Monday, 22 February 2021

The Long Goodbye by Chandler, Altman & Brackett

Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye is his next-to-last Philip Marlowe detective story. 

And it is considered one of his weakest novels. But I didn't know that when I first read it as a teenager...

 And I found it dark, compelling and powerful.

Robert Altman's movie adaptation, scripted by Leigh Brackett, is wayward and whimsical and, at the time of its release (1973), had Chandler purists up in arms..

Altman recalls, "A lot of heat came down from people who said, 'That's not Raymond Chandler'." *

But I loved this movie when I saw it in 1973 and I love it just as much, perhaps even more, now.

It represents Altman and his leading man Elliot Gould's conception of Philip Marlowe, private eye and urban knight errant, defender of the vulnerable and enemy of the wicked...

But in their irreverent take, Marlowe is a guy who can't even get his cat to eat her dinner. 

And she won't be fooled when he tries to con her by putting another brand of cat food into an empty tin of her favourite...

And so she promptly abandons her owner. (Leaving through a piece of cardboard in the window labelled El Porto del Gatto.)

This is how the movie begins, and not surprisingly it was not the brainchild of screenwriter Leigh Brackett. "The cat... is all Robert Altman," says Alan Rudolph.

But it's a great sequence. And it features an amazingly well trained cat.

Amazing cat aside, the movie begins with Marlowe being approached by an old friend who is in trouble, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton).

He wants Marlowe to drive him across the border into Tijuana. No questions asked.

Loyal to the death, Marlowe would never turn away a friend in need. So he does exactly that. 

But on Marlowe's return to LA the cops come knocking, and tell him Terry was fleeing because he'd murdered his wife.

Marlowe doesn't believe his friend is guilty, and refuses to cooperate. The ensuing sequence, with the police arresting Marlowe and grilling him, is played for silly, surrealistic laughs.

But others parts of the film are played powerfully straight— like the story of doomed writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) and his long suffering wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), which has considerable reality and power, rooted by van Pallandt's touching performance.

This is virtually Nina van Pallandt's film debut (before this she was half of the folk singing duo, Nina and Frederick). But she is a tender and commanding presence, and one of the best things in the movie.

And she was entirely Altman's idea — he spotted her on a talk show and thought, "That's Marlowe's blonde." 

Altman always was a genius at casting. And he was the actor's director par excellence.

Looking back years later on van Pallandt's performance in the film, Altman reflects, "She's terrific."

She certainly is. Gould clowns throughout this movie, but he dials down the clowning and really turns up the charm in his scenes with van Pallandt. 

(And he can be very charming, with a great face and a killer smile.)

Nina van Pallandt plays Eileen, wife of Roger Wade who was a famous writer but is now an erratic drunk, spiralling down to self destruction... not a million miles from Chandler himself when he wrote this novel.

When Wade disappears from home, Eileen hires Marlowe to find him. By the end of the movie this story will end up neatly entwining with Terry Lennox's.

Along the way Marlowe will be threatened by a hood called Marty Augustine, vivdly portrayed by Mark Rydell.

Augustine is a psychopath, and to show Marlowe he means business he smashes a Coke bottle in the face of his own girlfriend. (Even Augustine's henchmen are horrified.)

Given the level of violence against women here (the murder of Terry's wife, Eileen evidently being a battered spouse...) you might be surprised to learn that the screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, was a woman. 

Howard Hawks certainly was surprised when he hired her in 1946 to work on The Big Sleep, without question the greatest Philip Marlowe movie, the one with Bogart as Marlowe and Bacall as "Marlowe's blonde".

Brackett was a gifted writer who could fashion first rate screenplays, novels and short stories in the genres of crime, westerns (she did some fine westerns for Hawks) and science fiction (her last script was The Empire Strikes back).

For a woman who had been writing movies for almost 40 years by the time The Long Goodbye was made, Brackett remained impressively unconventional when it came to adapting her second Chandler novel.

For instance, she violates the rule that everything in the movie should be from the private eye's point of view.

Brackett makes the audience privy to a conversation between Eileen and Wade while Marlowe strolls on the beach outside their Malibu house.

The same beach where the film's most unforgettable sequence takes place, Roger Wade's drowning.

In this brilliant scene Hayden fights the waves like Canute, slashing at them with his cane, before disappearing into the heaving haze... 

Then his dog brings his master's cane back out of the tumbling surf...

Vilmos Zsigmond's fluid photography excels in these scenes. 

Altman said this constantly moving camera freed the actors up for the improvisation that he so loves.

(A more fixed camera would have encouraged a more fixed lighting scheme, where the actors would have to stick to rehearsed moves and positions.)

Altman liked this prowling camera technique so much that he did it again in Gosford Park.

But to return to Leigh Brackett, her most radical revision of Chandler is the ending of the movie.

"You're a born loser, Marlowe," someone tells our hero.

"Yeah, I even lost my cat," he replies. It's the last line of the film and it precedes a genuinely shocking conclusion which diverges dramatically from the novel.

Altman loved Leigh Brackett's ending — it was this, and the fact that he could cast Gould, that decided him to do the film

As for Gould, he loved "This opportunity to reinvent Philip Marlowe." And The Long Goodbye is Gould's favourite picture.

It's also one of mine. It's really given me a craving to see more of Altman's work.

Maybe Gosford Park next.

*All quotes are from the excellent set of documentaries that come with the Arrow Blu-ray release. (Alan Rudolph was Altman's assistant who went on to become a prolific writer-director in his own right.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)

1 comment:

  1. Altman's 'Short Cuts' might be an interesting choice.

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