor is the gatekeeper who impersonates classic stars like Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck. This being the ’70s, there are also signs of European influence – at least I thought of Pierrot le fou when Marlowe smeared paint over his face in passive rebellion against police authority, and the ending is a pretty clear reference to the enigmatic final scene of The Third Man.
The Long Goodbye is a perfect example of a film very much of its time that both uses and plays against expectations based on previous cinematic tropes. It’s also a very intricate mystery with a good bit of enjoyable humor, though it’s not very suspenseful, largely because the Marlowe character is so detached throughout much of the film. This is part of why it didn’t work for me when I was younger, and I’m sure a good deal of why I enjoyed it more now is my greater knowledge of film history, but the film doesn’t really depend on that. It does depend on coming to it with an open mind and a willingness to buck expectations of detectives on film. Really, the rest of the film plays it pretty straight; it’s the unusual way Marlowe is portrayed that gives it a wild card feeling. It’s also very nicely shot, with a few virtuoso scenes (many of them at the beach house, using windows and reflections to get compositional effect) that will stick in your mind visually for quite a while. I’m really glad I gave the film another chance; it’s jumped right up there with Altman’s other films as one of my favorites in this series.