Saturday, November 5, 2016
Robert Altman | The Long Goodbye
losing his cat
by Douglas Messerli
Leigh Brackett (screenplay, based on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye), Robert Altman (director) The Long Goodbye / 1973
Altman’s loser of a private detective, Philip Marlowe, loves his cat, which he proves in the early sequences of The Long Goodbye by getting up at 3:00 A.M. to feed him, and when the cat refuses to eat the mess he has cooked up—Marlowe has forgotten to buy new cat food—the private detective trots out to an all-night grocery to get his cat the needed special favorite food, of which his local grocery, apparently, has run out. The cat does not appreciate his pretense of serving him another cat food out of the already discarded empty can.
These early scenes, to many viewers, may seem pointless, but they establish a loving character who, entirely disinterested in his eroticized-lesbian yoga neighbors, refuses to loosen his noir-period tie in a world that has clearly gone to the dogs. In fact, Altman’s amazing film is filled with images of dogs—particularly after Marlowe’s cat goes missing—appearing in nearly every scene of the film, some of them—particularly in his scenes with Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), whose Rottweiler apparently hates this cat lover, despite Eileen’s attraction to him when she hires Marlowe to bring back her husband from a corrupt detoxification clinic.
No one seems to care about anyone else in this 1970’s version of Chandler’s myth, or, even worse, seems not even to be aware of each other’s existence. The deepest relationship Marlowe has with his libidinous neighbors is their request for boxes of brownie mix, presumably so they might mix pot into its ingredients.
Gould’s version of Marlowe is a puritan in a world that no longer has any purity. The only evidence that he might oppose the society around him is his insistent strikes of matches across the surfaces of any surface he encounters, including his own bedroom walls. He seldom drinks, and will not even remove his tie on request from the Hemingway-like Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), who, like Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, determines to commit suicide by drowning.
Marlowe’s beloved cat is a male. Perhaps, as the nasty detective who interrogates him early in the film suggests, the detective is indeed a “faggot.” At one point, the villain, Augustine, suggests that all of his men and Marlowe remove their clothes to reveal themselves as innocent or guilty. The gangster’s quickly strip, while Marlowe, slow to the process, is saved by the return of the money by Wade’s wife. But clearly Gould’s wonderful portrayal of the mythical Chandler figure seems totally disinterested in the women who torture most the bad boys of this play. I’ll go with the “passive” hero any day as opposed to the manipulating male figures this story portrays. If this isn’t exactly a “gay” movie, it’s certainly a portrait of a man removed from female love. Marlowe, if nothing else, is a gentleman of the old school, what we might have described as the unmarrying kind. Anyone have any Cory cat food so that he might delight his starving cat, if he can find him?
Might I add, this is one of the great movies of the late 20th Century?
Los Angeles, November 5, 2016