Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Neo-, Anti- or Comic Noir?

In my ongoing survey of as many film noir related films as I can get my hands on, I decided it was time to re-examine The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman's left-handed take on the Phillip Marlowe legend. Long Goodbye is by no means a noir film, nor does it have any aspirations to be one. It just happens that while noir films seem to intersect with private eye movies, almost all of that intersection happens at the corner of novelist Raymond Chandler and his detective character, Phillip Marlowe. Chandler's prinicipal rival as the kind of hard-boiled, Dashiel Hammett is responsible for the source material for The Maltese Falcon, which has a noir outlook, especially for protagonist Sam Spade, who sends his lady love to jail, probably to Death Row; and The Thin Man which, on-screen, at least is the antithesis of hard-boiled--a genteel whodunit with a married pair of wisecracking drunks solving the mystery and besting the flustered official police. (Sounds like a formula for a TV show? It was.)

But is impossible to talk about Marlowe on film without skirting around the edges of noir--not with Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep lurking out there. Making a film in 1973, just when hippy-induced good will for all people was turning into narcissim, withdrawal and cynism--understandable in a time when President Nixon was escalating the war in Vietnam in order to de-escalate it, and slashing the constitution in order to save the country it was based on, Altman described the concept of his film as Rip Van Marlowe. What if Phillip Marlowe went to sleep in the late 40s and woke up in the early 70s? I last saw the film upon its initial release, in the spring of my senior year in high school (astonishing to me). Even at the time, Elliot Gould seemed to sloppy and casual to be a real Phillip Marlowe. Yes, he had the contempt for authority, but he seemed to have a contempt for all order, including personal hygiene. With the passing years, however, I see the self-deprecating humor in Gould's performance, and although I still find it hard to believe that his Marlowe was ever an ex-cop, as Chandler's was, the lighter touch he brings to the character makes more sense for the film Altman was creating. So Marlowe is amused by the naked girls next door, by the venality, corruption and incompetence he sees around him, rather than angered or frustrated, as an actor in his 60s, the natural choice, might do. (Personally, I would have preferred James Garner, who was disappointing as Marlowe in an uncharacteristically non-humorous vein in a 1969 film called Marlowe, but whose usual lackadaisical comic style would have fit Altman's concept.)

36 years later, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its casting, replete with people who were not full-time actors. This reinforces Altman's approach of carefully prepared improvisational realism, showcasing large ensembles of characters with different goals and outlooks thrown together willy-nilly to interact. Chief among the part-time actors is Nina Van Pallandt, famous at the time for being linked to Clifford Irving, a daring hoaxter who conned Time-Life and a major book publisher out of huge sums by claiming to be the "as told to" author of Howard Hughes's autobiography. (This is the subject of a quirky little movie with Richard Gere called The Hoax.) Van Pallandt should have been no more than a 15-minute wonder, but she gives a rich, nuanced performance reminiscent of a Jeanne Moreau or some other mature (and by mature I mean smart and experienced, not old) leading woman of European cinema. She had a very minor career in films after this--whether it was because she was underappreciated or because she did not pursue acting fulltime I don't know.

Opposite Van Pallandt was a blacklisted actor who had been pushed out of the movies and only came back for the money to pursue his principal avocation, which was sailing around the world. This was Sterling Hayden, whose performance just seemed irrational and disjointed to me back in my high school days. Now I understand that he was perfectly reflecting his once-talented and now unhappy character. (Many critics at the time of the film's release noted Hayden's physical resemblance to Hemingway. Outside of pomposity and alcohol, it is hard to be certain about similarities between the character and the real-life writer.) But Hayden, who is so many favorite movies of mine, including The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove gives an actor's master class in disorientation and the disintegration of personality. I wonder how much of this was based on self-observation.

Other non-actors include pitcher and memorist Jim Bouton as the lowlife who betray's Marlowe's friendship and sets the story in motion, director Mark Rydell, who had a hit called Cinderella Liberty the same year as The Long Goodbye as the hoodlum, Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the hoodlum's thugs, Henry Gibson, who was an able comedian, but whose (very effective) dramatic appearances are limited almost entirely to Altman's films. It seems Altman wanted to erase any possibility of acting "technique", most of which are derived from stage disciplines in favor of a film actuality.

The special features on the DVD of this film cleared up one thing for me--this film, along with a lot of films of the 70s always looked faded, as if the prints had gotten thoroughly beaten-up before they arrived at your theater (and my hometown theater got most films toward the end of their theatrical run). Turns out that was intentional. The film was "flashed," that is, partly exposed during the processing stage to reduce contrast and create a diffused effect. That look is palpably deliberate in a film like McCabe & Mrs. Miller; in The Long Goodbye, it looks a cost-saving procedure gone wrong.

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