Thursday, July 5, 2012

Neo noir Thursdays: The Long Goodbye

It's the lazy, hazy days of summer again and that means neo noir. Well, actually, not quite neo noir. This movie tends in that direction but it hasn't got it quite. It mostly hasn't got it because Robert Altman didn't mean for it to. He came not to praise Chandler but to bury him. Unlike Antony, he meant no irony in that. He really didn't get Chandler. Neither did screenwriter Leigh Brackett. But, despite his best efforts, the movie, as Roger Ebert put it, almost works. And the parts that almost work are magic. It's because of films like this that other, smarter directors saw the way to making real neo noir.

So it's a good place to start.

The good starts with the title song. Musically it's lame which, given that it was written by John Williams, is what you'd expect. But Johnny Mercer, a man's man, wrote the lyrics and there is just enough of the old magic there to make it worthwhile.

He started with the title and then he proved it. One of the things the movie does right is to use this song throughout in a series of different arrangements, each appropriate to the setting.

The movie begins with a long but brilliant sequence in which Eliot Gould as Philip Marlowe is portrayed as pussy whipped. Don't get excited. he is whipped by the four-legged kind of pussy. His cat will eat only one kind of food and he runs out in the middle of the night. This is very 1970s but has nothing to do with Marlowe. It is, as I say, a brilliant sequence, but it has no place in this movie. It's not just that it isn't in the book, it's completely out of character for Marlowe.

He also lives next door to a bunch of drug-taking women who do yoga in the nude. That's also very 1970s and uttertly pointless.

But, as Marlowe is on his way out past the nude neighbour chicks on his way to try to find the only cat food his finicky cat will eat, something magical happens. He puts his tie on. Marlowe, the romantic, the devotee of chivalry and moral standards, puts his tie on to go an all-night grocery store. And here we have the theme of the movie. Marlowe the old-fashioned guy still believing in old-fashioned virtues.

Robert Altman means for us to see this and think Phillip Marlowe is a ridiculous, outdated figure. But he achieves the opposite. Nowadays, Altman looks like the guy who represents values that have stopped making sense. Marlowe, on the other hand, is timeless.

And that is why it almost works. The magnificent thing aboput this movie is Marlowe the anachronism floating through 1970s Los Angeles in a way that is emant to demonstrate that he doesn't fit, doesn't make sense any mote. But oh how he does. Here, for example, is his car.

The other thing that is going for this movie is the entire history of Hollywood. Catch this shot, for example:

A man walks into a bar. Shot brilliantly by Vilmos Zsigmond. Go ahead and click on that and see it full size. You could be in that bar seeing the man's face lit that way because the door is open and the bright outdoor light in on him.

The thing is, as I have said before, those places were still around in the 1970s. "Those things" being the artifacts of a certain manly way of living. They were fast disappearing and would completely disappear if it were up to guys like Altman. But they were still there. Traces of the manly thing we were all nostalgic for were all around us.

Marlowe's drink choice is interesting, "CC and Ginger". That's a highball with Canadian Club. A good choice. In the book Marlowe drinks gimlets and makes a big thing of it. Canadian Club was probably picked here because Altman thought it represented the past. (I'd have one right now only I've already had a couple of Mai Tais to celebrate the fourth of July.)

Almost works!
Here is why the movie fails. Altman thinks he is making a brilliant critique of Chandler but failed to notice that Chandler had already made the critique himself. Chandler had had to rethink Marlowe before writing this book. He'd had to do that because Mickey Spillane had written a book called I, The Jury in which a private eye in the Marlowe tradition named Mike Hammer literally acts as judge, jury and executioner. The book was everything Chandler despised. But here is the problem: Marlowe is a guy who makes things right, seeks justice and is willing to go outside the law to do it. To a point anyway.

Okay, so what is the difference between Marlowe and Hammer? The first Hammer book was published in 1947. The Long Goodbye  was published six years later. It's Marlowe's attempt to draw the line between the two characters.

Is at a good attempt? Well, it isn't perfect but I think it's a pretty good shot at it. Altman, however, doesn't even see it. He is so blissfully unaware of the deeper issues of the book that he can't see it. In this movie, Marlowe himself ends up acting as judge, jury and executioner. You couldn't get it wrong more profoundly than that.

The problem is not that Altman isn't smart enough to have seen it. The problem is that he was too busy being cute to even bother looking. Watch it yourself and see if you don't agree.

And so to bed.

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