Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Goodbye

(1973)
Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Leigh Brackett from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, and Jim Bouton.

I've been a fan of Robert Altman since M*A*S*H first came out.  His films were always a unique take on whatever subject he was filming. The Long Goodbye was his venture into film noir, a movie that didn't make money,* but which has plenty of small rewards.

The film is based on a Raymond Chandler novel. Chandler is one of the great names of mystery fiction, but is hard to translate to movies, since his work was more dependent on language** and mood than plot. Altman came onto the project after a couple of other directors turned it down, and made it into his own vision. 

He insisted on the quirky casting.  Elliott Gould was considered too unreliable in Hollywood, and Jim Bouton was known only as a baseball player (and for his book Ball Four).  Nina van Pallandt was even less likely a choice, since all she was known for at the time was being involved in the Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes autobiography hoax.

He also threw Chandler out the window.  This bothered some of his fans, but the only better film made from his work -- The Big Sleep -- also tended to remake things in order to clean up the sloppy plotting.  And he also turned it into more than just a detective story. It was partly a comment on the old fashioned 40s detective caught in a 1970s situation.

The story follows Philip Marlowe (Gould). His friend, Terry Lennox (Bouton), asks him for a ride to Mexicon.  When Marlowe returns, he discovers that Lennox is wanted for killing his wife. And when Lennox is reported as being killed, Marlowe thinks there's more to it than that.

The movie plays to Altman's strength in creating characters.  Gould's Marlowe is a beaten down man, who tries to keep up with the code of the 40s that you had to work on a mystery until you solved it.  He's perfect in the role, as his understated presence makes Marlowe all that more memorable.

Sterling Hayden, Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt and Henry Gibson Sterling Hayden is also fine as an alcoholic writer who Marlowe is hired to find, and whose story seems to have something to do with Lennox.

But the most memorable role for me is Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine.  Rydell is primarily a director who occasionally acts and his portrayal of Augustine -- a crime boss -- is among the greatest villains in the history of film. What makes him so dangerous is the fact that he both violent and unpredictable.  Augustine makes it clear that he is even willing to wreck the things he loves most for absolutely no reason at all other than the prove a point. His line to Marlowe after he demonstrates -- "You, I don't even like" -- is chilling, and he's much more interesting than any villain because you don't know what he'll decide to do.

Bouton does a good job as Lennox, but van Pallandt is just OK in her role.  It's also somewhat surprising to see Laugh-In's Henry Gibson as a sinister doctor.

I should also give kudos to screenwriter Leigh Brackett.  Brackett was writing pulp science fiction before going into films, and she worked on the script to The Long Goodbye. Maybe it's not just a coincidence that the two best Chandler films had her as a writer.

The film did poorly in the box office.  Most Altman films did.*** The bleak and funny look at Hollywood confused people; the changes in the film bothers Chandler's fans; and the lack of star power didn't help.  The studio first tried to market it as a detective thriller, then as a comedy.  Neither worked.

The movie did revitalize Gould's career, showing the Hollywood suits that he was capable of making a movie.  Most of the other actors didn't do to well.  It was clear that Bouton and Van Pallandt's careers were self-limiting -- despite everything, they were just stunt casting -- and Sterling Hayden (best remembered as General Ripper in Doctor Strangelove and for his role in The Asphalt Jungle) was at the end of his career.  Altman continued to make fascinating movies that failed at the box office.

One actor, however, did pretty well afterwards.  In several scenes you could see Marlowe's next door neighbor, a bodybuilder back when that sort of thing was exotic. The nonspeaking part was played by an Austrian bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwartzeneggar.  Of course with a name like that, he never had a chance to be a star and eventually he left acting to go into politics.  I hear he's been somewhat successful.

*Of  course.  Few Altman films did.

**He pretty much invented the hard-boiled detective lingo, but was so good with words that, despite the fact there are thousands of imitators, his still remains fresh and exciting.

*** Altman once said that the only reason he kept getting directing assignments was because of M*A*S*H.  Producers would see his track record and would be reluctant to hire him, until they thought, "well, M*A*S*H was a hit.  Maybe he can do it again."

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