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.
     But, I am getting ahead of myself, whereas this Chandleresque tale, like The Deep Sleep before it, rambles through its mystifying halls of horror. Far more than in Howard Hawk’s 1939 original, Altman’s film is easy going, almost tip-toeing—or, should we say, cat-sidling—up to its complex story about betrayal after betrayal after betrayal, of husband, wife, and, most importantly, a friend who involves our hero with the LA underground and police forces. No one, in Altman’s wonderful re-writing of the noir history—along with the great Hollywood screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who else could have written, in collaboration with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, the original script, plus numerous other major scripts, including Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, and Altman’s remarkable translation of the original The Big Sleep, as well as working on Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and numerous other science fiction novels of the 1940s and 1950s!?)—as Elliott Gould almost literally sleepwalks into this complicated plot, discovering, almost by accident, that, in his now 1970s context—a time in which everyone is so self-involved that, unless seen as a figure as whom to prove their hatred of all others, such as gangster’s Marty Augustine’s (Mark Rydell), who attacks his beautiful mistress simply to prove "That's someone I love. You, I don't even like."—are total diffident, even if that diffidence might be seen as sexual passivity.  
      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.

       Altman’s hero is totally inconsequential until the very last scenes, when he finally tracks down his former childhood friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), forcing him to finally admit that he has killed his wife and stolen Augustine’s money, which has been the cause a series of terrifying events in his own life. Marlowe’s outright murder of Lennox seems almost innocent given Lennox’s own staged-death and his destruction of so many others along the way. Murder suddenly seems the only possibility, and, in the context of the 1970s self-infatuations, is a truly moral act. We can only ask what was his childhood relationship with this monster?  One has to ask, more importantly, of what their life-long relationship has really consisted. Who, even out ordinary friendship, might be compelled to drive a friend, in the middle of the night, from Los Angeles to the Mexican border? No wonder, as the title of this film suggests in word and song, it is a very “long goodbye.”
     Everyone in this film has helped to destroy Marlowe’s lovely, and desperately hungry, cat. He will return to an apartment (in a significant historical building which Howard and I know very well, since our friends Carol Elliel and Tom Muller live their today), that is sadly empty, despite the eye-candy from his window, which he seemingly no longer enjoys.
     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

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