Trouble is My Business December 7, 2020
The Long Goodbye and California Split, two Elliott Gould/Robert Altman teamups
he only real friend L.A. detective Philip Marlowe has is a cat — and when your only real friend is a cat you're pretty likely to drop everything for them when they
call for you. At the beginning of The Long Goodbye (1973), this cat wakes Marlowe up at around 3 a.m., loudly mewling. Must be hungry. Marlowe, still in the day's clothes, stumbles into the kitchen. He goes for the kitty’s food and shoot — he’s all out. Marlowe whips up a different concoction — one of his most famous recipes, he says — but the cat isn’t having it. “Think of all the tigers in India they’re killing cause they don’t get enough to eat,” he fruitlessly guilt-trips. Marlowe doesn’t want his only real friend to spend the rest of the night (morning?) hungry, so he heads to the 24-hour drug store around the corner to grab a can of the cat’s favorite — the Courry brand. He gets to the pet-food aisle and shoot — they’re all out. When Marlowe comes back with an alternative, the kitty recoils, almost storming out through the makeshift
Sterling Hayden and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.
pet door Marlowe’s made with his kitchen window. So maybe he and this cat aren’t that good of friends.
In the world of Philip Marlowe, whose big bang dates to
1939, with The Big Sleep, there is nothing and no one on whom he can depend. (The detective's creator, Raymond Chandler, wrote a total of seven full-length Marlowe novels, with numerous short stories supplementing them.) But
doesn't that come with the territory of being a gumshoe — a role that regularly has happy developments backfire more than they stick?
Movie adaptations of Chandler’s books came swiftly — the 1940s were full of them — and those adaptations usually took the form of stylish, hard-edged films noirs. The cynical and wise-cracking Marlowe was enlivened with cool and snappiness by actors like Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. Along with the writer Dashiell Hammett, whose hero was the shamus Sam Spade, Chandler was pivotal in popularizing the hallmarks of the modern detective novel, in which witty, seen-it-all anti-heroes were forced to reckon with a cruel world inhabited by people who wanted to destroy each other for personal gain and, when he threatened that lucrative destruction, him. The novels and the Hollywood Golden Age-era adaptations were labyrinthine (The Big Sleep, especially). But they arguably never felt very expansive or free to extemporize. They had rules to follow.
Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, whose source material emerged in 1953, takes place 20 years after the book did. The director, working off a very funny script by Leigh Brackett (she’d co-adapted The Big Sleep for the screen 27 years earlier with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman), also “follows" the rules by way of its narrative, which is foundationally conventional. But Altman’s take on gumshoe fiction feels looser, more ambulatory. Although it never exactly meanders, its action has an incidental rather than carefully contrived quality to it, like everybody is improvising and just so happening to land on all the places detective stories are supposed to.
Marlowe’s job entails he’s treated dirtily in a corrupted world. Not helping matters, he doesn’t have loved ones around to help ease his suffering. In The Long Goodbye, the sad reality is given a dark funniness: even a tabby bribed with a decent meal doesn’t care about Marlowe as much as Marlowe cares about them, and that that example opens the movie is a sneaky establishment of the feature's playfulness. The long-standing characterization of the modern fictional detective was that despite the ubiquitous darkness in his life, he clung onto at least a semblance of sentimentality to cope — the idea that there is good in this world to preserve. This manifests sweetly in that 3 a.m. trip to the minute mart. It might not pay off, but it doesn’t alter the way Marlowe will continue to approach life.
The premise of The Long Goodbye is simple. After Marlowe’s pointless minute-mart trip, he’s visited by an old friend named Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox, aware it’s a big ask with little notice, asks Marlowe if right then and there he would be willing to drive him from Los Angeles to Tijuana. Without asking any real questions, Marlowe says sure — what else does he have going on? What seems like a generous favor soon seems like more of a big mistake. Splashing the front pages of the morning papers is the announcement that Lennox’s wife, Sylvia, has been murdered, probably by her husband. Maybe Marlowe should have been more inquisitive. A little while after the detective has been interrogated by the LAPD for his potential role in abetting Lennox's escape, the latter has supposedly killed himself in a hotel room in a city far from Tijuana. This development shuts the case. Marlowe, though, isn’t having it. This is all too strange to be so tidy. It’s not a surprise when he eventually finds out that the next case he takes on — he’s almost immediately hired by a woman named Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her missing, Hemingway-like writer husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) — has a more-than-a-little-tenuous connection.
Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye,
and it’s a performance so winningly amused with itself that you can't help but love it. You’re constantly grinning, to an almost embarrassing degree. His Marlowe, who is lanky, frequently unkempt, and shaggy-haired in a way that suggests unusual-for-the-character free-spiritedness, so often puts up a front of insouciance that in certain moments you think of him as a tired jester doing an impression of a private eye. Gould's Marlowe is so persistently throwing out little jokes that when he’s at one point being cross-examined by the police, he dares to smudge the fresh black paint off his thumbs under his eye sockets so he can make a crack about football once his interrogator has finished his sentence. Then he smears more of it on his face and provocatively sings “Swanee” in the Al Jolson style.
The 1973 Marlowe can’t hold himself back even when he ventures out of his apartment, thinks about grabbing the mail, and then decides against it because one of his neighbors is taking too long with her box. He narrates his thought process aloud like he’s generating material for a stand-up routine. He's not narrating to the viewers at home or to the neighbor standing in his way — he’s just amusing himself, and that’s what matters to him. Cracking wise is so much a constant here — it's a subconscious way of comforting oneself — that it can sometimes feel parodic. It's an exaggeration of just how often witticisms constituted the dialogue and narration in Chandler's novels.
When Gould’s Marlowe pretty cannily figures out something in the main investigation he’s conducting, we’re reminded that a self-preserving front of waggishness is not that good an indicator of someone’s actual professional ability. When Bogart and Powell (and less-successful-as-Marlowe actors like the unrelated Robert Montgomery and George Montgomery) were playing the detective, we were never unaware that they were performing, even though Bogart and Powell in particular were wonderful in the part. Comparatively, you almost forget Gould is acting. He’s so comfortable, or at least so convincingly pretends to be, that the performance in the best way mimics total spontaneity. It lacks any sort of constriction, almost contradicting how set in stone the characteristics of a wearied private eye are.
There are other humorous challenges to convention going on in The Long Goodbye. The only music we hear — whether it’s emanating from a radio, from the lips of singing partygoers crowded around a piano at a party — is some version of John Williams’ titular score, as if to remind us how a film’s music, particularly in a thriller, is another artificial way a movie manipulates us into feeling something. What if it all more or less sounded the same?
One of the tropes accompanying Marlowe is that he pretty easily attracts women. But in The Long Goodbye, no one wants him romantically. Does anyone ever want him for non-self-serving reasons? Intimacy is always out of reach, and that's a reality rendered amusingly: His across-the-balcony neighbors are a harem of always-parading-around-naked young women, but this is established quickly as an unintentional act of provocation. The girls seem to think of him exclusively in the avuncular sense, and the only time they "want" him is when he's going to the store and they wonder if he could grab them some brownie mix while he's there. And then he gets to the store and is again reminded of his unwantedness. “What do I need a cat for — I’ve got a girl,” an employee says with a scoff when Marlowe can't believe he's never heard of the Courry brand.
he conclusion of The Long Goodbye is more decisive than we would anticipate given its feeling of looseness, and ultimately the movie hits the majority of the expectations one has in mind when pressing
play on a detective picture. The film comprises a bunch of run-ins with sinister figures and is especially taken with the affinity between Mrs. Wade and Marlowe, which always seems like it’s maybe teetering into something that could turn romantic. Yet the movie has a breeziness unusual for detective lore. On top of its Marlowe's general unrestrictedness, the sinister figures with whom he crosses paths are so oddball that the actors are unable to help themselves from half poking fun at the stock types they’re playing. Altman isn’t as interested, it seems, in generating thriller-style tension as he is in capturing the idiosyncrasies of the film’s wide array of characters.
I especially loved the performance from Mark Rydell, who plays a gangster named Marty Augustine written specifically for the movie by Brackett. Lennox owes Augustine a lot of money, and because of Marlowe’s apparently close connection to the former, Augustine expects him to settle the debt. Augustine, always followed around by dapperly dressed stooges, seems to get a kick out of acting like a ruthless old-time-movie gangster. When he smashes a glass Coke bottle against his mistress' face during what is pretty much an ambush at Marlowe’s apartment and says to the detective, “That's someone I love. You, I don't even like,” I immediately thought that he’s probably lifted this from the gangster character Lee Marvin played in The Big Heat (1953). No one who has seen that movie forgets the part where Marvin throws a piping-hot pot of coffee into the face of his moll (Gloria Grahame) for the sake of proving a point.
Later on, Augustine says the only way he’s going to trust Marlowe when states he has no idea where Lennox’s money is is if Marlowe takes off all his clothes and then says it. He’ll have nothing to hide that way. Augustine can believe in something like this because after his newly mangled girl returned home from the hospital with her torn-up face bandaged, he stood before her naked in their bedroom as she rested and apologized, and he really meant it, because he was giving her the truest version of himself. Does Augustine really believe in this abstract expression of honesty as he's relaying it to Marlowe? Or does he love how romantic it sounds? What can be confirmed is that
Augustine is a creature of hyperbole — someone who, by now, conflates performance with authenticity.
Some of the funniest — and scariest — scenes in The Long Goodbye come from Marlowe and Augustine's interactions. The juxtaposition between Gould’s nonchalance in the face of danger (he doesn’t seem to mind it when Augustine orders one of his subordinates to cut his dick off) and the talky malice of Rydell’s operatic performance creates an off-kilter tension. It’s a funny friction. And it further underscores the novel and movie’s good-guy loneliness. Augustine knows that showiness will only do him good. It builds his brand, and it's a brand that keeps people in line and his business good. Fakeness gets him somewhere. But Marlowe knows he doesn’t need to posture as a hero when he's around Augustine and his goons — or anybody. When you’re trying to be comparatively “good” in a world where goodness doesn’t get you very much, is there anyone to whom you need to prove anything aside from yourself?
When Bogart and Powell were playing Marlowe, you could temporarily delude yourself into thinking that a mostly upstanding self-made hero running a small business could do a killer job proverbially macheteing his way through a jungle of corruption and make a difference in the long run. Strong as that belief from a consumer could be, though, it wasn’t necessarily what Chandler had in mind. “I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish,” he apparently told his agent after the latter said he didn’t like the first draft of The Long Goodbye. Through Altman’s eyes, you’re never not thinking of the nice-guys-finish-last axiom as Marlowe goes about his business. He makes real that Chandler quote in ways his old-Hollywood predecessors didn't. Still, at the end of the movie, when Marlowe has closed the case, does a celebratory dance on the street, and gets a stranger to join him in a little tango, you think that even if the cult of the powerful lone wolf is ultimately a silly one, there’s nothing that silly about a small victory. You know how good it feels. With The Long Goodbye, Altman feverishly proves he's above convention but not what makes detective fiction endure.
alifornia Split (1974), the last of Altman’s movies to feature Gould in a leading role (the first was 1970’s M*A*S*H), is an equal parts inviting hangout feature and complete-feeling story of gambling
addiction. You mostly have a good time watching it;
most of the movie is spent accompanying its two leads, played by Gould and George Segal, as they embark on various misadventures brought on in part by their addiction. But never lost is the sense that the fun being had is only temporary, and if prolonged enough could wind up being cataclysmic. Segal is Bill, an average Joe magazine writer, and Gould is Charlie, a seasoned gambler who has for years now dedicated his life to making a living betting and hopefully winning. Bill and Charlie meet at the beginning of the movie during a game of poker. After a development in the game strikes them as odd, someone else at the table angrily accuses the unacquainted twosome of being a couple of conspirators. They aren’t. But soon afterward, after they’ve gotten to talking at a bar, Bill and Charlie
become fast and natural friends. Maybe their sore-loser tablemate was from the future.
Bill, part of the “straight” world from which Charlie has long been disconnected and who at one time considered gambling mostly a hobby, soon becomes as much of an addict as his new friend. More and more, he loses sight of
his normal routine. Charlie, so fast-talking and good at making his risk-taking look appealing, continues to abet him. He’s glad to have a new companion. The first half of California Split chronicles the early thrills of one’s gambling addiction. Bill and Charlie have some good times, and their palling around has a seamless guys-being-guys charm. But the second half offers the comedown — when reality kicks in and Bill’s spending more time frantically trying to pay back what he owes than actually gambling. His newfound addiction has eclipsed everything else.
The end of the movie is note-perfectly poignant. It sees Bill having a long-delayed moment of clarity without dwelling on it too much. With that clarity comes the realization that as much as he loves hanging around Charlie and as often as he has found amusement in this dangerous distraction, if he doesn’t change something he’s going to be consumed. Bill seems a little shapeless as a character; it's especially noticeable because he doesn’t have Charlie's apparently ceaseless chutzpah. But after a while it’s clear that that’s intentional. It makes sense that Bill could so easily be molded by the boundless-seeming companion and the all-thrills milieu he gets more familiar with as the film goes on. You get why he’s so enamored. Charlie is all id, and Bill has spent so much of his life indulging his logic that it’s revivifying to let looseness conquer all. He gets to be as addicted to gambling as he is to the friendship and misadventures that come with it.
California Split was Altman’s second movie of 1974 (the other was Thieves Like Us, a touching remake of the 1948 lovers-on-the-run film They Live By Night), and it’s one of his more low-key features. It’s something of an antithesis of the ensemble dramas for which he’s best known (he’d make his best one, Nashville, a year later). It intimately captures the high highs and bracing lows of a friendship built on something destructive. Tonal shifts abound, but they don’t jerk. They mimic life’s anything-can-happen unpredictability, where you can be having a nice time with your friends only to have someone say the wrong thing, or you have an intrusive thought that kills your own excitement, and have the mood flatten instantly. Just because it has come suddenly doesn't mean a good vibe's
death is unnatural. This isn’t something very easy to convey in a medium like the movies, but Altman, working off a screenplay from Joseph Walsh, has no problem translating this sort of tricky naturalism. In the course of his career, he rarely did.
The Long Goodbye: A
California Split: A-