The Long Goodbye, a defense of the Altman film

Out of respect for Jake Bren at People's Forum, I'll try posting as much of his comments/replies as possible:

(Jake) Really, I wasn't expecting literal adaptation. The whole movie felt slapped together, with little unanimity other than Altman's directorial trademarks. And I don't bridle at the casting of Gould as Marlowe. Marlowe was always part schlub. But he also had some kind of compelling air, which Gould lacks entirely here. What struck me most was being reminded that you could get steak and chips for 85¢ at a bar in 1973.

All Altman's films feel slapped together, even something with a relatively tight script like The Player or Streamers. It's what he's all about. And this Marlowe being uncompelling is part of the revision--he's the ultimate fall guy, innocent, what-have-you; even the police know more about the case than he does.

(Jake) That may well be, but then it doesn't work with the source material. There's always a part of Marlowe that is something to be reckoned with; by the cops, by the baddies, by the women. Altman, Brackett and Gould achieve none of this. And Marlowe being played and left out of back-room proceedings is not so much of a revision.

Well, as someone upthread pointed out, the source material ain't exactly high literature (even the cat gets the better of him). It all works into a final moment of disillusionment and anger, possibly as much towards the genre as towards the 'best friend.' A kind of final gesture towards it all.

edit--I mean, even Chinatown which I like at least as much as this, is still within the genre. This was the movie that pretty much trashed it all when it came to gumshoe detectives.

And it's so very damned odd which I like a lot. All that meandering, it goes against the grain and breaks out of the hardboiled detective plot. Which, after all is said and done, is pretty limiting. 

(from ted fontenot) Altman often comes across as a higher class Michael Moore. He wears thin. They both have this insulting '60's moral superiority they're ready to flash at the drop of frat flag or something.  He's often just in for the deriding of a convention, a mindset, a tradition.  He's often only "anti".  You have to admire the labor he puts into his sophomoric pursuits.  His rubbishing the detective genre is amusing, mildly, but it finally wears thin.  I mean, the putdown of the heroic detective--even the cops know more about the case than he does--ha, ha.  Wow, what an ambition!  Next!

Well, ted's pointed out one tendency of Altman's, to sort of skim from one cultural niche to the next--I mean, The Company is lovely, but it's not exactly a very deep look at the world of dance, is it? (edit) And Pret a Porter I can't defend as being any good, only I like it because I think it's what the fashion world deserves. I hear his next film is on art galleries, which makes you think two things, one that you're glad someone's doing something on some of the more esoteric corners of modern culture, and two that you'd wish he'd spend more time and care exploring that culture, or doing something weightier; one or the other sentiment to dominate, depending on how much you actually like Altman.

But I don't agree that The Long Goodbye is an actual trashing of the hardboiled genre--if you look at Marlow, he's duped and fooled and outwitted, but he's not stupid; it's his basic decency, his tendency to think the best of his friends that makes him so blind. (edit) Might be significant that Altman makes this film and sets it in the 70's, when movies were questioning everything and anything. I suppose you can see Altman feeling superior to the material, but maybe that's part of the spirit of the times and part of the nature of questioning (do we question anything we feel inferior to?). But there's a tone--I don't know if this registers or not--of regret or nostalgia in the film for Marlowe, a kind of fondness and familiarity for him that, sure, breeds some contempt, but also identification, so we're thrown as much as he is by the twists of the plot. And when he finally unravels it, we share in his disillusionment and anger.

You might say Altman's version is really the story of the last good man shedding his last illusions. It's a tragedy, finally, a kind of eulogy to the man that Marlowe used to be.

(Gus Sheridan) But Jake nails it- what Altman and company missed is that, when push comes to shove, Marlowe's a fair badass.


When pushed came to shove, Altman's Marlowe had the more radical reaction. Shot into the heart of the genre, so to speak.

I don't think the book's trash; it stands on top of the genre, I agree, and it has its share of observations about LA and life in general and an aging Marlowe (some of it is autobiographical, right?) to make it more than memorable. But I do think the movie's a valid, well, reinterpretation, so that both book and film shouldn't be embarrassed that either exist.

I should qualify what I said about high literature; actually, even literature needs revising when it's adapted; saw Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently, and while it does a better job of telling the story than the Elijah Wood version, it rearranges and undercuts the book in so many ways that the resulting movie is rather toothless. I don't think a more faithful version is what's needed--frankly, the book's ending is a botch--I do think you need to capture at least the tone or spirit of the book, even maybe only a section of it, maybe with an indirect adaptation. Shoeshine, perhaps? 

(Going back to Long Goodbye, I'd say it did capture some of the spirit of a lone knight out of step with a corrupt world--and it's his ethics and loyalty, not any lack of skill or competence, that makes him out of step--only that world is '70s LA and Hollywood looms large in it).

(Jake) And all of this leads to why the film doesn't work. The only aspect of the story told in the movie that indicates that Marlowe is the Last Good Man Standing is his refusal to believe that his old friend could have brutally murdered his own wife. So Marlowe the character is deconstructed right out of the picture and replaced with Gould's shambling nebbish. If Altman's point is the revision of the story and genre to fit the times and he sees fit to dramatically alter the plot in order to achieve this, then the experiment is doomed from the start, because it relies on an assumed knowledge of the character of Marlowe on the part of the viewer and then proceeds to hamstring him to the point where he is rendered a dullard and a simp, which makes me wonder why anyone, a client or a cop or a psycho Jewish small-time gangster, would consider him to be worth any of their interest at all.

I'm all for experiments, even failed ones, and there is much of Altman that I admire and greatly enjoy. But The Long Goodbye doesn't work for me on any level at all.

I think Hayden's got a point--a '30s Marlowe and a '70s Marlowe would be fundamentally different, and putting one in the other's setting wouldn't make sense.

And I agree with Phil--this Marlowe isn't dumb, or witless, or without resources; he's innocent. That's what innocence means to Altman, and to the audience of the time, a certain blindness that keeps you from seeing the truth, no matter how tough or brave or smart you are.

So Marlowe the character is deconstructed right out of the picture and replaced with Gould's shambling nebbish.

Maybe the basic problem here is, that shambling nebbish has only selective appeal; I enjoyed him enormously. And yeah, I thought his roundabout way of reacting to things, not quite taking them seriously, passes for wit.

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