Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, then-rising New Hollywood superstar Robert Altman brings us one of his most popular efforts, an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel from twenty years back given strange new life via a setting update and a career-revitalizing star turn for Elliott Gould. Out’ve 1973, it’s The Long Goodbye, one that happens every day. Come on in before it’s too late to try.
One thing you must understand about Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s conjuration of a worn-out LA detective: he’s a guy who thinks he’s got it all figured out. Or, leastways, figured out enough that whatever surprises he meets on his investigations easily slot into his understanding of the way of things, enough so they can’t hit him too hard. Marlowe’s the sort who’s been around the block more times than he’s cared to journey or thought he’d ever tolerate at the start, seen the vices of rich and poor and powerful and desolate and virtuous and criminal alike in action, all in the name of digging up dirt for clients who often keep their fingers deep in the muck themselves. He can take an impressive amount of abuse, defend with smart-mouthed quips or cutting observations, let loose a tirade on the rotten state of affairs we’re all under when the screws turn too tight, and then resume his business like nothing ever happened. The man knows almost everyone’s at least a little crooked, himself included, and the precious few who ain’t are forever liable to get hurt or dead if they take a wrong step. None of this inspires him to despair or despondency, though; it’s how things are. In the grand order of the world, he’s got himself a job he does because there’s no better or sufficiently attractive options, so he’ll keep on pulling at strings until the truth comes out and something in the same postal code as justice is served… or at least until the whole situation is threadbare and he’s privately satisfied. Whichever comes first.
We see this at play in today’s source material, 1953’s novel The Long Goodbye, one of Chandler’s sprawling classics wherein place and person and mood take precedent over conventional narrative. The especially attentive reader can follow clues to work out something like the truth in advance of reveals, but what matters more is Marlowe’s travels and what they reveal about his worldview. Terry Lennox, an occasionally-visited drinking buddy, comes to Marlowe looking for transport to the airport after his wife turns up dead and mysteriously gets dead himself a few days later, which entangles the detective in a long series of jail stints and police visits, business with doctors in the surrounding area on a missing person’s case, parties and late night interventions at glitzy valley manors, and all manner of gangsters and reclusive millionaires both leaning on Marlowe warning him to drop a case he thought long closed by suicide. Every chapter another examination of human rot, be it born from self-pity, or private guilt, or power-tripping, or power-seeking, or lust for vengeance, or lust for flesh, on and on and on. The cops as despicable as the new gentry as the quacks as the toughs as the servants as the man trying to keep a clean nose through it all, a man still picking at these affairs only because nobody involved will let him go regardless how often they push him around, forever reeled back in by one more contact, one last dangling thread. Marlow only ever shows faith in the idea Lennox was too crumpled and withered a man to meet the profile everyone ascribed after his supposed death, and when the truth finally comes to light long after a lot more people are dead or ruined than if Marlowe were allowed to stay well away or let himself let it all go, when Marlowe learns Lennox was innocent of killing his wife but DID fake his death and go into hiding in full knowledge of what would likely happen to those left behind, it comes as a hard blow, yet one he can expect and roll through. After all, the one thing you can count on is the idea even your few refuges from the refuse will eventually turn up stained and rubbish-strewn.
It’s a philosophy you’d expect adapts well across any era; mistrust in the goodness of the human spirit and suspicion there’s something fishy behind the scenes are attitudes built to last. The self-same expectation is in place when the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s 1973 movie adaptation of The Long Goodbye first crackles to life, in the form of John Williams’ titular theme song. After an ironic snatch of “Hooray For Hollywood!” on the telly, as Elliott Gould’s bleary-eyed Marlowe goes about trying to feed his cat at 3 in the AM and Jim Bouton’s Terry Lennox makes his way across town, Jack Sheldon starts into crooning over the lounge stylings of cool piano and drums on Marlowe’s radio, a tune which morphs into Clydie King’s even lower tempo interpretation backed by horns on Lennox’s radio, which in turn becomes the muzak over the supermarket speakers in the wee hours. This same melancholic tune of living through hardships knowing the sting must come sometime recurs in numerous arrangements throughout — in fact, it is the ONLY piece of incidental music in The Long Goodbye, heard via mariachi band, hippie chant, idle piano noodling, the doorbell at a client’s residence. Continually repackaged and morphed, always communicating the same worn-down resignation to some final sad fate you’ll have to meet one of these lonely half-hours. Altman’s determination to render the piece a Rip Van Marlowe story by transplanting the detective from his native late 40s/early 50s setting to the contemporary early 70s is expressed and challenged straight away as the backing tunes never once cede ground to the possibility of meaningful change — repackaging, yes, but never a shift in meaning.
And why should they when the man himself doesn’t either? In Gould’s hands, Marlowe’s existing disdain for authority and general fed up attitude with the world transcends into something like nirvana, as if the guy who had enough long before we met him found the world simply wouldn’t let up and so decided he’d slink even further into a casual affect. Shed the tough guy act, shed the need to bite back when they nip his heels too hard, shed near everything except a preternatural refusal to Be Bothered, and you’ve Gould as Marlowe. The guy suffers both a plethora of indignities common to his ink-’n’-paper counterpart and whole new scenarios for the film, whether the opening reel’s private humiliation of his cat refusing to eat something other than its preferred brand or the repeated encounters with Mark Rydell’s ruthless face-smashing gangster. He’s shoved around and made the fool and frustrated in all the usual ways, and when time comes round for his reaction, more often than not it’s a chill, shrugging, “It’s okay with me,” his catchphrase for the film. Here’s a read on Marlowe who’ll smear fingerprinting ink across his face for private amusement, murmur out half-attentive assent to persons growling threats against his life in his face, maintain a string of semi-coherent thoughts under his breath while on the case. That inherited inability to leave well enough alone remains, as does the willful pursuit of loose threads against all common sense, but it comes without the groans, the tirades, the inner raging disappointment at all the too mundane evils before him regularly expressed outwardly by Marlowe actors of the past. His commitment to ambivalence is even reflected in Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography — post-flashed frames with a slightly hazy sun-addled look, shots which waver all around and sometimes drift off onto irrelevant details, a trend towards focus on reflective surfaces that render Marlowe and the opposite party of interest equally half-invisible. Bleary-eyed and cool in the face of it all, he walks as a man who knows it’ll shake out about the same no matter what and thinks it worth the time for want of something to do.
Naturally, if we are to strengthen Marlowe’s armor in this manner, we must in turn test the ways in which it is brittler than ever, subject to collapse if wallopped in the wrong spots, and lo! Leigh Brackett’s new story does just so. Though there’s the expected simplification of plot and incident to suit a cinematic medium (including the deletion of numerous important side concerns like Marlowe’s encounters with an equally cynical potential love interest), the biggest and furthest-reaching change is one anathema to the character of Chandler’s larger body of work. Marlowe gets posted on watchdog duty for a heavy-drinking famous writer (a thunderous Sterling Hayden) who was neighbors with Lennox and whose wife (Nina van Pallandt) seemed to have some dealings with the family, but where Chandler uses this set-up to complicate and obfuscate and lay a million lines of confusing devious intrigue, here there’s simply no conspiracy. No tangled web of deception and chesswork with the rich and powerful moving pawns about the board to keep their secrets under wraps, no hidden connections between parties who contacted Marlowe suspiciously close to one another, no coverup for the man to unearth with enough relentless scratching. The writer who’s driven to distraction and heavy drinking and long-winded rambling speeches about his many regrets in life, who argues with his wife like no tomorrow and eventually throws himself into the sea? Just an alcoholic old bastard at the end of his rope who couldn’t take it anymore. The wife with pointed interest in the Lennox murder-suicide who constantly talks as if she wishes her husband would just finish the job? A woman who’s gone through it for years in a loveless marriage and now doesn’t have the guile to do anything except weep at this latest tragedy if she tried. The gangster who regularly threatens Marlowe and brutalizes people in his presence learn about the whereabouts of money that vanished with Lennox is only after lost money, the doctor (Henry Gibson again) who charges the writer an extortionary amount for services rendered close to the time of murder is simply an overcharging asshole, the police cut investigation short because they had their answer and didn’t want to waste time. No sedition, no skullduggery, just an unfortunate series of connections triggered because Marlowe got his face in the paper after the Lennox incident. Simple as.
Except Marlowe can’t see it. He may have gone deep into a c’est la vie attitude towards the world’s swings at him, but in indignities and injustices leveled at others’ heads, he’s walking the same beats as yesteryear, and thus still believes there MUST be a snare of influences and hidden agendas beneath the surface. When the moment comes for all disparate pieces to cohere into a blinding flash of insight, he draws on the lingering old instincts towards conspiracy and duplicity, and attacks at entirely the wrong angle, going in hard on the theory either Hayden’s writer killed Lennox or the police are lying about the case, in on some insidious take. That a man would ONLY kill his wife, exploit Marlowe’s sympathies to escape the country, and take his life in a nowhere town in Mexico is alien to the detective’s mind, as is the idea the tumultuous couple who lived near his friend ONLY hired him because the wife caught wind of the story and thought he might be able to help in her private affairs, as is any notion his failure to help in a suicide case represents little beyond the sad, sorry final stage of depression. After all, the world kept getting worse all the time he’s been in it, every refuge he’s ever taken proven rotten in some way shape or form. It’s always been this way, always will be, and you can always solve it with the same techniques… right? There must be a baseline morality everyone strays from, one everyone knows marks the only right path in life, one you can shame people over if you find them far astray and either press the advantage when they’re caught on the outs or leave their guilt to wreck them into confession and conclusion — conclusion to the case or their lives, doesn’t matter which. Any possibility the world went through the same sort of beatings to hell and back as Marlowe and decided to get honest does not and cannot occur to him. He sees the same crummy scene his literary twin saw decades back, never quite noticing the truly awful people are now so ruthless because they readily live with what they are, nor considering the seemingly innocent may actually BE innocent and so vulnerable to emotional collapse when he treats them as suspects. Everyone’s dealt with the pain of being alive on their own terms, and Marlowe’s chosen defenses leave him effectively incapable of operation in this blunter, straighter world. Old words in a new tune.
Still, he can take it. He’d best be able to take it. Even when he tracks Terry down to Mexico in the final reel, learns the guy not only killed his wife and faked his death but is sitting there proud and bold as brass about the fact and mocking Marlowe to his face for being such a sucker, even when he whips out his pistol and shoots Lennox dead for crossing the final line, he can take it. All those hours accepting shit he doesn’t deserve and watching others get dumped much the same shit wouldn’t be worth squat if any of this collapsed Marlowe. After all, in the end he’s not here to solve the case or bring justice, however often those are happy accidents of his involvement. He’s here to witness, agitate a little, aggravate a lot, gander what the world has to offer, heave a sigh, proffer his diagnosis of what’s wrong, and go about his life a little deeper scarred and a little further entrenched in his preexisting suspicions about what’s what. His assumptions regarding the case are further off-base than in the book, and his reaction to the closing insult more extreme, but is the total effect any different? The world remains a burnt-out dump regardless whether it’s wearing masks of power and influence to veil its worst self or standing there nude in the cold hard light of dawn, Marlowe remains powerless to affect any meaningful change on the systems turning the gears regardless whether he’s any true insight into their workings or not, the people he meets about as worse off for the crossing paths regardless how they process guilt and innocence alike. All’s changed is the tone of the takeaway. Altman and Brackett and Gould put Marlowe through the wringer as always, make him pull the trigger in revenge, and then he jaunts off into the far distance buzzing out a tune on a miniature harmonica taken off a man in full bodycast some time earlier. Life and people and the world will disappoint you at every turn if you give ’em enough space? It’s okay with me.
Chandler and Marlowe through a lens of absurdism, it is, the cynical side-eying cigarette smokestack in a world where everyone presents exactly what they are, naked in spirit as his yoga-stretching neighbors’ flesh in broad daylight, a world where nobody indulges a nicotine pack puff anymore. A guy who spends half the night trying to feed his cat only to get turned up over some perceived inadequacy and see it run away, a guy who spends weeks pursuing a hunch only to find his starting points were completely off-base and the guilty man he defended thinks him a gullible loser, he’s as liable to get played and left in the biggest dunce cap available here as back in his native time, except now instead of snarling out another tirade on human nature before slumping down for an evening of chess problems and drifting to sleep to do it all over on the morrow, he can wander off with a smile on his face and the same old song in his heart, a weary but accepting view on the drubbings and ills you suffer for the crime of being alive. Same old ills, radical new medicine in acceptance. The out’ve step wise guy finds solace in the commonalities, the world goes right on being mean ’n’ underhanded in a parade of new guises for each new era, and a missed hello will always become a long goodbye. Nothing you can do; might as well play your part to completion.
That’ll do us for the week! Be sure to let me know what you think down in the comments — about Chandler, Marlowe, Altman, Gould, anyone involved in this project, or the movie itself if you’re feeling saucy! Just be sure to come back in two weeks when we do our next film. We jump to 1975 this time for an early picture from Michael Schultz (later of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Last Dragon), following Glynn Turnman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as a pair of black high school seniors Coming Of Age in the mid-60s. It’s Cooley High, and you can either stream through Pluto or tubi.tv, or rent/buy through Vudu! Catch you then!
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