“It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together”, literary critic Edmund Wilson noted of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely in 1945, “but of a malaise conveyed to the reader…the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible”. Has Robert Altman in the Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye taken such a statement and emphasised the malaise over the mystery, the milieu over the story? Time and time again in seventies cinema we find films narratively loose and either spatially, temporally or milieu specific. If for example The Parallax View is a great film of space as it shows architecture looming over our lives menacingly, Altman films Los Angeles as a city that gives us a feeling of mellifluousness, a place in which to live relaxed, adrift lives. It needn’t be a place in which to sell out, in popular prejudice, but a city, as Pauline Kael notes in her review in Reeling, where “you can also live well without being rich, which is the basic and best reason people swarm there”. This is a milieu where people don’t always want to be movie stars in the ambitious sense, but cannot help but be absorbed into a movie mad and slightly hallucinatory culture. Here there is the Malibu Colony gatekeeper who does Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart impersonations, central character Philip Marlowe driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental, the hippies across the way from Marlowe who seem to be living in the Age of Aquarius, and the main villain of the piece, Marty Augustine, grandiloquently showing how angry he is by ripping his girlfriend’s face apart with a coke bottle and really believing that with a bit of plastic surgery her face will be fine. It is as if he has been watching The Big Heat, and expects the girlfriend to be Gloria Grahame merely playing a role. A cut is a film cut, not a gaping wound. From the benign to the malicious, Altman captures the perverse hooray-ness of Hollywood, echoed in the opening and closing of the film which utilises the song, as the director explores the mysteries of the city, and the people who inhabit it, over plot momentum.
Altman’s achievement is to be wise to the miseries of the world while being equally perspicacious to the incidental pleasures it contains; even often combining the two. When for example Marlowe visits Mrs Wade, the wife of the man that he’s been hired to search out, Altman seems less interested in the “mean streets that a man who is not himself mean” must venture down, in Chandler’s words, but in the little details along these streets. When Marlowe first goes to see Mrs Wade about her husband’s disappearance, he initially gets stopped by a dog that stands in the middle of the road, gets interrogated by the gatekeeper doing a Jimmy Stewart impersonation, observes Hispanics doing menial work at the Malibu colony, and watches residents coming back from a game of tennis. This is Altman’s loose style that manages to suggest simultaneous worlds that cancel out any clear ideological message or strong narrative through-line.
Critic Stanley Kauffmann in Before My Eyes may believe Altman is an “ideological fashion-monger”, but what is the ideology behind this sequence? There is a bemused, relaxed approach to the dogs, the menial workers and the tennis players here that doesn’t quite add up to a message, and Altman one senses is usually more interested in the texture of a situation than its immediately political purpose. There is something mildly anomalous about Altman’s mise-en-scene which nevertheless is more realistic than most. He doesn’t seem to be drawing together the ideological and the narrative to produce a point, but seems to be unravelling both to arrive at a milieu.
Altman achieves this partly through deciding the camera should always be moving; as Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond dolly and pan they do so to bring out the milieu over the ideological and the narrational. As Altman said in Altman on Altman, “everything would move or pan, but it didn’t match the action; usually it was counter to it”. Such an approach can give texture to the film, can make us attend to the peripheral elements as the film gives us a world within the fictional world. Narratively, all Altman needs to do is give us the necessary information to make clear that Marlowe is going to see Mrs Wade who lives in an upmarket area of LA, but at the same time he is interested in the process itself, and so the film attends to the details that can bring out the milieu. When Wilson reckons Chandler’s strength lies in the malaise he evokes, Altman wants to play up that evocation by not so much filming in LA but filming LA itself. LA is a character in the film to the degree that the story becomes secondary to the exploration of a world. Indeed for the first half hour or more there really isn’t much of a story because Marlowe shows no sense of urgency in the case: that the police believe his friend, Terry Lennox, has murdered his wife Mrs Lennox, and thus taken off to Mexico.
Loosely what Altman has reversed is the epistemological nature of the noir detective genre – the urgency with which a case must be solved and the truth exposed. The Long Goodbye isn’t especially epistemological; it is observational, as Altman dilutes the interest in the crime and ups the interest in the incidental. If, say, in The Parallax View Alan J. Pakula allowed the narrational to dissolve into the mysterious as he played on conspiratorial elements to create paranoiac unease, here Altman dissolves the narrational into the observational so that we sense the potential warmth of life rather than its coldness. But it is still of course yet another example of a seventies film loosening the narrative screws. Altman becomes interested in the incidentally warm; Pakula in the mysteriously cold, but neither quite focuses on the centrality of the story.
Altman’s interest in the observational over the narrational is also evident in the casting. Elliott Gould was one of many seventies leading men who might have seemed too physically unprepossessing to play a star role, but though it is probably true there were many early seventies actors who were not conventionally good-looking – Gould, Donald Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, perhaps even Jack Nicholson – we could say that Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Van Heflin, James Cagney and Peter Lorre were hardly pretty either. The difference generally resides not especially in the good looks of the actors of the past against the plainness of the seventies actors, but in the seventies star being not only physically un-striking but also morally ambivalent: neither quite a good guy nor a bad guy, or if a good guy too easily, as in Gould’s case, a fall guy, and yet a fall guy, as we see at the film’s end, capable of killing in relative cold blood. Thus Warren Beatty – a conventional Hollywood star – could be used by Altman in a way almost interchangeable with Gould here. In each instance (in The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs Miller) Altman wants a stumbling, indecisive hero, someone who feels his way through the loose narrative structure, rather than someone who schemes his way through the plot. Perhaps one reason why many seventies films had‘weak’ stories was that the gap between the hero and villain was no longer so clear cut. It is obvious here that the villain acts atrociously when he breaks the Coca Cola bottle on his girl’s face, but what is especially striking about the moment isn’t only the violence, but the shift from tenderness to brutality. As Ryan Gilbey observes in It Don’t Worry Me, the gangster destroys her face “only seconds after boasting of his tenderness”. Yet Marlowe also shoots Terry Lennox at the end of the film in a moment that would seem out of character for a gentle figure who’s attentive to his cat’s needs, as he seems interested in the Wade case because he likes Mr Wade and probably feels mildly attracted to his wife. But he would also be the sort of man who could avoid doing anything about the latter because of his fondness for the former. It isn’t especially the plainness of the leading man of the seventies, but that we can’t quite get a handle on the figure that he is. We neither especially like him nor dislike him, and yet it is his behaviour we attend to as the gestures become about much more than the immediacy of the story.
At the end of the book, Marlowe lets his friend walk out of the door and continue living. At the film’s conclusion we’re left musing over why Marlowe kills his buddy in Mexico – from a plot point of view it serves no purpose. Terry doesn’t pull a gun on him; Marlowe isn’t trying to elicit information and is forced to kill him to get it, it isn’t even as if Terry still has a suitcase full of money that the gangster earlier was willing to kill Marlowe to retrieve. Altman offers an ending that throws us back into the character, and maybe what is central to much seventies cinema is this sense that character isn’t given by the nature of the story, but that the nature of the story is given by character. There is often some troubling aspect, some indeterminate element that leads us to wonder as much about the character as about the story unfolding. This is true of Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Klute, Shampoo, McCabe and Mrs Miller and numerous others. Even so mysteriously story driven a film as The Parallax View may still have us musing over certain moments: the ordering of a glass of milk and Beatty playing up the feminine side as the bully harasses him in a bar room scene in the film, say, or what exactly his relationship was with the woman who gets killed near the beginning of the movie. Even in an action film like The French Connection we’re left to muse over the presence of handcuffs locked to the bed-board after central character Popeye Doyle has been having sex.
When Marlowe kills his friend this would seem reasonably plausible in relation to how Marlowe’s been played by Lennox, but remains an out of character action that many films would ‘characterise’ by creating a motivation within the scene for the action. If Marlowe is basically a good guy, then his action ought to be bad in and of itself. That is why we invoked the idea that Terry could have pulled a gun on him, and Marlowe would consequently be doing no more than defending his own life.
Some could argue that characterisation in The Long Goodbye and many seventies films is less solid than in classic Hollywood, but, while generally a justifiable statement (though a problematic complaint), it isn’t quite the same thing as saying characterisation is less complex. As many a Hollywood scriptwriting manual will insist that strong characterisation can lead to firm narrative development, so Altman settles for weak yet complex characterisation. We’re never quite sure what his interest in the Wades happens to be or why he regards Terry Lennox as such a good friend, while the main motivation behind killing Terry seems to be Marlowe’s missing cat: as he pulls the trigger he mentions his lost tigger the way someone would mention their murdered spouse.
Fair enough we could say if central to the film’s motivation had been its disappearance, but apart from Marlowe’s clear affection towards it in the early stages, and mention of it late in the film as he asks his neighbours to look out for the cat, it hasn’t figured in the story. This is a good example of weak motivation as complex characterisation, where the reason he gives is merely one of many that he could offer. Is Marlowe not a man that tries to care in a world beyond caring, someone that shows interest in other people’s humanity rather than only their bank balance, that finds himself talking to himself as much as to others because nobody is listening and who knows also that he is a loser – to use Terry’s term of abuse – because he is not interested in the terms upon which someone is supposed to win?
Altman here creates a space where the sort of story-line weaknesses Wilson invokes, become hints at the subtleties of characterisation. Not everybody would agree with this, and Michael Dempsey makes a fair case in an article on Altman for Sight and Sound, where he reckons the novel created a more plausible Marlowe than the film. He notes the book stresses how Marlowe put himself out not for a good friend but someone he barely knew, and that perhaps he did so because his “hero’s loyalty was linked, it has been suggested, to the McCarthy-HUAC witch hunts; it constituted his tacit rebuke to informers, a point underlined by having Marlowe stand up for a mere acquaintance instead of a long-time friend.”
The idea of tacit motivations however interest Altman less than allusive ones. Marlowe is someone who is constantly absorbing the world he is in, trying to work out people’s reasons and motives more out of sensitivity than in the spirit of detective enquiry. At one moment after having dinner with Mrs Wade, she offers him an apricot, and he explains as he takes another out of his breast pocket that he still hasn’t eaten the one she gave him in the afternoon. At another, a woman is attending to her mail and Marlowe hovers around behind her and, realising she’s not budging, says “I don’t want to disturb you, I’ll pick up my bills later”, while having no expectation that she’s listening. It is clear that Lennox is repulsive right from the start, as Dempsey notes, and we may wonder why Marlowe doesn’t see through him, but Marlowe comes across as a man who accepts people for what they are: as if in recognition of his own confused existence in a world he is lazily part of and casually fascinated by. As Altman notes, in Altman on Altman, Marlowe’s key line in the film is “it is OK by me”.
That Altman’s is a character film, yet a character film out of the milieu, is also evident in Marlowe’s omnipresence beyond the opening credits. As Altman says, “Marlowe was in every scene of the film because it was his viewpoint,” and this left a key moment between the Wades, and one between Wade and his doctor, nevertheless viewed from Marlowe’s perspective. Yet these work less as eavesdropping moments that give us narrative information; but much more give us an awareness of Marlowe’s attentiveness to events. Everything might be okay by him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t accumulate observations and turn them into useful hypotheses – though he seems finally to be better at understanding feelings over motivations, and this makes him probably a better human being than detective: where in the latter instance comprehension of purpose proves vital. Usually the balance between the two is kept in a state of equilibrium to further comprehension of plot whilst retaining identity of character. Altman seems deliberately to have eschewed this equilibration.
The Long Goodbye thus explores the comprehension of feeling over story, and while Marlowe has been incompetent at reading the information, he concludes that not everything is okay by him. If we said earlier that the cat is hardly reason enough for Marlowe to go to Mexico and kill Terry, we could add that Terry is hardly bad enough, or rather not uniquely bad enough, however repulsive, to justify being shot at the end. How many others deserve to die – the gangster who rips open the woman’s face, and maybe Mrs Wade, who has played Marlowe and would have let her late husband take the rap for Lennox’s murdered wife? What matters is the subtlest realization on Marlowe’s part that certain things aren’t okay. The emphasis on Marlowe’s point of view isn’t chiefly a narrative device for withholding information, more an observational device to understand why the character who tolerates so much will at the end of the film walk away from a man he’s killed, watch the woman who loves Lennox, namely Mrs Wade, drive past him on the road knowing she will shortly discover the body, and, after she passes, jump in the air as if in delight. From a certain point of view the ending is inexplicable (from the general noir perspective); from another (and that is the viewpoint we’ve been following throughout the film and that has been steadily defying genre expectation), it makes sense. It isn’t about solving the mystery but understanding the self. Marlowe by the conclusion realises that not everything is okay by him, as the film proves a journey not of discovery out there in the narrative world. It has been instead a journey inside the character’s curious attempt at a value system as he no doubt returns to the city that will allow him to live the sort of relaxed life Kael believes many came to Los Angeles for.